PARIS: Having become the first American to coach a team in the Champions League and overseen the remarkable rise of Erling Braut Haaland, it was already an unforgettable season for Jesse Marsch before the coronavirus pandemic came along.
Now the coach of Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg is preparing his team to return to action after a two-month shutdown.
Salzburg have already been back training in small groups but are set to resume collective training on Friday before the Austrian Bundesliga picks up again in early June.
“We had to all get tests today again to make sure that nobody had the virus. This is the second time that we have had tests,” Marsch told AFP on Wednesday in a phone interview.
“We will still have to keep distances in the locker room, and we will wear masks in the building. Even on the bench we will have to keep distances of 1m between players and coaching staff.”
Unlike in Germany, where the league resumes this weekend, teams in Austria have not been forced into quarantine training camps.
Indeed, if Germany has coped well enough with the pandemic to be able to bring back football, Austria has arguably done even better.
With its population of almost nine million, it has registered only 624 deaths from under 16,000 cases and began easing its lockdown in mid-April.
“If you were here and you saw how people have followed the rules, how they wear masks, how they respect each other’s space, it would give you a lot of confidence that the virus is well contained,” says Marsch, who was assistant coach at RB Leipzig in Germany before moving to Salzburg last year.
The 46-year-old Wisconsin native spent lockdown in Salzburg with his wife and two sons. Their 18-year-old daughter stayed in Leipzig to finish high school but returned to the family before the border between the countries closed.
Salzburg have not played since March 8. While in lockdown, Marsch focused on “family, friends and football” and – like everyone it seems – “did a lot of Zoom calls”.
Now the season is returning, and Salzburg’s first game is set to be the Cup final against second-division Austria Lustenau in late May.
Then it will be back to the league, as the Red Bull club try to catch leaders LASK Linz and claim a seventh straight title. They are currently three points behind.
“Right now there is a lot of optimism and excitement,” admits Marsch.
Haaland: ‘A freak’
Salzburg have found the going tougher since losing Haaland and Japan’s Takumi Minamino to Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool respectively.
Both were outstanding in Salzburg’s Champions League campaign as they impressed against Liverpool and Napoli.
Haaland, the 19-year-old Norwegian, scored 28 goals in 22 games before joining Dortmund and netting nine in his first eight German Bundesliga appearances.
“He is a freak, he physically is gifted in ways that very few people are. There is very little that he can’t do in terms of the requirements of the game at the highest level,” Marsch says.
“You could see in every training session and every test game, he had moments that were like ‘wow’, and those ‘wow’ moments got to be more and more until sometimes it would be a 90-minute performance.”
If losing Haaland and Minamino in the winter was a blow, Marsch points out that youth development is central to the strategy of a club who have also polished players like Sadio Mane and Naby Keita.
In defence of US women
Salzburg gave him an opportunity too, to make a name for himself as an American coach in Europe.
“This is an experiment for me to see if my way of thinking, my way of leadership, of relationships, can function in the most competitive world of our sport here in Europe, although I understand Austria is not the highest level in Europe.”
He still keeps a close eye on goings-on at home, though, and has been supportive of the US women’s national team who recently had their case to be paid the same as their male counterparts thrown out by a federal judge.
“I just felt like those women earned more than the respect of everybody to be treated like heroes and with full respect,” he says.
“After the lawsuit getting thrown out, yeah I have emotions for that too, because I would like to see them treated fairly.”