The making of Julian Nagelsmann, the man hoping to lead Germany to Euro 2024 glory

It’s the sleepy Bavarian town where Julian Nagelsmann was born, Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf and Johnny Cash was stationed during the singer’s time on national service for the U.S. Air Force.

Walk out of the railway station in Landsberg am Lech, 40 miles west of Munich, and you are quickly into a picture-postcard scene of gingerbread architecture and pretty pastels.

Every building is a different colour to the next. Padlocks adorned with loved-up messages are bolted to the Lech-Brucke. The weir is spectacular and, on the days when the river is raging, the sound of the water carries all the way into the town’s cobbled streets.

The young Nagelsmann would have made the same walk many times during the years when the future manager of Germany’s national team also indulged his other boyhood passion: ice hockey.

It was here in 1924 that Hitler, convicted of treason for the failed Beer Hall Putsch coup, was imprisoned for 264 days and used the time to write his political manifesto as the leader of Germany’s Nazi Party. A century on, there are still inmates behind the grey turreted walls and barbed wire of Landsberg prison.


The town’s ice rink is only a short walk away and Nagelsmann’s friends in Landsberg remember he, like many boys locally, was just as enthusiastic with a stick and a puck as he was with a ball at his feet.

He represented the now-defunct EV Landsberg, where the former players included Jim Johansson, from the U.S. national team at the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics, and Oleg Znarok, who went on to coach Russia’s national side.

“Landsberg is primarily a hockey town,” says Joachim Simon, a board member of the current team, Landsberg Riverkings. “Many children play hockey at some point in their lives. It was the same for Julian. The combination of playing hockey in the winter and football in the summer is very common here.”

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Landsberg am Lech, the sleepy Bavarian town where Julian Nagelsmann was born (Daniel Taylor/The Athletic)

Issing, where Nagelsmann grew up, is 10 miles south and not, perhaps, the kind of place you would expect one of the world’s leading football minds to have spent his formative years.

It is a small and charming place — so small that finding it on Google is a challenge in itself and you can walk from one end to the other without passing a soul. There is a pretty church, a vintage-car garage, a school and some neatly kept houses, as well as a patch of grass where a couple of Fleckvieh cows graze. But not much else — apart from, that is, an amateur football club.

FC Issing has been in existence since 1932, situated on a plot of land where any misplaced shot risks being lost to the pine forests that surround two sides of the pitch.

“Julian started with us when he was three years old,” says Gunther Fent, the club president. “Normally they would start when they are a bit older but in his case, we could see he was a very good player even at that age. He was very young, but he was also very talented.”

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Julian Nagelsmann lived in Issing when he was younger (Daniel Taylor/The Athletic)

They were happy days, for the most part. This part of Germany is just off the Romantic Road (Romantische Strasse), a picturesque 250-mile route through Bavaria’s forests and mountains. The air is fresh, the scenery enchanting, and it is only an hour or so to the mountain, Ochsenalpeleskopf, in the Ammergau Alps, where Nagelsmann’s parents, Erwin and Burgi, had a cabin.

“We went there every weekend when time allowed,” Nagelsmann said in one interview. “The mountains give you a humble feeling: the sheer size, the incredible peace that reigns there. The mountains can kill you but at the same time, they can help you find inner peace. At least, that’s how it is for me: no garbage, no crowds, no cars. I just love this purity and freedom.”

What nobody knew outside a very small circle was that the family had a secret. And they continued to keep it closely guarded until a few months ago — 16 years after Erwin, aged 56, took his own life — when Nagelsmann, in an interview with Der Spiegel newspaper, revealed his father had been a spy in Germany’s equivalent of MI6.

For much of his youth, Nagelsmann had believed Erwin was a soldier. The truth, he learned, was his father had been an operative in Germany’s federal intelligence service.

“Even my grandfather believed his son was a soldier,” said Nagelsmann. “I was 15 or 16 (when he told me). Often, on trips to training from Landsberg, he would talk about it… but only a little. He wasn’t allowed to talk about his job. That was why he often said it was all too much for him. There was no sharing of worries in his job. In the end, it put a lot of strain on him.”

Erwin’s suicide came at a time when his youngest son, then a reserve-team player at Augsburg, was taking in the news that a knee injury had ended his hopes of playing professionally.

It was the point in Nagelsmann’s life, aged 20, when he dedicated himself to coaching on the career path that started with Thomas Tuchel, then Augsburg’s coach, inviting him to be part of his backroom staff.

It also meant Nagelsmann returning to FC Issing, where his knee could withstand the lesser physical demands and he quickly established himself in midfield as one of the team’s better players.

“Even as a boy, I always felt he had that leadership in him,” says Fent. “When I watch his teams on TV and hear him shouting at his players, straight away I recognise it’s Julian’s voice. He had a big voice.”

Look closely at the framed photographs on the walls of Issing’s clubhouse and you can make out Nagelsmann’s smiling face. One shows the team after winning their regional league in 2011. Every player is wearing a t-shirt that says “Meister” — champions.

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Julian Nagelsmann (back row, third from left) celebrates winning the regional league with his Issing team-mates (Daniel Taylor/The Athletic)

The player on the back row (third from right) is Fent, who is 12 years older and spent almost two decades in the team. “We celebrated winning the title on the pitch,“ he recalls. ”Then we all got on the back of a tractor and drove into Issing to celebrate with all the people in our village. This was a wonderful memory.”

These days, Nagelsmann lives in Schwabing, an affluent area of Munich. And nobody is surprised he has come back to the part of Germany that means the most to him. Even when he was managing RB Leipzig 270 miles away, or Hoffenheim a little closer, Nagelsmann always talked about Bavaria being his real home. “My love for the white sausage is unbroken,” he said in one interview. “The same goes for my love for the mountains.”

He grew up as a Bayern Munich fan, following the lead set by his older brother, Andre. Then, a couple of months after starting work as Bayern’s manager, he was back in Issing to watch their first game of the 2021-22 season and meet up with some old team-mates.

Nor has he ever given up the love of ice hockey that meant him doubling up for SV Apfeldorf after joining Augsburg’s youth team.

Now 36, Nagelsmann still likes to put on his blades from time to time and, while he was managing Leipzig, had a training session with the fitness coach of Leon Draisaitl, the German ice-hockey professional who plays for Edmonton Oilers in the NHL. “When it’s allowed again, I would like to play ice hockey again as a hobby,” said the man who, a few years later, is trying to lead Germany to their first European Championship triumph since 1996.

At Issing, meanwhile, the boys and girls in the junior section play on an adjacent pitch to the first team setup.

Another picture in the clubhouse shows Nagelsmann in the team’s No 9 jersey and inside the players’ tunnel is a series of framed shirts with his name emblazoned across the back.

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Gunther Fent, FC Issing’s president, is proud of the club’s links to Germany’s head coach (Daniel Taylor/The Athletic)

On one wall, it is Augsburg, 1860 Munich and Issing to show the teams where Nagelsmann was a player. On the other side, it is Hoffenheim, Leipzig and Bayern, the clubs he has managed. And Germany’s national team shirt? That, almost certainly, will be next.

“We wanted to do something to inspire the players,” says Fent. “He lived in the village, went to the school here and played for his local team. Everyone is proud of him. So we wanted to make sure that every time the players run out to play a match they pass his shirts in the tunnel and they can see that FC Issing is where it all started.”

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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