By Billy Crawford
The name of Sepp Herberger is one that is almost unheard of in this country. In Germany, however, the man who led his team to victory in the 1954 World Cup is regarded as the most important coach in the nation’s history. Indeed, it is quite possible that modern German football and perhaps even modern Germany would not exist without this quiet, studious man from Mannheim. If that seems too strong a statement then let us consider the state of the German nation in 1954.
Germany had been divided in two, one half was given to the Western Allied powers and the other half handed over to the Soviet Union. The ‘Wunderschaft‘ or economic miracle, that revised West Germany’s fortunes and saw the nation become a major financial power had yet to take root.
Groups of women all over the country, with their husbands and fathers having died in the war, scrabbled on their hands and knees in the ruined buildings rebuilding Germany brick by brick. They became known as the ‘Trummerfrau‘, or Rubble Women, and their efforts came to symbolise those difficult postwar years.
The national mood was conflicted. On the one hand, the people were struggling to come to terms with the horrific crimes of the Nazis and the guilt that entailed. Many had only found out about these atrocities after the war had ended whilst others had kept themselves in a state of denial that they could no longer justify.
On the other hand, there was the shame of total and utter defeat and the humiliation of occupation by foreign powers.
West Germany needed something to rally behind, something that was devoid of harmful nationalism but at the same time made them feel that there was a reason to be positive about their new and confusing country.
Into the middle of this chaos strode Herberger and his West German football team.
By all accounts, Herberger was not an imposing man. He was quiet and obsessive. Football was his life and he does not seem to have had many interests outside the beautiful game. In this sense, he reminds us of other single-minded managers such as Bill Shankley or Rafa Benitez.
He had led the German national team since before the war and had escaped the purge of NSDAP members after 1945, as the Allies embarked on what was termed the ‘de-Nazification’ of Germany.
Herberger’s political allegiances have always been a matter of debate in Germany. The most likely conclusion is that he had none. His sole reason for existence in life seemed to be football and that was his primary concern. All leading figures in public life were expected to join the Nazi Party and Herberger did so under advice from DFB colleagues, seemingly so that he could continue to coach the national team. There can be no excuse for this. However, he seems to have had no commitment to Nazi ideology. There are stories of him coming to the aid of a Jewish man that was being beaten by Hitler’s Stormtroopers.
During the war, Herberger’s team was, unsurprisingly, severely depleted as many of his best players were sent to the front. The only way to be granted leave to return home was to be awarded the Iron Cross for military bravery. Herberger would falsify papers to show that his players had won Iron Crosses even though they had not so as to protect them from the dangers of war and ensure that they were available for important matches.
Not only does this suggest that Herberger cannot have had any deep-rooted dedication to the Nazi war effort, but it also demonstrates his extreme single-minded commitment to his players and to the German national team, since falsifying military records could be punishable by being sent to a concentration camp. The fact that Herberger was willing to risk this for the sake of his players also explains why the majority of them were so fiercely loyal to him.
All of this brings us to 1954 and the mountains of Switzerland. A conflicted and demoralised West German nation had no real hope that its football team would bring home the World Cup. Herberger had been criticised for his tactics and selections, in particular for his perceived favouritism towards players from his beloved Kaiserslautern. One of these, Fritz Walter, had been rescued from almost certain death, due to his ability to play football. Despite Herberger’s best efforts to keep his star player away from battle Walter, along with his unit, had been handed over to the Russians in 1945 and was to be sent to a hard labour camp in Siberia. He was passing time by playing a football game against the Russian guards when one of the men recognised him. He explained that he had seen the left-winger play in a wartime match between Germany and Hungary in 1942. The guard had been so enthralled by Walter’s performance that day that he agreed to spare him and allow him to return to Germany to play football.
It was to be another player, Rot Weiss Essen’s rebellious young forward Helmut Rahn, who would write his name into German football history, however.
The West Germans began their campaign with a victory over Turkey but in their second match, they were humiliated 7-3 by tournament favourites Hungary. Herberger mysteriously played his reserve team in this match. Theories abound to this day that the manager deliberately did this so as not to reveal his players or tactics to the Hungarians, anticipating that Germany would meet them again in the final. This would seem far fetched for most managers but Herberger was famous for his Machiavellian scheming and it is entirely possible that he would have planned this far ahead. If true, it was a massive gamble. Herberger understood more than most the uncertainties of the game. As he regularly said: “The ball is round and the game lasts 90 minutes. Everything else is pure theory.”
In many ways, Herberger could be called football’s first revolutionary. He prepared the national side for matches with forensic precision, studying pitch and weather conditions and also combining with Adi Dassler, founder of Adidas, to develop the first adjustable studs so that his players would feel comfortable playing on the muddy, waterlogged pitches of an Alpine summer.
He was also, arguably, the first football manager to use video analysis, making his team watch films of Hungary’s victory at Wembley so as to spot flaws in their game.
In the end, the players repaid their managers faith, defeating Turkey again in their last group match before battling through a quarter-final against Yugoslavia and a semi-final against Austria to set up their second meeting with the Hungarians in Berne on 4th July 1954.
Within 10 minutes of the match starting, West Germany were 2-0 down. The Magic Magyars of Hungary, who had humiliated Herberger’s men in the group stage, seemed on course to repeat the trick. However, there was still time. Max Morlock drew Germany back into the game before the man who was about to become a legend, Helmut Rahn, equalised only 15 minutes into the game.
The match flowed this way and that before the moment that was to define a nation. With six minutes left to play the ball fell to Rahn outside the Hungarian penalty area. He shaped to shoot with his right foot before unleashing a fierce strike with his left that flew past Kamil Grosics in the Hungarian goal and sealed the World Cup for West Germany.
For Germans, 1954 is their 1966, the moment that all football fans hark back to, even if they were not born when it happened. There was even a memorable moment of commentary to rival Kenneth Woolsthenthome’s famous “They think it’s all over, it is now” line in 1966. With television sets still a rarity, most Germans were huddled around their radios as the crackly transmissions from Berne brought commentator Herbert Zimmerman’s words through to their living rooms and bars. “Rahn schiessen, Rahn schiesst! Tor! Tor! Tor! Tor für Deutschland!” (Rahn shoots, Rahn shoots! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal for Germany!”) “Germany lead 3-2. Call me mad, call me crazy!” Zimmerman’s words have since gone down in football folklore.
In Germany, this goal is remembered as the goal that built a nation and the idea was reinforced by scenes that followed. Thousands crammed the railway stations to welcome the team home and the streets were packed with jubilant fans as the team went on a nationwide tour to show off the Jules Rimet trophy.
Even in victory, however, there was great anxiety in the newly-formed country that the celebrations could be misconstrued as a revival of German nationalism. This was highlighted by an incident during one of the trophy parades where the jubilant crowd sang the pre-war imperialist version of the national anthem, Deutschland Uber Alles, (Germany over all) instead of the new revised version. The controversy caused by this showed that Germany’s recent past still weighed heavily on the minds of its people.
The newly-formed nation finally had something positive to rally around, and it was not due to military strength or perceived superiority over other nations. Instead, it was the performance of a group of footballers and the fulfilment of a dream masterminded by a quiet, solitary man from Mannheim.
The story of 1954 was brought to a new generation in 2003 with the premiere of the award-winning film The Miracle of Berne. The drama tells the story of West Germany’s triumph through the eyes of Helmut Rahn’s fictional ball carrier at Rot Weiss Essen, a young football-mad boy coming to terms with his family’s poverty and the return of his shell-shocked father after nine years in a Russian prisoner of war camp. Through football, the boy and his father are brought closer together and find a new understanding as they travel to Switzerland to watch the World Cup final. Millions packed into German cinemas to watch the film, proving that the legend of Sepp Herberger and his team is still very much alive.