Jürgen Kohler won it all as a player with Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Cologne and Juventus, as well as internationally with Germany. - © imago sportfotodienst/imago sportfotodienst
Jürgen Kohler won it all as a player with Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Cologne and Juventus, as well as internationally with Germany. - © imago sportfotodienst/imago sportfotodienst
60 years of Bundesliga

Jürgen Kohler: A legendary Bundesliga and Germany stopper


A Bundesliga winner. A European champion at club and international level. A World Cup hero. There’s a reason Jürgen Kohler became known as a “Football God”. The fearless German defender played for Bayern Munich, Cologne and Juventus, but it’s at Borussia Dortmund where he is most fondly remembered.

Kohler was born in Lambsheim, some 300 kilometres south of where he finished his storied professional career in 2002. But the centre-back started it 20 minutes away from home, after leaving his local team to join Waldhof Mannheim.

A third-tier side these days, Waldhof became a Bundesliga club in 1983 - the year after Kohler joined them. The teenager made his league debut in April 1984, and it was an experience that served him well.

“I was given a two-minute cameo against Kaiserslautern in a game we won 2-0,” he once explained to bundesliga.com. “No less a figure than [72-time Germany international] Hans-Peter Briegel nutmegged me, and I learned a lifelong lesson from it.”

Kohler (l.) began his senior career with Waldhof Mannheim. - imago/Kicker/Liedel

Kohler learned quickly. He started four of the last five matches that season, among the first of 95 league appearances he made for Waldhof and 398 in the Bundesliga throughout his career.

It didn’t take long for his performances to be rewarded. Kohler earned his first cap for West Germany in a 2-0 friendly win over Denmark in September 1986.

After four seasons as a first-team player, the defender with the distinctive moustache moved three hours north to Cologne in July 1987. Having finished 10th the season before their new signing arrived, the two-time Bundesliga winners placed third and then second in the two years Kohler spent there.

Duels with van Basten

During that time he learned another harsh lesson. With West Germany leading 1-0 against the Netherlands in the UEFA Euro 88 semi-final, the 6’1” stopper mistimed a tackle with 16 minutes left and took down Marco van Basten for a penalty. In the 89th minute, the Dutch striker gained half a yard on Kohler to fire home the winning goal.

The Netherlands won that tournament, but the Germans got revenge by beating the same opposition in the last 16 of the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Kohler was brought into the team for that clash in Milan, and - after shackling van Basten - the accomplished man marker started every game thereafter. His side beat Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the final.

Kohler (r.) shackled Van Basten (l.) in the 1990 World Cup. - imago sportfotodienst/imago sportfotodienst

That summer’s encounter was just one of several epic battles Kohler had with former World Player of the Year van Basten, a contest that played out in Italy too when they later faced each other while playing for Juventus and AC Milan.

“Van Basten was, in a way, the foundation of my successful career,” Kohler told the DFB website in 2004. “In 1988 I realised that I still had a lot to learn. After the game in Milan two years later, the door to the top European clubs was open to me.”

Kohler had gone into the World Cup as a Bayern Munich player, after making the switch in 1989 and winning the Bundesliga title in his first year there.

Bayern, though, were dethroned as German champions the following season. Having scored six times in 55 league matches as well as reaching the last four of the European Cup for a second successive year, Kohler decided to move on.

Italian club football was entering a golden period in the summer of 1991, and a new arrival did too with Juventus. Kohler's star-studded team - captained by Roberto Baggio and with future Dortmund player Andreas Möller also starting - outclassed BVB to win the 1992/93 UEFA Cup final.

Kohler (l.) was part of the Germany team that lifted the 1990 World Cup in Italy. - Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images

Two years later a UEFA Cup semi-final between the two sides was much closer. In the first leg, though, Kohler met a cross at the back post and - with his weaker left foot - drove a crucial 88th-minute equaliser past soon-to-be clubmate Stefan Klos.

A rock for Dortmund

Juventus lost to Parma in the decider but they did win a league and cup double that season in Italy. It was to be Kohler’s last in Serie A, as he moved on to Dortmund - who had just won their first Bundesliga title in 1994/95.

Attacking midfielder Möller, who had made the same move a year before, described in 2021 what it was like to play alongside the hard-but-fair defender.

“If you have someone like Jürgen Kohler in your team, you always go into the game with a very good feeling,” he told bundesliga.com. “He was solid as a rock.”

Kohler was approaching his 30th birthday when he returned to Germany, but there was no danger of him winding down his career. Not with his mentality.

“If you’re satisfied with second place you’ll always end up losing,” he told bundesliga.com after he had retired. “I became so driven that I said I always have to be first, to win in every training session.”

“He was always one of the first to open his mouth in the dressing room,” ex-Dortmund boss Ottmar Hitzfeld explained in 2021. “He exuded self-confidence.”

Fortunately for Kohler, many of his new teammates had a similar mindset. Trailing Bayern by a point with five games to go in 1995/96, the defending champions finished stronger to take the title by six points. Kohler got the opening goal against Uerdingen - one of five in 29 league appearances that season - on the day Hitzfeld’s team pulled clear at the top.

That summer he also became a European champion with Germany. Having started every game on the way to finishing as a runner-up to Denmark at Euro 92, Kohler captained his country in their opening match against the Czech Republic at Euro 96. His tournament was ended by injury after only 14 minutes, but Germany went on to lift the trophy.

Kohler won the Bundesliga three times overall, with two coming in Dortmund colours. - /

More success would follow for an aggressive and dynamic centre-back. Noted for his bravery and well-timed sliding challenges, Kohler could sense when an opposing team was vulnerable to a counter, and - after winning possession - he would often surge into the opposition half with the ball. A threat in the air as well, he finished with 18 goals and 13 assists in 250 games for Dortmund.

The day he become a ‘Fussballgott’

It was for his no-nonsense and never-say-die defending, however, that Kohler is best known. Italian goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi recalled being in awe of how his Juve teammate would “eat up” his opponents.

“He was friendly and respectful, although he didn’t recognise friends on the pitch,” was how Hitzfeld put it many years later.

No cause seemed lost to Kohler, and one particular intervention has become legendary. It came at Old Trafford, when Dortmund were in England to take on Manchester United in the second leg of their 1996/97 UEFA Champions League semi-final.

Kohler (r.) gave nothing away as Dortmund got the better of Manchester United. - Bongarts

Kohler had missed the first leg, which BVB won 1-0 thanks to a late goal from Rene Tretschok. Among the players absent for the return match - Julio Cesar, Steffen Freund, Matthias Sammer and Paulo Sousa - were key defensive elements from the previous season’s title-winning side.

Captain Stefan Reuter was also forced off injured after 24 minutes in Manchester, but Kohler - who had been reportedly set to sit out the trip with a stomach bug - was a surprise starter.

Dortmund got off to the perfect start when Lars Ricken grabbed a vital away goal after eight minutes, but the visitors then got ready for an onslaught. United had a hugely talented side that featured David Beckham, Eric Cantona, Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were available as substitutes.

A swift response from the English champions would make it a long night for Dortmund, and on 17 minutes it looked like Alex Ferguson’s home side would level the game. Kohler, though, had other ideas.

Prone on the ground after Klos’ touch had taken a low Cole cross past him, he watched United captain Cantona stretch to control the ball behind him. Only four yards out, the iconic French attacker seemed certain to score. But Kohler - still flat on his back - stuck out his left leg to make a spectacular block.

It was the latest in a long line of brilliant goalline clearances from the German - and one of three he made in that game. Despite coming under intense pressure, Dortmund held on to win 2-0 on aggregate and advanced to the final.

What made that performance all the more remarkable, however, was the story that emerged afterwards. Kohler’s wife, it turned out, had suffered a miscarriage ahead of the game.

Only Hitzfeld had been aware of the truth, and - with Kohler’s wife’s consent - the experienced centre-back travelled to Manchester on the day of the match. Dortmund’s No. 15 remembers - given the circumstances - being “wildly determined” to give his all.

“That game must have been like a nightmare for him,” Kohler said of Cantona in the book 50 legendäre Szenen des deutschen Fußballs: Fußballstars erzählen. “For me it was maybe the game of my life - and that after only having a couple of hours' sleep and very little to eat.”

A European champion

That victory, of course, became more celebrated after what happened next. With Sammer back to captain the side and join him in a back three, Kohler came up against his old team Juventus in the final. Thanks to a double from Karl-Heinz Riedle and a memorable lob from Ricken, Dortmund won 3-1 in Munich to become European champions for the first time.

Kohler, whose anticipation, composure and quick reactions had helped BVB create history, was named German Footballer of the Year for 1997.

“He doesn’t hold back,” Hitzfeld said of him many years later. “He’s not afraid. And he has so much will and ambition. The crowd feels it. The fans feel it.”

Kohler won over 100 caps for his country between 1986 and 1998. - Laci Perenyi via www.imago-image/imago images/Laci Perenyi

Inevitably, the Dortmund supporters had taken to Kohler long before that success. Playing for a team in the Ruhr area of Germany - whose people are famed for being industrious - he was the perfect fit.

“Jürgen embodied that,” Möller said when discussing how his teammate complemented the people his club represented. “A willingness to work. Strong in the tackle. Dedication. Diligence. Passion. The fans felt that immediately.”

One last title

A resurgent Bayern - soon led by Hitzfeld - ensured that Dortmund’s domestic dominance came to an end. But after two more top-three finishes, there was to be one last title for Kohler to savour. Although not always a regular in 2001/02, he still played 22 league matches in the last of his seven seasons with Die Schwarzgelben. He famously won a match-winning 89th-minute penalty against Cologne with three games to go as Dortmund pipped Bayer Leverkusen to the title by a point.

The final game of the 36-year-old’s career, however, ended badly. In the UEFA Cup final defeat to Feyenoord in May 2002, he conceded a penalty after 31 minutes and was sent off. That, though, could not spoil the story for one of the most successful footballers of his generation.

“A fairy tale, when you see everything he’s achieved,” Sammer - by that stage Dortmund head coach - said after the game.

Kohler (l.) is still incredibly fondly remembered in Dortmund. - imago sportfotodienst/imago images / Mika Volkmann

Kohler scored twice in 105 appearances for Germany, featuring in three World Cups and three European Championships. He is remembered as a devoted team player or, as Hitzfeld describes it, someone who “always sacrificed himself.” He will also be remembered as one of his most determined players.

“Jürgen Kohler probably had to work for everything in his football career,” the former Dortmund coach said. “Nothing was handed to him.”

"When you work hard on yourself, a lot of things are possible and - if you're willing to do so - you can also learn a lot,” Kohler once told bundesliga.com.

“I think I demonstrated that pretty emphatically. Basically, I kept on developing, not only as a footballer but also as a person. And that’s something where football also helped me a lot.”

Kohler often spoke of the warmth of the supporters in a city that became his second home. And he was given a fitting tribute when 68,000 fans saluted him during his farewell game at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion.

“Jürgen Kohler. Fussballgott. I will never forget you!” read one banner in the crowd that day.

The retiring defender could not hold back the tears.

Mark Rodden

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