Published on March 3rd, 2013 | by Uli Hesse0
Mainz’s Thomas Tuchel and the self-fulfilling prophecy
“If Aytekin gave a penalty, he would incur the wrath of the crowd, the Mainz players and perhaps also the club officials, all of whom would probably say that Tuchel had been right and that important decisions that can go either way will go against Mainz.” Writes Uli Hesse
Naturally, there was no doubt as to which of the four midweek cup games in Germany was the one everybody would be talking about. The Bayern vs. Dortmund match on Wednesday was watched live by people in almost 200 countries and even now, four days later, it still makes good copy.
That’s primarily because a peeved Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp reacted to the 1-0 defeat by saying: “Bayern go about football in the same way that the Chinese go about the industry. They look at what the others are doing, and then they copy it with other people and more money. And then they overtake you.” Which, of course, provoked a Bayern riposte. “It’s important for one to show respect in both victory and defeat,” coach Jupp Heynckes advised his younger colleague, “but especially in defeat.”
However, the more entertaining and spectacular of those four cup games was played on Tuesday. And this game also had as much to do with spoken words as with moving legs. And with a coach who is, like Klopp, young and brash, very eloquent in front of cameras and highly emotional at the sidelines.
His name is Thomas Tuchel and he coaches a side that was a strong contender for the unofficial title of Team of the Year when the Bundesliga went into the winter break in mid-December – Mainz 05. Yes, despite Bayern’s outstanding performances and Frankfurt’s unexpected rise, the true success stories after the first half of the season were Mainz and another club operating on a shoestring budget and forced to always sell its best players, Freiburg.
Tuchel’s Mainz team was in sixth place at that time, but it seemed to run out of steam quickly when the league resumed business: Mainz won only one of the first six games after the end of the winter break. However, Tuchel felt that his players’ loss in form wasn’t the only explanation for this bad run.
During the press conference ahead of Mainz’ cup game on Tuesday, Tuchel pointed out that an unusually large number of crucial decisions had gone against his team after the end of the winter break and that there had been many refereeing mistakes that cost his side, by his calculation, eight points. Until this moment, there was nothing too noteworthy about his criticism, as Tuchel certainly wasn’t the first coach to complain about referees.
But then he added that this string of refereeing mistakes was no accident. “The reason that the team has been so crassly discriminated against is me,” he announced. “Here we have a team that is being penalized for their coach. This is something we can’t tolerate anymore.” The referees are so annoyed at Tuchel’s touchline antics and his loose tongue, the coach’s argument seemed to suggest, that they were not giving his players the benefit of the doubt and were – at least that’s what the word “penalized” implied – perhaps even deliberately treating them harshly.
The strange thing about Tuchel’s outburst was that it didn’t happen in the heat of the moment, directly after a game, but during an otherwise quiet and normal press conference. Which makes you wonder why this smart, intelligent coach didn’t consider the consequences of his words.
By this I don’t mean the reaction of the game’s governing body. (Tuchel escaped without a penalty, because Anton Nachreiner, a high-ranking German FA official, felt that the remarks “fall under the right to free speech”.) No, I mean the human reaction on the field of play and in the stands. Because the moment Tuchel voiced his allegation, you almost knew that a controversial refereeing incident would play a role in the next game
This next game pitted Mainz against Freiburg, of all teams. Another so-called “small club” that sometimes feels referees tend to favour the big teams when in doubt, another club coached by an outspoken, emotional man, Christian Streich. And, of course, the other club that could be the popular choice for Team of the Year at the end of the season.
Mainz started the game like men possessed, while Freiburg were in total disarray. With less than five minutes gone, the score was 2-0. But then, slowly, the visitors regrouped and made their presence felt. Despite the two-goal deficit, the game was still within Freiburg’s reach, as proved by the fact they went on to hit the woodwork no less than four times. While Tuchel later said that his team was “in command”, as a neutral observer you felt that all that Freiburg needed to turn the game around was a lucky break, or two.
On 56 minutes, a late tackle from Mainz’ Czech defender Zdenek Pospech drew a yellow card. Only nine minutes later, Pospech knocked down another opponent and the referee didn’t have a choice – he sent the player off for a second bookable offence. It was a correct decision, but of course the crowd was instantly on its feet. Aware of the preceding day’s press conference, they probably suspected the referee had been intentionally severe just to prove that he wouldn’t be swayed by Tuchel’s accusation.
Four minutes from time, Freiburg pulled a goal back to make it 2-1. And six minutes later, two minutes into stoppage time, Freiburg forward Daniel Caligiuri crossed from the left. Ten yards in front of goal,
Mainz’s Thomas Tuchel and the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mainz defender Radoslav Zabavnik and Freiburg’s striker Ivan Santini went for the ball. One of them got to it first, both of them went down.
It was almost impossible for anyone at the ground to say with any certainty whether Zabavnik had cleared the ball or whether Santini had touched it first and was then fouled by Zabavnik. Nobody, however, had a better view of the incident than referee Deniz Aytekin, who was only twelve yards away.
For a fraction of a second, time seemed to stand still. Here was the epitome of a 50-50 decision at the most crucial of moments in a tight cup game. After the match, even Tuchel would admit that, in his words, “some people award a penalty here, some people do not”, meaning every decision was justifiable.
And so it all came down to this: if Aytekin gave a penalty, he would incur the wrath of the crowd, the Mainz players and perhaps also the club officials, all of whom would probably say that Tuchel had been right and that important decisions that can go either way will go against Mainz.
If Aytekin didn’t give a penalty, he would incur the wrath of the travelling fans, the Freiburg players and perhaps also the Freiburg club officials, some of whom might hint that Tuchel had been playing mind games successfully and that the referee, who’d already sent a Mainz player off, was afraid to judge another critical incident in Freiburg’s favor.
Of course there wasn’t enough time for all these thoughts go through Aytekin’s head. He just called it the way he saw it. He blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot.
Daniel Caligiuri (whose brother, just to make this game even more fraught with high drama, was playing for Mainz) converted the penalty to send the game into extra time. During this half-hour, Mainz totally collapsed and Freiburg eventually won 3-2 to reach the cup semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history.
The Mainz players and their fans were incensed – but Tuchel was astonishingly calm, collected and composed. He looked … yes, he looked like a man who suddenly knows what the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” means, who suspects that he has indeed been the reason a decision went against his team, only not in the way he had meant this. He said: “We have nobody to blame for what happened tonight but ourselves.”
Image credit: bundesligafootball.co.uk
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