We’ve made you wait for part 9 of our ‘Football on the small screen’ series, but here it is. SEBASTIAN KAHL takes us back to early 80s West Germany to follow the dreams of a teenager looking to make it big in the Bundesliga.
It’s a universal idea, likely as old as football itself: from Buenos Aires to Berlin scores of children take to the street, backyard or training ground, dreaming of sporting glory. Footballs at their feet, they imagine themselves, a few years on, striding across the pitch for club and country.
For a whole generation of West German kids that wish came true. At least on TV. During the early 1980s many a talentless youngster lived vicariously through the travails of Manni Bessauer. Produced in 1981 and aired the following year on ZDF, “Manni, der Libero” follows the path of the titular Manni as he makes his way from young hopeful at an amateur club to youth international.
Based on a book by Peter Conradi and directed by Franz Josef Gottlieb, the show was split into thirteen 25-minute episodes – the first of which provided a prologue of sorts. Set five years before the bulk of the show we see a young Manni inside a doctor’s office. A growth spurt had led to back problems, taking up football was out of the question as far as the physician was concerned. Herta, Manni’s mother, follows the doctor’s recommendation and signs her son up for ballet lessons. Manni shows neither talent nor interest. When balls are introduced for a particular dance routine, he pelts them against the big mirror spanning one side of the room.
While Herta is understandably miffed, her husband Sten isn’t bothered. Manni’s father was, after all, a professional footballer himself. A one club man for local side Blau-Gelb (lit. “Blue-Yellow”) Sten earned 27 caps for West Germany. “I want to go on and get 100”, quips young Manni. While not a brilliant student, Manni is still introduced as a clever kid. A kid solely interested in playing football. In one scene Manni and friends set up street signs to close off a road lest they be disturbed having a kick around.
The first few episodes are set in a small nondescript working class town within the football crazy Ruhrgebiet. Fictional club Blau-Gelb, though, had seen better days. Few spectators still want to watch a side battling to avoid relegation to the Third Division. Administration never seems too far away either. Manni is a die-hard fan regardless and even gets into a scrap with teenage supporters of rivals TuS 09. When he shows up with a black eye, Sten finally signs Manni up with Blau-Gelb‘s youth team. Cue a training montage which skips ahead five years and leads to Manni scoring a brace on his Under 17 debut. Contrary to what the series’ title suggests, Manni starts his on-screen career as a striker.
And what a career it turns out to be. Manni outgrows his humble beginnings fairly quickly. Blau-Gelb win the regional cup competition, with Manni at the heart of every play. He subsequently gets invited to represent Westphalia. Scouts hover around. Bigger clubs are vying for his signature. It is less a question of if Manni moves on but when and where he would go.
Neatly halfway through the series, Berlin serves as a fresh setting. Fictional club Arminia are building a formidable side there. Joining up with more talented team-mates and under professional coaching Manni develops further, at some point shifting to the libero position. Arminia conquer everything in their path, and within two years Manni reaches the top, earning his first U17 cap.
What reads like an abbreviated sporting career turned fairy tale is essentially that. On-field defeats are few and far between. Blau-Gelb lose their goalkeeper midway through the season after he joins bigger competition. With an untested back-up goalie, Blau-Gelb go on to concede half a dozen goals in the following match. Arminia only suffer defeat at the hands of England’s national youth team. To prevent his team from getting too cocky Arminia’s coach had set up a friendly match with precisely this result in mind.
Manni himself seldom plays a stinker. And even then, he manages to come up trumps in the second half to win the match. On screen, though, it never looked quite right. Manni was portrayed by Thomas Ohrner, a gangly 16-year-old who was not much of an athlete. The U17 side of real life Hertha 03 Zehlendorf played the part of Arminia; and were actually based in Berlin. Asked about Ohrner’s on field prowess, their coach Michael Klement once said: “Tommi is a fine lad but not much of a footballer”. It showed. There is never much skill to his play. All too often the defenders go down hastily without offering much resistance. Manni skips past all challenges, starting and finishing end-to-end moves; not very realistic but fine under the wish fulfilment aspect.
Each episode opened with the lines: “2.2 million boys in West Germany play organised football. They all share one dream: to wear the national youth team shirt. One of them is Manni, the libero.” What was followed by a distinctly ’80s TV intro pop tune spoke to the heart of the young German football fan of the time.
As the ’70s made way for the ’80s football was more popular than ever in West Germany. With success at Euro 80 the West German national team had won three of the last five major tournaments, made the final at a fourth, and we’ve all agreed to never speak about what happened at the fifth.
Sporting success and financial growth went hand in hand. Bundesliga attendances soared. TV money increased, albeit slowly. In 1973 Eintracht Braunschweig had opened the door for kit sponsoring, by the late ’70s other clubs had followed suit. At the same time, a new generation of player emerged. Günther Netzer & Co. were less local hero than popstar, playboy, and entrepreneur. The players of the early ’80s expanded upon that. Featuring for West Germany in the Euro 80 final were talents such as the flamboyant Bernd Schuster (20yo) and the suave Hansi Müller (22yo) – new idols altogether.
The over-arching theme of “Manni, der Libero” then draws from this increasing commercialisation of football. Money is the topic of almost every conversation. While the players at Blau-Gelb are truly amateurs and only ever get the odd Cola for free at the club bar, Arminia are essentially a professional Under 17 side. Club president Wehmeyer sees the team as the ideal sponsoring opportunity for his business. With Wehmeyer’s backing, Arminia sweep up the finest talent from all corners of the country, provide ideal training opportunities and the necessary incentives. At times, this is portrayed in a somewhat ham-fisted way though: Wehmeyer sits on the bench during matches, wallet at the ready, and counts out the bonus as the score is changing. Impressively after one victory each player gets his own motorbike.
Sten had missed out on all of this. To Manni’s father football is sport first. During his playing days, he had eschewed a move to Borussia Dortmund to stick with Blau-Gelb, only to toil away for peanuts. He takes offence at the notion of his son being “sold” in a transfer. When his petrol station goes bankrupt he sinks into a depression and takes up drinking, even though he had sworn off the bottle years prior. Manni agrees to the transfer to Arminia chiefly because Wehmeyer had promised to set Sten up with a cushy job. Bored by only pushing around pencils Sten takes to coaching one of the younger Arminia sides.
While Sten acts as an advisor to his son, he poses as a negative example as well – one Manni does not take to heart fully. Having never learned a trade, Sten was left with nothing after his business folded. Even though this is a point of tension between father and son, neither seem to draw the proper conclusion from it. Sten is focussed on his personal pride, and only reluctantly comes to accept Wehmeyer’s offer. Manni sways between being pragmatic and having his head in the clouds.
A lone voice of reason is Blau-Gelb‘s coach Fritsche, who is conveniently also the school’s maths teacher (it is indeed a small town). He stresses the importance of proper schooling and urges Manni to take extra lessons. After the move to Arminia this theme takes a backseat. Walter, a new team-mate and promising striker, develops a problem with his eyesight which ultimately forces him into a very early retirement. Even though Manni is distraught for his friend, there is no notion of him establishing any “Plan B” should his own footballing career fall through.
This is a missed opportunity. Some 35 years on the show still holds up fairly well. Dialogues may be a bit stiff and hair styles hopelessly out of date but in general the story is timeless. As are the problems thrown up. What is lacking is a timeless solution. Even factoring in an alternative path in case his career goes the same as Walter’s, Manni could still have made it to the top. And here “the top” is relative as a sole U17 cap can hardly count as having made it big. Instead, Manni mopes around a bit and carries on as he did before.
It’s also irksome in general that Manni’s actions hardly carry any repercussions. Brushes with the law are resolved within the course of one episode. Those motorbikes? Manni gets stopped on multiple occasions for reckless driving. It’s not Mad Max type stuff, for sure; it’s reckless to the extent which German TV was fine showing in the ’80s. Yet Manni gets off scot-free or with a slap on the wrist.
The most baffling example ties in with Walter’s fate. Wehmeyer offers his condolences, which the team take to mean that Walter will be released and his parents, who also work for Wehmeyer, fired. Jumping to conclusions they proceed to smash up Wehmeyer’s car. Using a “boys will be boys” defence, and aided by the script writer running out of air time, Manni cajoles Wehmeyer into dropping the issue.
At the other end of the spectrum there are also a handful of cinematographic highlights to be found. The training montage from the very first episode features a clever transition where the young team are on a jog; they disappear behind the coach’s cabin, keep a steady pace and emerge five years older.
A later episode takes place at the wake for an old functionary of the regional association. While Blau-Gelb‘s club officials are discussing doubtlessly important things inside the president’s house, the team has gathered outside. Manni and his girlfriend Bettina are wanted in both locations and, as they walk from one to the other, switch their soft drinks for champagne and back again.
Hammering home the point about this fictional town being a stiflingly cramped environment, Bettina is, of course, also the daughter of Blau-Gelb‘s club-president. By the time Manni receives the national youth team call-up the two have split up.
West Germany are playing England. Scenes of the match are interspersed with shots of nearly all the characters we’ve seen over the course of the series, watching at home or in bars. What makes for a warm and fuzzy happy ending also serves to show just how many people take part in shaping such a talent.
Manni, the libero of West Germany, naturally plays a blinder and scores. The series ends on a freeze frame of the goal celebration.
Shortly after that image had flickered across millions of TV screens, the real-life version of the story would unfold. In February of 1985, a then 19-year-old Manfred Binz makes his Bundesliga debut for Eintracht Frankfurt. Playing as libero, Binz would soon be known as Manni, der Libero. Making more than 300 appearances for Frankfurt, Binz won the German Cup in 1987/88 and was capped 14 times for West Germany. Maybe not a fairy tale but a fine career nonetheless.