Throughout the 90s and the early 2000s, he stood as a prominent figure in the German national team, claiming the European championship in 1996 and securing a silver medal in the 2002 World Cup.
On February 1st, Christian Ziege celebrated his 51st birthday. Unlike many peers, his motivations are pure pleasure-driven. Presently, he holds the reins at Austria’s third-tier squad, Zell am See, a team with modest ambitions of ascending to the Bundesliga, an atypical choice for a former star like Christian.
Ziege’s own playing career was equally unconventional. Spanning three out of the four premier European leagues, he clinched championships in two of them. This journey commenced with a wager with his father at a Fanta kiosk.
“As a typical young Berliner, I had quite the bravado. Football was woven into the fabric of my family. My grandfather played, my aunt contested the 1987 German Cup final, my father was a respectable footballer, and my mother managed the youth teams I was part of. As you might imagine, football was our daily discourse, flipping through the family album teeming with memories,” reminisces Christian. “I made a bet with my dad that I’d eventually represent the national team. He bought me that Fanta at the kiosk before the 2002 World Cup qualification match against Ukraine, although he insisted there was no such bet, all in jest, when I reminded him that he owed me a non-alcoholic Fanta.”
At 16-17 years of age, the young talent became an integral part of Germany’s youth squads, capturing the attention of numerous Bundesliga clubs. Yet, he spurned all offers, biding his time for a solitary one from Bayern Munich. And that call arrived, transitioning from the relatively obscure Hertha Zehlendorf to the realm of German “Hollywood,” dubbed FC Hollywood at the time.
“I was 18 when Uli Hoeness contacted me over the phone. I was taken aback that he personally came to pick me up at the airport and toured me around the Sabener Strasse training grounds. Me, a virtual unknown,” humbly recounts Ziege. “I was resolute about playing there. Many questioned my sanity, believing I’d never get a chance at Bayern.” Similar to boot camp, Ziege, as a fledgling footballer, needed to earn his stripes in the company of locker room luminaries.
“At a training camp in Fort Lauderdale, one night a teammate knocked on my door, requesting that I fetch him some beer. I obliged, but reaching his room meant passing Uli Hoeness and coach Jupp Heynckes. You can well imagine the anxiety coursing through me in that corridor,” chuckles Ziege. “I delivered the beers, and my teammate slammed the door in my face. Nevertheless, after that camp, the veterans’ disposition towards me shifted. They began regarding me differently, imparting valuable advice. The most challenging part in the locker room was when they conversed in Bavarian dialect. I couldn’t decipher a word.”
In his second season at Bayern, Ziege earned a spot in the starting lineup. However, the Munich club recorded one of its poorest showings in the Bundesliga, finishing 10th – a far cry from today’s illustrious accomplishments.
During his seven-year tenure with the Bavarian powerhouse, Ziege hoisted the silverware on only two occasions. Those were the days when Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, and Borussia Dortmund reigned as champions. Christian departed Munich just before the momentous successes under Ottmar Hitzfeld. Nonetheless, he managed to clinch a UEFA Cup victory – an achievement in which Emil Kostadinov played a pivotal role.
“I aspired to garner experience abroad,” elucidates the German. “Serie A captivated me from an early age – with Marco van Basten at Milan, Lothar Matthaus at Inter, and Hans-Peter Briegel at Verona.” Consequently, in 1997, Ziege arrived in Milan, donning the iconic red and black jersey.
“I arrived in Milan during a less than stellar period for the club,” he recollects. “The team had placed 11th the previous season, and in my inaugural campaign, we finished 10th, despite boasting luminaries like Paolo Maldini, Patrick Kluivert, and George Weah. There were occasions when we had to escape through the trunks of cars departing San Siro, evading ultras wielding stones. Following a Coppa Italia final loss in Rome, we had to be ushered through the airport’s rear entrance as 1000 fans awaited, eager to voice their sentiments. We were even advised to leave the city temporarily. Those were indeed exhilarating times.”
In his sophomore season donning the “Rossoneri” jersey, Ziege clinched the championship. Nevertheless, the moment came to pack his bags for England.
“Vice-president Galliani summoned me and divulged the club’s arrangement for my transfer to Middlesbrough. I had no alternative. Refusing would have consigned me to two years on the sidelines, never setting foot on the pitch. Thus, I implored my wife to fly to Middlesbrough and determine whether she could acclimate there,” he narrates. During that era, Bryan Robson led Boro, and the roster featured luminaries like Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince, Mark Schwarzer, and Juninho.
Subsequently, upon scoring a goal from a direct free kick in only his second match, Ziege endeared himself to the fans. “Soon after that, no one else was permitted to take free kicks,” he quips, a smile gracing his face. “If a foul was committed in our favor near the penalty area, the crowd initiated chants of my name. This provided immense solace for me, especially after enduring trying times in Milan.”
In the ensuing season, Ziege found himself at “Anfield,” where he secured the UEFA Cup, as well as the League Cup and FA Cup. However, he was not manager Gerard Houllier’s initial preference. Predictably, his bags were packed once more. The subsequent destination was “White Hart Lane.” With Tottenham, Ziege spent three seasons. Yet, it was precisely during his tenure with “Spurs” that the most arduous moment of his career transpired.
“The situation was utterly ludicrous. In a mere collision, I ended up behind an opponent who inadvertently struck my thigh while turning. Later that evening, my leg began swelling. To this day, I am indebted to my wife for insisting on seeing a doctor. He promptly referred me to the hospital and mandated immediate surgery. When we arrived at the clinic, I was unable to exit the car unassisted. Subsequently, I learned that a delay of half an hour would have necessitated amputation to preserve my life,” Ziege divulges.
Post-surgery, Christian’s leg lost its vigor, while errors in therapy and subsequent recuperation signaled the culmination of his playing career. In 2005, he returned to his native Germany, joining Borussia Monchengladbach at 33 years old. Later, he served as an interim coach, sports director, and steered the youth divisions of Germany. His journey encompassed the exotic, from spearheading Atletico from the Balearic Islands to a distant stint in Thailand before circling back to the German-speaking realm to lead Zell am See.
“I can envision leading a prominent team,” Ziege concludes. “However, why should one alter their trajectory when contentment prevails in their current role? Moreover, I have no inclination to see my visage on television.”