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Holger Osieck: A hard man with a loud bark

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Holger Osieck: A hard man with a loud bark


Coach of Canadian men's team resigns


TORONTO (CP) - In 2001 at the Confederations Cup in Japan, a group of Canadian soccer players gathered each morning at an ungodly hour to drink lattes at the one Starbucks in Niigata.

Their mood was not improved by jet lag or sharing hotel rooms that only Mini-Me would have found spacious. Coach Holger Osieck wasn't helping much either. The Canadian coach was a regular target at the morning get-togethers, lambasted for his rigidity and seemingly unfeeling approach to running a team.

There was plenty to poke.

While Osieck can be extremely affable, he is not much of a people person. The German native wears his emotions on his sleeve. Some of his favourite English words are colourful and used to cuss.

He has a long memory. Getting out of the Osieck doghouse was never easy.

Osieck also followed Bob Lenarduzzi as coach. Lenarduzzi was a former player, one of the boys whose leash was anything but tight. If Lenarduzzi wasn't a soccer player, he would have been a surfer.

Enter Osieck, a man whose life is all about control. The players had another thing coming.

At his first camp in Duisburg, Germany, Osieck laid down the law. Chatting with a reporter in the lobby, the coach noticed Nick Dasovic, Craig Forrest and Mark Watson and an old friend heading to the door.

Not tonight, said Osieck, suggesting the reunion happen on the premises.

The players turned around and went upstairs.

That kind of control did not go down well with veteran players. But Osieck was never one to mince words. Or even use them in some cases.

In Japan, at the 2001 Confederations Cup, a distraught player threatened to leave the Canadian camp after Osieck ignored him in the early going. Osieck hadn't even spoken to him, the player said. Asked why, Osieck said the player simply hadn't deserved the start.

The Japan trip also proved to be the swansong for England-born midfielder Marc Bircham, who never played at the tournament. The lack of activity was especially galling considering Bircham had flown his father to Japan for the trip.

Rubbing salt into the wound, Osieck yelled at Bircham for whistling on the team bus.

Osieck simply didn't like Bircham's attitude - the overly confident stance of a player who had yet to earn his dues with the national team. Veterans on the squad liked Bircham's spiky attitude. But it was like sandpaper for Osieck, who knows better than most about being abrasive. Plus, he said he didn't like what he saw in practice from Bircham.

Osieck was all business. But in adopting that unflinching attitude, he lost people. What harm would it have done to give Bircham his due on the pitch in Japan? Or take the banished player aside and tell him his chance would come?

On trips abroad, the Canadian players rarely were given time off to stop and smell the roses. There was a brief trip to the pyramids on a stop in Egypt, a hockey game in Florida but most other countries came and went - just stamps in a passport, one hotel meal after another and long hours sharing a room with a teammate.

Osieck, who rarely got quality practice time with players ranged around the globe, said there was no time for fun.

He was right. It stopped being fun for veteran players. So some quit. Others found reasons not to join up with the national team. Some of the new breed opted for club over country rather than fly across the Atlantic and risk losing their position with their team.

Plus players have changed in recent years. Few respond well to hard-nosed coaching. They're used to being in control.

While unyielding most of the time, even Osieck knew he could order players in only so often.

The ones who did regularly show up for national team duty began to grumble, complaining about different rules for different players.

Osieck can be fire and ice. He would drive players crazy and then kibitz with them on the practice pitch.

He can be Mr. No Emotion, then break into a huge grin talking about his dog Daisy.

Osieck had no time for fans wondering about why he ignored Fernando Aguiar or Ante Jazic. What did they know, he asked? Where had the fans see those players perform?

In a country crying out for soccer supporters who really care about the national team, his attitude came across as arrogant and unfeeling.

Still Osieck was always accommodating and professional to the reporters that covered his team.

Osieck gave Canada a presence in soccer - and it wasn't just because of the Gold Cup win. At the Confederations Cup in Japan, he walked onto the field at Yokohama International Stadium for an enthusiastic chat with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, both veterans of the Japanese club circuit.

FIFA invited him to do technical analysis of World Cup games.

He was the right man for the job. Osieck worried about the smallest details. At the 2002 Gold Cup, he fumed because two reporters got a ride in a team van to an NHL hockey game.

In essence, Osieck was like a fidgety car owner with empty pockets whose vintage vehicle needed a lot of work. He loved his team, but wanted to kick it a lot.

Still he knew when his wheels would run or not.

The day before a crucial World Cup qualifier in 2000 Trinidad, the Canadian coach looked glum. He knew his team was in trouble. Canada was hammered 4-0 and eliminated from World Cup contention.

But while Osieck was as unbending as an iron rod, some players flourished under him. Goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld took his chance and became the first name on Osieck's lineup sheet.

Other youngsters were willing to take Osieck's tough love credo. Canada benefited as a result and the payoff will continue long after Osieck's resignation.

And love him or hate him, Osieck cared. After the loss to Cuba in July, in what proved to be his last game in charge, he sat in the hotel bar looking at his beer without saying a word. He was the picture of misery.

Like many coaches, Osieck made it a rule never to let reporters travel on the team bus. That made clean getaways from madhouse stadiums in Mexico City or Port-of-Spain nerve-wracking affairs for the few reporters who made trips.

Osieck did relent, however. At a camp in Germany, knowing the one Canadian reporter in tow would never find Borussia Moenchengladbach's practice ground kilometres away (even the team bus drive got lost), he allowed the reporter on the bus.

After the game, the bus stopped somewhere on the way back and the players trooped into a nearby restaurant for dinner. The reporter hung back, unsure of the protocol, only to be ushered over to the coaches' table for a dinner courtesy of the Canadian Soccer Association.

En route to Japan, that same reporter was in steerage as the team flew business class. Osieck made sure the journalist was on the same train and bus once the plane landed in Japan. There was even a place for the dazed reporter at dinner when the rooms at the hotel weren't ready.

Holger Osieck. A hard man with a loud bark and a good heart.

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