The Man Who Fired Joachim Löw

Germany can thank the current Fort Lauderdale Strikers manager for making Jogi available in 2004

The first question Joachim Löw fielded after guiding Germany to victory in the World Cup final, believe or not, came from an Austrian journalist and concerned him been fired as coach of FK Austria Wien in 2004. “It was my greatest stroke of luck,” Löw replied, “because otherwise I wouldn’t be here now.”

Germany planned long and hard to set itself up to win the 2014 World Cup. But how the Germans came to be coached by Löw is pretty much happenstance. And nobody knows the story better than Gunther Kronsteiner, then sports director of Austria Wien and now coach of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Though Kronsteiner refuses to go into details, his firing of Löw from Austria Wien enabled Löw to be hired as Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant with Germany—and the rest is history.

Kronsteiner seems to have been a reluctant executioner, forced to carry out the verdict of the impulsive club president, Frank Stronach. Things seemed to be going well at FK Austria Wien in March 2004. The team was contending for the Austrian Bundesliga title and preparing to make a run in Europe the following season. But Stronach was not satisfied. He wanted Löw to make changes. Löw refused. Kronsteiner urged Löw to compromise. Again, Löw refused. Stronach then ordered Kronsteiner to fire Löw.

Kronsteiner said in a recent interview that it was a case of “three people with different opinions—these things happen.” But a source familiar with the situation said Kronsteiner was caught between Stronach and Löw, and it was not easy to keep the peace.

Stronach, a self-made Austro-Canadian billionaire, was used to getting his way. Had Stronach stayed out of things, Löw might have stayed on and never joined Klinsmann at the DFB. Stronach was virtually unassailable, having not only preserved the club, but also having saved the entire Austrian Bundesliga with a major investment in 1999. Stronach, though, had no background in soccer and lacked credentials for making decisions regarding on-field matters, though it did not stop him from attempting to do so. In fact, the previous year Stronach had axed manager Walter Schachner, despite Austria Wien having won the 2002–03 league title, ending a 10-year drought.

Kronsteiner, meanwhile, was a football man and was deeply involved in Austrian soccer. He had been sports director for Casino Salzburg’s UEFA Cup finalist team in 1994, and later brought Hans Backe (former New York Red Bulls coach) to the club. Löw’s resumé, at that point, included a 1997 German Cup title and 1997–98 Cup Winners’ Cup final appearance (with Stuttgart), and the 2002 Austrian Bundesliga title (with FC Tirol).

Kronsteiner recalls Löw joining the DFB “days” after the firing, though Löw’s official hiring date is July 1, 2004. In any case, the timing was perfect for Klinsmann.

Stronach, too, would soon be on his way. A mercurial figure, Stronach had built Magna International Inc. into one of the largest automotive parts suppliers in North America, later expanding into the sports and entertainment business. But after six years in charge of Austria Wien, he resigned from the club under pressure.

Stronach might have rubbed some people the wrong way, but he left a positive legacy with Austrian football. He is credited with rescuing the league in 1999. And he didn’t just pump money into Austrian football: He established a foundation for talent development with the Frank Stronach Football Academy in Hollabrunn.

Nor was Stronach’s involvement in the Austrian league a money grab, according to Kronsteiner. Stronach could have turned a major profit by transferring players such as David Alaba, who became a starting outside back for Austria and Bayern Munich as a teenager, but allowed them to move on before optimizing their value.

The Stronach Academy is “one of the best in Europe,” Kronsteiner said. “Alaba and a couple others went to the Bundesliga from there. Besides soccer, the players get a normal education there. [Before] the academy, there were many players who would suffer because, if they didn’t make it, they would have nothing. Now there are so many players who say thank you to him. And he didn’t do it to make money. He never made money on it.”

And football has been only a short chapter in Stronach’s life. Born in Austria, he moved to Canada in 1954 and found his fortune. Stronach’s greatest sporting success has been in horse racing, winning several Eclipse Awards for outstanding breeder and owner. He also has been involved in politics, in Canada in the 1980s, even attempting an unsuccessful run for president in Austria last year at age 80.

Meanwhile, Kronsteiner said he has not remained in contact with Löw. “I was happy for him, of course,” Kronsteiner said of Löw winning the World Cup. “Everyone was questioning his work, but I’m glad he made it to the top.”