Munich - Olaf Thon is not one to hold back with his opinions. When the 1990 FIFA World Cup winner criticised Bastian Schweinsteiger several weeks ago, it caused quite a rumpus in the media.
At the end of the 2012/13 season, bundesliga.com caught up with the former FC Schalke and FC Bayern Munich star, who won three Bundesliga titles, two DFB Cups and the UEFA Cup, to ask him for an authentic review of the season.
bundesliga.com: Olaf Thon, looking back on the campaign just ended, what springs to mind first for you?
Olaf Thon: I think FC Bayern played a . I’m particularly pleased for Jupp Heynckes, under whom I played three years and won two Bundesliga titles. That's the of his last season in the Bundesliga. But below the very top of the table, there were other clubs who played breathtaking seasons. How Borussia Dortmund fared in the UEFA Champions League this season and beat top European teams like Real Madrid CF deserves the utmost recognition. And FC Augsburg mustn't be forgotten either. Theirs was a relegation battle worthy of Hitchcock. Fortuna Düsseldorf came off the worst, and now they've dismissed Norbert Meier, who achieved a great deal with them. They were not quick enough to realise how tough it can be in the Bundesliga to get the three points they needed for safety. They had 10 cracks of the whip, but failed each time, which is why they went down - also because Hoffenheim picked up late on.
bundesliga.com: What was the biggest surprise for you?
Thon: It was certainly impressive the way FC Bayern mastered the season and the passion they showed, starting with the president and going down through the coaching team with Jupp Heynckes to the team who were led so well by Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger. They set an example with their passion and that rubbed off on the whole team. The blend of Manuel Neuer in goal and the individualists in attack, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, was really strong. The way they stuck together throughout and celebrated - that wasn't the “arrogant” FC Bayern, but a team you could really take to your heart, which is a quality they've been missing to a degree over the past few years.
bundesliga.com: Apart from Bayern, what else surprised you?
Thon:SC Freiburg, in a different way to Bayern. They are a likeable club, above all because of their coach Christian Streich who cycles to work each day. Compared with Bayern, it’s all very tranquil there. The season they had was phenomenal. They mustn’t be negative about next season and see themselves at risk of relegation with the burden of three competitions to deal with. They should take this success with them and make the most of it. That opens up doors to buy players. I believe they can repeat their success from this season, even though they've got to cover for some important departures. But if they finish tenth, they can be satisfied.
bundesliga.com: Which club did not live up to the expectations?
Thon: Certainly Hamburger SV, who finished below their capabilities and did far too little, which makes it no surprise that they fired their sporting director. Now Oliver Kreuzer is in there, whom I played with. A new beginning is not going to be easy, but I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for him. Unfortunately, Hamburg have more internal battles to fight and if you aren’t a unit, then you’ve got no chance fighting for the top.
bundesliga.com: In the 2012/13 season, there were exactly 898 goals, the most in a long time. Is there a trend leading towards a more attack-minded style of football?
Thon: Definitely. Just look at what happened in Spain and England. You’ve got to try to impose yourself on the game, have possession, but not get carried away with the tiki-taka. A lot of teams have embraced this philosophy, not just the big four or five, but also smaller sides like Augsburg, who were always on the attack in their own stadium in the second half of the season. It’s a trend which can be traced back to good youth development work, which was also brought in by Bayern’s sporting director Matthias Sammer when he was at the DFB (German Football Association). It's brought about a completely different type of player in attack. Just think of players like Andre Schürrle, Julian Draxler or Mario Götze. It’s a pleasure to watch players like them. The trend is going in the right direction.
bundesliga.com: Who was your footballer of the year?
Thon: After the difficulties that Arjen Robben had last year, when he was heavily criticised by FC Bayern's own fans, he bounced back with the winner in the Champions League final. For me, he's just ahead of Franck Ribery as player of the season.
bundesliga.com: A few months ago, you criticised Bastian Schweinsteiger harshly, saying he would struggle to save himself for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Looking back at Schweinsteiger’s season, how would you now judge those remarks?
Thon: I think the club bosses can't have read the full interview. Otherwise, they would have realised that I was 90 per cent pro-Schweinsteiger, and I still am. In view of the 2014 World Cup, I said I was worried about how he and also Philipp Lahm would cope with the triple burden. I just hope the same thing that happened to Michael Ballack doesn’t happen to them. After injury, he was never able to find his way back. On the back of this season, I’ve got to say that what they've achieved is phenomenal; hats off to them. To suggest that ‘Schweini’ has a few deficits along with his many pluses should not be misconstrued as criticism. After my mild critique of Schweinsteiger, he improved. He's a great player and the brains behind this side. He worked really well and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he can be a key player for Jogi Löw at the 2014 World Cup, and help bring the World Cup back to Germany.
bundesliga.com: Do you think winning the World Cup is possible next year?
Thon: The Bundesliga is booming and it's leading the way in Europe and even the world. Therefore, Jogi Löw will be under pressure next year to win the title. It’s going to be hard because a lot is down to luck and you may have to come through a penalty shoot-out, like we did in 1990. If it doesn't work out, I think it may be time for Jogi Löw to consider doing something different. But this is all hypothetical. I would like to think positively because I rate his work very highly. I hope he’s successful with this side.
bundesliga.com: When you say that the Bundesliga is leading the way in Europe, could we say that there is a shift in power?
Thon: We have the leading league. The problem will be maintaining that level, which is going to be harder than it was to get there. It's taken years to get two sides playing against each other in the final of the Champions League. We have other clubs coming through like Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Schalke, Hamburg, Freiburg, Hannover 96 and others who can do a lot better in the UEFA Europa League than was the case in the season just ended. I can't see any better league than the Bundesliga.
bundesliga.com: What do you expect from the coming season?
Thon: I’m really looking forward to it and I’m curious to see how things will go. Will Bayern run away with it again? Can Schalke push on, can Dortmund show stability? What will happen with the promoted clubs? Hertha BSC are back and they have a big budget, so there's the potential for a surprise there. Berlin's alte Dame can perhaps aim for a top-ten finish.
Interview by Tobias Gonscherowski