Ottmar Hitzfeld can still feel it now. Der orkan, he calls it. The hurricane.
The blast of noise from Manchester United’s fans in the Nou Camp when Teddy Sheringham equalised in the 1999 Champions League Final.
His horror as the game raged out of control in three catastrophic minutes of injury-time before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winner ripped the European Cup from his grasp.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the winner in injury-time just two minutes after the equaliser
Ottmar Hitzfeld has recalled Manchester United’s 1999 Champions League final comeback
Twenty years on and Hitzfeld still wears a look of disbelief when he talks about it.
A master tactician who trained to be a maths teacher before becoming one of the greatest football coaches of his generation, the 70-year-old has long since given up looking for the logic in it all.
‘I can’t,’ he replies with a gentle shake of the head when asked to explain how Bayern Munich of all teams fell apart in Barcelona that night. ‘That’s why we are talking about it now.’ Afterwards, when he closed the door on a silent and shattered group of players, the Bayern coach wandered back into the tunnel where he embraced his old friend Alex Ferguson.
‘He just said ‘incredible’,’ recalls Hitzfeld. ‘He didn’t actually say sorry, but you could tell he was apologising in some way.
‘I’ve always had a strong relationship with Ferguson. There’s a lot of mutual respect and we like each other as personalities as well.
‘But we never talked about it again. What can you say? It speaks for itself. We knew that for one of us it was the greatest thing ever, and for the other it was the worst thing ever.
‘But that moment of embracing in the tunnel, the gesture and the empathy, meant more than a thousand words.’ It was the only time in seven meetings between the two men that Ferguson emerged victorious. ‘I lost the wrong one,’ says Hitzfeld with a smile.
Teddy Sheringham equalised for United right at the death at the Nou Camp back in 1999
Hitzfeld walks past the Champions League trophy after seeing his side blow the lead
He beat United home and away en route to winning the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund in 1997, and again when Bayern finally lifted the European Cup in 2001. He is among a select group of only five coaches to have won it with two different clubs.
Bayern also played United twice in the group stage in 1998-99, drawing both games 2-2. But when it really mattered, Ferguson somehow found a way to win.
It’s the one result more than any other that Hitzfeld would change. Even more so than the last game of his career at the 2014 World Cup when he came within two minutes of taking Argentina to a penalty shootout as coach of unfancied Switzerland.
‘Yes, of course,’ he says. ‘But you have to move on. You can’t spend your life dreaming about what might have been.’ We meet in the Swiss city of Basle just over the border from Germany where Hitzfeld has retired to his birthplace of Lorrach.
He has kept the appointment despite undergoing a minor operation at the start of this week that will prevent him from renewing acquaintances with Ferguson in the ’99 reunion game at Old Trafford on Sunday.
The two men stay in touch by text message. ‘I don’t phone him because I can’t understand him – my English isn’t good enough,’ says Hitzfeld through an interpreter.
Studious and quietly spoken, he was a good choice to succeed Giovanni Trapattoni as Bayern coach and act as a buffer between outspoken president Franz Beckenbauer and a dressing-room full of strong personalities like Stefan Effenberg, Lothar Matthaus and Oliver Khan.
Hitzfeld embraces Sir Alex Ferguson following the final whistle in one of the best finals ever
‘As a coach, you’ve got to be strict with people like that and rein in the wild horses,’ says the man nicknamed Der General. ‘Trapattoni didn’t give the players clear boundaries. I had to be a bit stricter.
‘But you can’t win a battle with Beckenbauer if you’re a player or coach.
‘There are advantages and disadvantages to having a World Cup winner as your boss. The good thing is they know about football, but the bad thing is they’ve always got an opinion.
‘Sympathy means nothing at Bayern. You’ve just got to win. You’re always under pressure.’ The pressure on Hitzfeld was even greater because Bayern arrived at the Nou Camp bidding for their first European Cup success in 23 years and – like United – still on for the Treble (they would later lose the German Cup final to Werder Bremen).
Unlike United, who had just won the Premier League title on the last day against Tottenham and the FA Cup final against Newcastle, Bayern’s easy run in the Bundesliga meant they were a little undercooked.
Hitzfeld nods. ‘You try and stop that happening but it does. We lost our momentum a little bit.
‘I think it was actually an advantage for United to have those games because the concentration was there, whereas we had to dip and then build it back up again.’ It didn’t show as Bayern dominated for much of the game. Mario Basler gave them an early lead. Mehmet Scholl hit the post and Carsten Jancker the bar.
‘They were missed chances and I felt we should have been putting the game to bed, but I wasn’t scared at that point,’ says Hitzfeld. ‘We were in control of the game.’ Then it started.
The legendary Bayern boss admits he still can’t explain what happened at the Nou Camp
‘Ferguson had to risk something. When you’re in that situation, you have to throw players like that into the cold water and see what happens.
‘The fans exploded in the United end when Sheringham equalised. There was a hurricane. I realised it could happen and United could get a second.
‘Situations like that are so rare. When a goal like that happens and the way the fans react, it’s different to a normal game. I’ve never experienced anything even close to it.
‘There wasn’t enough time to communicate anything or react between the goals. United suddenly had a momentum and euphoria behind them – then Solskjaer scored the goal of his life.
‘I felt exactly what the players on the pitch were feeling. The frustration that United held all the cards and we were reeling.
‘If United had dominated the game and had lots of chances then we’d have been prepared for it, but it was the other way around.
‘It’s a shock that stays with you.’ Hitzfeld believes the pain of ’99 helped Bayern go one better when they beat Valencia on penalties in the 2001 final.
The United players celebrate as Solskjaer knocks in the winner 20 years ago in Barcelona
The Bayern boss and his players show their dejection after missing out on the European Cup
That summer, he was installed as favourite to succeed Ferguson at Old Trafford when the United manager originally planned to retire a year later, but he insists there was no contact with the club or his friend over the job.
In fact, Hitzfeld never worked outside Germany or Switzerland where he won a total of 25 trophies and was twice named World Coach of the Year.
When he reached 65, he returned to Lorrach with his wife Beatrix to spend more time with their son Matthias and three young grandchildren Henry, Carlotta and Oscar.
Hitzfeld is enjoying retirement and, perhaps surprisingly, this opportunity to relive the ’99 Champions League final.
‘People talk to me about it a lot, about the substitutions I made and the team I picked,’ he concludes.
‘I really don’t think I made any mistakes. I wouldn’t do anything differently.’