The secret behind the Josef Zinnbauer magic

Josef Zinnbauer’s eyes sparkle and his voice grows animated when he talks about his love affair that’s just over four months old. In those months, since his appointment as Orlando Pirates’ coach on December 10, the German has endeared himself to the Ghost while also falling in love.

The 49-year-old inherited a team that was drowning in disappointment — and with one swoosh of his magic wand, he rescued the situation and took the Sea Robbers to the calm waters they were swimming in before the Covid-19 pandemic brought the 2019-2020 season to an abrupt pause.

The German is wearing a clean-cut suit with a white shirt and not a single strand of hair on his head is out of place when we meet (just before the national lockdown started). If he was immortalised at Madame Tussauds, it would be difficult to tell him apart from his wax figure.

His suave look, love for the Buccaneers and its supporters, and a brilliant start have ensured the German makes a smooth transition into a club that had hit some turbulence. This was supposed to be Pirates’ season. After two back-to-back second place finishes in the Absa Premiership under coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojević, the Soweto giants were expected to finally get one over on Mamelodi Sundowns, who pipped them for the championship on both occasions. But instead of going up, Pirates went down and looked a lot like the sorry state they were when Sredojević took over after their brief flirt with relegation in the 2016-2017 season.

Ironically, the Serbian who had turned things around at the club struck the blow that saw it sink into despair. Sredojević — who confessed his love for the club numerous times, saying he is a Pirates’ fan before he is their coach — shocked the side with his abrupt resignation amid allegations of trying to force himself on a hotel staffer where the club camps in Johannesburg.

The resignation rocked the Pirates ship, it started to sink and no matter what interim coach Rhulani Mokwena tried, things didn’t go the club’s way. Management reacted by bringing in Zinnbauer, whose CV didn’t inspire much confidence. His only notable achievement was that he had come up against Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp in the German Bundesliga. But he dispelled any doubts immediately, leading the side to seven wins, two draws and one loss in his 10 league matches in charge so far.

“The team was open to new things and they have good quality,” Zinnbauer said in response to how he managed to have an immediate impact at the club. “They were open to new skills, a new system and new ideas. I had a lot of ideas and they had a lot of information about the other teams.

“Orlando Pirates is a special club, it is a big club in Africa and even though I haven’t been here for a long time, I have a good feeling about my time here. The supporters are unbelievable. I am so happy that I have a good staff, good players and a good club.

“We have a good structure in the club. The chairman [Irvin Khoza] is a top man who has a lot of football. Both his sons [Nkosana and Mpumi] have a lot of experience, too. We have a good relationship, which was important because this is my first time in the country.”

Playing with heart

Zinnbauer’s tone is filled with affection and love when he speaks about Pirates, its players and supporters. “The heart is open for new things,” he said.

“I get stopped by the supporters on the streets to talk about the club. They have a lot of ideas and a lot of tactical information they give me about the team, other clubs and Africa. I am very happy about this. We have a squad that plays with heart, a staff that gives it their all and then you get a feeling that this is my club. I work for this club, and this is my club.”

Zinnbauer puts a strong emphasis on my, not as a term of ownership but as part of the Pirates family, confirming the club’s slogan that “Once a Pirate, always a Pirate”. The Buccaneers have never been about status and trophies, they are about heart and giving their all for the badge. That’s why there is a strong emphasis of what the club stands for when new members go through their orientation.

But their biggest strength, heart and fighting for the badge, can also be their weakness. Sredojević injected that in bucket-loads in the players’ system, leading to the club playing an enterprising brand of football and giving their all on the pitch. The problem though, with playing with heart, is that at times it shuts down the brain. In situations where Pirates should have managed the game — they went with everything they had and lost the league last season because of that. Zinnbauer’s biggest challenge will be to find the right balance in using the heart and the head.

“He brought stability, unity, love and fun,” Pirates’ midfielder Luvuyo Memela said. “In football you need stability, you need to have fun and enjoy the game at training. He brought those things, along with discipline. Not that we didn’t have discipline before, but he made it clear that when he says a 12 o’clock meeting, you need to be there 15 minutes before.

“At training, he has made everyone feel comfortable and feel at home. He didn’t want any player to feel like, ‘Okay, I am going to work now.’ He said, ‘You aren’t going to work, you are going to have fun. When you were young, you got out at home to chase the ball and were so excited when your mother told you that you can go out and play, because you knew that you were going to run and chase the ball.’”

It’s clear to see that Pirates’ players are having fun, which has heightened their self-belief. Zinnbauer has instilled a never-say-die attitude, a high work rate and a desire to leave everything on the pitch. The last coach to do that at the club was Ruud Krol, who ended his tenure by leading Pirates to a domestic treble. But from a players’ perspective, what has changed since Zinnbauer took over?

“It’s all about luck. If you check amajita [the guys], even last year we were playing well but it was just that luck wasn’t on our side,” Memela said. “The other thing that we improved on is to try and cut chances for the other teams and to not concede many goals. We are trying, we are still not there because in football nothing is perfect. That’s what changed. And we started winning. The more you win, the more confident you are. That’s what has happened to us.”

Pirates’ flame seemed to be flickering before Khoza, who is also the Premier Soccer League’s chairperson, announced the decision to suspend the league indefinitely because of the Covid-19 pandemic, whose tentacles have infiltrated almost every sphere of life. It’s unclear when, or if, the league will resume this season.

This break, albeit forced, would have given Pirates a chance to regroup and try to ignite the same energy and character they had at the start of Zinnbauer’s tenure. The emphasis on having fun, without putting pressure on the players, is unlocking the potential of players like Gabadinho Mhango and Vincent Pule. For Memela, whose name translates to joy, this is a match made in football heaven.

“I am a person who loves to be around a fun place,” Memela said. “I always want to be happy and follow my name. Even the guys, if you ask them, I am always in a good mood, laughing. Our coach is a funny guy. You laugh every day. He jokes, but when we have to be serious, we all get serious.

“I think that he understands the players. He is a coach that players love to have. He says that if you want to be happy in football, you must fight, fight to win games. If you don’t win, and you know that you have given your all, it’s better because you will do more in the next game. He makes sure that we give 100% in all our games.”

The different faces of Zinnbauer

Zinnbauer’s candid moments in the club’s changing room have been exposed twice, showing the different sides of the German. There is the happy-go-lucky Zinnbauer that was evident when he showed off his dance moves. There is also the no-nonsense coach who was caught on video barking orders at the players in what turned out to be his first loss at the club, when Bidvest Wits eliminated them in the first round of the Nedbank Cup.

That match, a six-goal thriller that Pirates lost on penalties on 9 February, was an emotional roller-coaster. Zinnbauer experienced every emotion under the sun. He saw the good, bad and ugly side of his team. The good was evident in their character and fighting spirit. The bad was in their lapses in concentration. And the ugly is the porous defence they haven’t yet tightened up.

“In the future, we want ball possession and we want to dictate the game more,” Zinnbauer said. “But it is not always possible. You play against Kaizer [Chiefs] for instance and then you cannot say that I want a lot of ball possession or I have to dominate. In most of our matches we want to do that, but it’s not always possible. And then we have to have plan B, which could be the counterattack and using our skills.”

But the No. 1 commandment in the Zinnbauer scripture is having fun. “It’s the same as you, when you don’t enjoy your work, you drag yourself and say, ‘Oh, I am now going to work,’ and then you don’t bring your 100%. It’s not possible to give your all when you aren’t happy, and then you don’t do well for this boss or this coach. We want to have fun,” Zinnbauer said.

“But not everyone is going to have fun. The players who aren’t playing are not going to have fun. It’s difficult being a coach, but it is our job. Most of the time, you need fun in the work area. We are having fun and we are also getting results at the moment. I hope that time isn’t gonna come, but I think that we will also have fun when we aren’t getting the results. The players play with heart and fun, you feel the spirit that they have and they bring on the field. They always fight, and that’s what we want.”

This article was first published by New Frame.

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