Trophies, Tears, Maradona: When Udo Lattek went to Barcelona


by Robert Clucas-Tomlinson

“As a coach, you really are only a dancing bear for the stars.” -Udo Lattek.

The tributes have been pouring in for Udo Lattek, the legendary football coach who died at the end of January age 80, and rightly so. Lattek won 14 major trophies during an illustrious managerial career, including six league titles during two spells with Bayern Munich and a further two titles with Borussia Moenchengladbach.

He also guided both clubs to European success, winning the European Cup with Bayern and the UEFA Cup with Gladbach, one of only two coaches to win all three major European club trophies along with Giovanni Trappattoni. Lattek is the only manager in history to do so with three different clubs.

But it was in Spain, with Barcelona, where Lattek won the third of his holy trinity of European trophies: the Cup Winners Cup.

Udo Lattek in Spain: early success

After two years at Borussia Dortmund, Lattek was hired by Barcelona in 1981. The Catalans had already won the Cup Winners Cup two years earlier, but it was the La Liga crown that they coveted most of all; they’d last won the Spanish title in 1974, and by 1981 they were desperate to regain it once again, not least because their fierce rivals, Real Madrid, had won it five times during that barren period.

And so they turned to Lattek, prising him away from the relative safety of German football and into the boiling cauldron of Camp Nou. Lattek had never before coached outside Germany but he started well in Spain and quickly had Barcelona playing like title contenders.

Not even a terrible injury to star striker and fellow German, Bernd Schuster, whose left knee was shattered by the notorious ‘butcher of Bilbao’ Andoni Goikoetxea, seemed to knock them off their stride as they continued to impress.

In Europe, too, they excelled, easily overcoming minimal opposition in the early rounds of the Cup Winners Cup to book a semi-final berth with Tottenham Hotspur.

But as their European dreams intensified, so their title charge faltered. Despite leading the table at one stage, they ran out of steam towards the finish line and Real Sociedad, the defending champions, took advantage to snatch a second successive La Liga title. Barcelona finished as runners-up, just two points behind them. But it could have been so much more.

They held their nerve in Europe, however, and after seeing off Tottenham in a tight, tense semi-final, they defeated Standard Liege 2-1 in front of 110,000 spectators at the Nou Camp to win only their second official European trophy.

Their domestic disappointment was briefly forgotten as the whole of Catalonia exploded into wild celebration. Thus, Lattek’s first season was considered satisfactory and much was expected of Barcelona the following year, not least because of the acquisition during the summer months of 1982 of one Diego Maradona, from Boca Juniors, for a then world record fee of £5m.

Udo, meet Diego

Unfortunately, Lattek was soon to discover that the respect he had received in Germany was much harder to come by as a foreign coach in Barcelona. Consequently his second season in charge was beset by bad luck and bad blood.

To begin with, Maradona contracted hepatitis and was ruled out of action for several months. This was especially frustrating as he had struck up an instant rapport on the pitch with Schuster and their exciting partnership had promised much.

It wasn’t just Maradona’s health that was a concern to Lattek. Having managed Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller at Bayern Munich, he was well-versed in handling big-name players. But when Maradona eventually returned to the side, it became increasingly apparent that he expected preferential treatment on and off the field, something which irked the pragmatic German greatly.

On one occasion, as the team bus was ready to leave for an away fixture, and Maradona had still not turned up, Lattek made the decision to go without him.

“Once, he didn’t turn up on time when the team were due to leave,” Lattek later said of the incident. “I had two options: wait for him and lose my authority or go without him. We decided to leave and the rest of the players applauded.”

But not all the players were sympathetic. Schuster, for one, who already had a reputation for being difficult, soon began to fall out with his manager, even referring to him as “a drunk” during one highly-publicised spat. The writing was on the wall, and Barcelona’s good form of the previous campaign quickly began to evaporate.

And, then, on March 3rd 1983, following a disastrous home defeat to struggling Racing Santander, and less than two years after persuading him to move to Spain, the Catalans parted company with Udo Lattek.

Lattek partly blamed his departure on Maradona. Referring to the incident on the bus, he later lamented: “Maradona eventually complained to the president and said he couldn’t work with me and two weeks later I was sacked!”

Just how much this particular skirmish actually contributed to Lattek’s demise is unclear though. Barcelona’s struggle to keep pace with the chasing championship pack was obviously a major factor and managers in Spain have rarely been renowned for being granted much time to mould successful sides.

“Outstanding coach”

Whatever the reasons, Lattek returned to Germany with a tainted reputation. But the setback was merely a temporary one. Within four seasons he had won a further three league titles with Bayern Munich.

Here, at least, he was revered and respected. And the success he achieved in his native land is unparalleled, as demonstrated by the reams of column inches that have been devoted to Lattek – who was also an assistant coach for Germany at the 1966 World Cup – since he passed away.

The last word, though, goes, not to Lattek, but to one of his future successors at Barcelona, the equally legendary Pep Guardiola. “Udo Lattek was an outstanding football coach and a great personality,” Guardiola said upon hearing of Lattek’s passing. “He left a great impact as a coach of FC Barcelona.”

As Pep suggests, Udo Lattek’s time at the Nou Camp was more than just a footnote. And if history does go on to reveal him as a catalyst for all the glory that came after, will anybody really be that surprised?

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Robert Clucas-Tomlinson is a new contributor on Just Football. Follow him on Twitter @Cover photo courtesy of the Dutch Nationaal Archief via Wikimedia Commons

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