Retiring Hitzfeld aims to go out on World Cup high
GENEVA (AP) Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld plans to end his illustrious career in Brazil, ideally in July and not June.
A two-time Champions League winner as coach, Hitzfeld has set his Swiss team a target of reaching at least the quarterfinals. Then, at 65, the man admirers call ''Gottmar'' will bow out of football.
Hitzfeld will leave a Swiss team he has guided for six years in good shape for his successor, former Lazio coach Vladimir Petkovic.
''Today, our team reached maturity. It has grown up,'' Hitzfeld told French broadcaster BFM, reflecting on World Cup qualification.
For that, Hitzfeld deserves credit, having rebuilt the squad from a low point three years ago.
After starting poorly in a failed 2012 European Championship qualifying campaign, Swiss media and fans openly questioned if the German coach's contract should be renewed at a $2 million-plus annual salary.
The Swiss FA responded by giving him a two-year extension. Hitzfeld kept faith in young players who were proven at the youth international level and adapted a physical style of play to fit a group which made up with skill what it lacked in stature.
After almost three decades of constant success, Hitzfeld's reputation as a coach should have been secure ahead of this World Cup.
He won multiple league titles and domestic cups in Switzerland, with Aarau and Grasshopper Zurich, then in Germany with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
Champions League titles with Dortmund in 1997 and Bayern in 2001 - he was the third of only five coaches who have guided different clubs to the European title - raised Hitzfeld into the elite.
Still, he had something to prove in Switzerland after a tame exit at the 2010 World Cup and the patchy Euro 2012 qualifiers.
Failure to advance to Brazil from perhaps the weakest European qualifying group would have been no way for Hitzfeld to depart. And his ''Nati'' team ensured his last matches will be on the world stage by securing a spot with a commanding, unbeaten run in qualifying.
The old man showed how much the Swiss team's performance meant to him when he was given a two-match touchline ban from FIFA for flipping a hand gesture at the referee during a key home match against Norway.
Job done last October, Hitzfeld picked the morning that Switzerland rose to No. 7 in FIFA's rankings - securing a seeding in the World Cup draw - to announce his retirement plans. He's not putting any limits on where his last campaign will end in Brazil.
''On a good day,'' Hitzfeld said, ''we really can beat any team.''