Ernst Middendorp sets the record straight

The combustible Kaizer Chiefs coach opens up about his upbringing, how he handled his football career ending at 21 and why he is unlovable.

There is a false record being bandied around about Ernst Middendorp that seems to encapsulate the perhaps misunderstood nature of the often infuriatingly cantankerous Kaizer Chiefs coach.

On Saturday 11 May, Middendorp’s life at Chiefs became more difficult as his team sagged to a 1-0 defeat against Chippa United in Port Elizabeth to finish the season in ninth place in the Absa Premiership. Incorrectly, it has been circulated that this is Middendorp’s second finish in ninth place with Amakhosi, and that Chiefs matched that position when he left them in 2007, having won two trophies in just over two years.

Actually, Middendorp left in March of the 2006-2007 season – “We were in position five when I left,” he says – and was replaced by Kosta Papic for two months, who oversaw the plunge to ninth.

“Yes. Nobody’s talking about it. I was not responsible for it,” Middendorp grumbles.

This is where, at times, Middendorp can lose an audience. Absolving oneself completely from responsibility when one coached most of that season, and the full previous one, does come across as arrogant. Intentionally or not, Middendorp has a manner that has rubbed South Africans up the wrong way. But the record does need to be set straight.

“Then write it,” the coach says. “I don’t think that’s fair. You don’t know the circumstances of 2007. Nobody knows. I know and Kaizer [Motaung, Chiefs’ chairman] knows.”

Middendorp’s rebirth in South African football – especially at Chiefs – seemed unlikely when he left abruptly to become Bangkok United’s technical director in December 2016 after a public squabble with acting Premier Soccer League (PSL) chief executive Mato Madlala. The reality is that it might not last very long. It also might.

Good infrastructure, bad signings

The infrastructure at the Kaizer Chiefs Village in Naturena is second to none in Africa – billiard table-surface fields, a world-class gym, medical, rehabilitation and audiovisual amenities, and an academy yielding exciting products such as Happy Mashiane and Nkosingiphile Ngcobo.

But multitudes of poor signings have seen them fall behind on the field. Last season’s squad – where big signings were made, though some, such as Khama Billiat and Leonardo Castro, had seen better days – papered over the cracks.

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For Chiefs to appoint a coach like Giovanni Solinas at the start of the 2018-2019 season as a remedy to having gone three years without silverware under Steve Komphela reinforced the lack of grasp on reality at Naturena. The Italian vaguely impressed by reaching two semifinals with Free State Stars, but had never won a trophy or lasted a season at a club.  

Middendorp’s appointment as Solinas’ successor in December drew further groans. He surprised many with some promising football. The cream of that has come in the Nedbank Cup. Inspired performances in dispatching Cape Town City 2-0 in the quarterfinals and Chippa United 4-2 in the semifinals displayed the best of Middendorp’s technical ability, and what Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane has described as “awkward” football.

Many swung over to this new Middendorp, who had returned from Thailand seemingly calmer. But the league finish has brought the scepticism to the fore again. In fairness, Middendorp cannot be judged on these six months.

Ending the trophy drought

He says the emphasis on the Nedbank Cup – where a win in the final on Saturday 18 May against National First Division TS Galaxy at Moses Mabhida Stadium would prevent a fourth season without a trophy for Chiefs and earn the coach a long line of credit – coupled with the promising early league results that didn’t go Amakhosi’s way, were the cause of the slip to ninth in the league.

“We have seen a league game against Sundowns, a great game. Cape Town City, we could have talked about 4-0 by halftime. Orlando Pirates, and I remember in the first half they had three or four tactical changes. If you get those points, you see the load of positive energy. If you don’t, you start doubting yourself,” the coach says.

Middendorp cannot be accused of pickiness when it comes to where he will work. In the PSL, he has coached clubs like Maritzburg United, Chippa United, Bloemfontein Celtic and Lamontville Golden Arrows. The pattern is almost similar everywhere he has coached in the country. Initially there is promising football, but it doesn’t last that long before the coach seems to get frustrated by his surroundings, and his surroundings irritated by his frustrations.

True to form, he does not see that at times he might have been his own worst enemy.

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“I am quite clear-structured, if not saying stubborn,” Middendorp says. “I understand, there are beloved ones, there are great ones. And, you know, I’m not. I respect what I see on the training ground. I respect preparing. That is what I have done over [the] years.

“What South African football mentions, sometimes I can’t believe. One indication, I think, is the greatest compliment. That was said by Mr Walther Zeinch, who brought me to FC Augsburg in 2003, back from Ghana, to start building the team back to the Bundesliga. He said the biggest compliment commercially or in sport is if a club like [Arminia] Bielefeld brings you back.

“It happened here with Maritzburg, with Celtic, now Chiefs. This story that I haven’t been successful here, I can only smile about it. It was the biggest rescue mission at Maritzburg [Middendorp saved United from the jaws of relegation in the 2015-2016 season, securing their status on the last day of the league]. The biggest rescue in 2013 taking over Celtic in 14th, ending fifth.

“I don’t say what people like to hear. But I respect the facts. That is probably not always lovable.”

Breaking his leg twice

A sense of being unappreciated might stem from being the middle child of five. Middendorp is proud of his working-class upbringing on a farm in northern Germany, where he began to play football at “five, six” and by a teenager was regularly among “50 or 60 players called up to national camps”.

By 21, the upwardly progressing centreback had broken his leg twice in a year – the second time from a freak accident taking the ball to the ground – playing for third division VfB Rheine.

“The farm was diverse. Pigs, cows. Being specific came more in the 1970s and 1980s,” the coach recalls of his 1960s childhood. “It was quite poor, somewhere in Niedersachsen [Lower Saxony] in the north of Germany. When you live in the middle of somewhere, you cycle 10km to school. If you want to play soccer in a club as a small boy, you go another 5km.

“At 20, a broken leg. Starting again, and at 21 a broken leg again. Try to start again, it doesn’t work, and starting coaching at 24 in a senior level. I studied economics, politics and [computer] informatics in Munster, at the University of Bielefeld. I worked for companies like Olivetti, consulting, teaching, over eight years.

“In 1994 I said, ‘Okay, I’m a soccer coach now, full profession.’ I got an offer from Bielefeld, then in Bundesliga 3. I decided the next morning and informed my employer.”

Most South African football fans know Middendorp was voted Bielefeld’s Coach of the Century on the club’s centenary in 2005. Most don’t know why.

Dramatic Bielefeld turnaround

In 1988, Middendorp coached the club semi-professionally, well down in the lower leagues, and turned them around from near bankruptcy. In 1994-1995, with no coaching licence, he won the Bundesliga 3, then Bundesliga 2 the next year, then spent two seasons in the Bundesliga, by which time Middendorp had earned his Uefa A Licence.

The perpetuating cycle of a sense of underappreciation, leading to run-ins, leading to criticism, does seem to stem from a point of the coach having had stints in the Bundesliga – also with VfL Bochum in 1999 and Bielefeld again in 2007 – where Middendorp went toe-to-toe with giants.

“Franz Beckenbauer at Bayern Munich, Jürgen Klopp at Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund, Giovanni Trapattoni at Bayern, Louis van Gaal, Otto Rehhagel. The biggest coaches on the European scene, I played them all,” he says.

‘I don’t really know how I got to Ghana’

A link to former Leeds United and Ghana star Tony Yeboah saw Middendorp’s career turn to Africa. Once he started as a journeyman, he continued to Iran with Tractor Sazi, South Africa with Chiefs, Cyprus with Anorthosis Famagusta and China with Changchun Yatai.

“Until now I don’t really know how I got to Ghana,” the coach laughs. “[It was through] Hamburger SV. I was in contact with Holger Hieronymus, their manager. Tony Yeboah was playing for them.

“I got a call. I went to Hamburg and Hieronymus introduced me to Herbert Mensah of Ghana, businessman based in London, interesting figure in Kumasi and Accra, and owner of Asante Kotoko.

“I said, ‘Guys, I don’t know anything about Ghana.’ But I took my little bag for a quick trip, probably prepared for four or five days, just to have a look. I went to Kumasi, and more or less on the same day, I was there and, without discussion, Mensah introduced me to the team as the new coach.

“Mensah said the next day, ‘Ah come on, just start and we will find a solution.’ That was 2000 and I stayed until 2003. I went back to Germany to pick up some more clothes probably two or three months later.”

Closing the gap between Chiefs and Sundowns

At Chiefs again, Middendorp faces a tough situation. As the biggest of the “big three”, Chiefs are expected to challenge for the league. Pirates and Sundowns have ambition beyond South African borders with squads and technical teams to match those lofty targets. When they fall short, challenging domestically is a by-product. Chiefs have not shown that same ambition.

“The last really big buy at Tottenham Hotspur was Lucas Moura in 2018. They sorted themselves out having a powerful technical team and fully deserve now to be in a Champions League final, and not Manchester United who spent a lot of money,” Middendorp says.

“In SA, who is in a cup final? Sundowns? Pirates? The far behind-falling Chiefs. And you don’t think that will give you a push? We are fully aware that players like Billiat, Castro, Lebogang Manyama, have not performed to their class, week in, week out. It’s for reasons. Injury. Being out for months and having to come back.

“I have given [big players] a rest recently. Let’s make it happen on the weekend in the cup, have a nice smile after the weekend, then prepare for the next season. Then we will see.”

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