The Limping Major and the Comeback Kings

The 1954 World Cup was held in picturesque Switzerland. In fact, they were elected unchallenged to host the tournament. The Swiss, famed for their precision in watch-making, cheese and chocolates, were expected to organise a very efficient and memorable tournament.

As many as 45 teams entered the qualifying round. In a major shock, Sweden was eliminated by Belgium and Spain defeated Turkey 4-1 at home but lost 0-1 away. Since there was no concept of aggregate goals, a decider was held at Rome, a neutral venue, but the match ended goalless. Luigi Franco Gemma, the son of the stadium gardener, was chosen to draw lots blindfolded, and Spain lived up to the sobriquet of being the unluckiest national team to be eliminated thus. Uruguay had lost their best player, Alcides Ghiggia to Italy but still had Juan Schiaffino, Obdulio Varela, Roque Máspoli and Rodríguez Andrade, and was yet to be beaten in the tournament.

West Germany was making their World Cup debut with a good bunch of players in their captain Fritz Walter, his brother Ottmar Walter, Helmut Rahn and Max Morlock. They had been playing under the same manager, Sepp Herberger since World War II. Herberger was a brilliant tactician and shrewd manager.

England and Scotland were both participating. Hungary were the overwhelming favourites coming into the tournament, unbeaten for four years and thirty matches. They had claimed an Olympic gold and their breathtaking brand of teamwork was unmatched in the footballing arena. They were one of the first teams to use a separate manager and a coach in Gusztav Sebes and Gyula Mandi, respectively. Sebes resorted to classic Swiss coach and forerunner of total football, Hugo Meisl’s tactics. Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti and Zoltan Czibor were all world class players. The team was nicknamed ‘Magical Magyars’ after they demolished England 6-3 in Hungary at Wembley on 25th November 1953. This was the first time England had ever lost at home to a foreign country. The misery was compounded when England seeking retribution for their earlier loss were trounced 7-1 in Budapest on 23rd May 1954. Austria, the last team to defeat Hungary, was a good but aging side whose best days were behind them. Yugoslavia, the Olympic silver medallists also had a good team, but the Hungarians were head and shoulders above the rest.

Hungarian Golden Team

The Golden Hungarian team or the Magical Magyars

 

FIFA had decided after the dual league of 1950 to tinker with the system again. The new system they devised was unique and bizarre. There were four groups, each with 2 seeded and unseeded teams. There were only four matches in every group with the seeded teams playing the unseeded ones. One seeded or unseeded team would not play against another of same kind. In case of a match ending in a draw, extra-time would be played. The top 2 teams would qualify; in case the teams were tied with equal points, a draw of lots would decide the positions. If the second and third placed teams were level on points, there would be a play-off match. It was a strange system with an even stranger seeding criteria for the teams. As a result, a lot of good teams remained unseeded while many average teams got a seeding. FIFA decided against the round robin final group and went back to the knock-out quarterfinal, semi final and final with a third place play-off. If the knock-out matches were drawn, there would be a replay. If that too was drawn, the winner would to be decided by a draw of lots. So basically, the champion could well be decided upon by simply a draw of lots!

The Groups

Group 1

The first match of the tournament featured France against Yugoslavia. It was a mystery why the French were seeded and their opponents were not, as the Yugoslavs were by far the better team. They dominated possession and created chances after chances, eventually winning by a single goal by Milos Milutinovic. Milutinovic’s brother, Bora later became a famous national coach managing five different teams in the World Cup finals in the 90s and 2000s. The second match featured Brazil against Mexico. The famous three forwards Ademir de Menezes, Jair da Rosa Pinto and Thomaz Soares da Silva better known as Zizinho, were not selected post the infamous loss to Uruguay in the previous World Cup. They still had very good players in Didi and Julinho. Mexico was promptly dispatched for 5-0. In the second round, France defeated Mexico 3-2 in a match featuring the weaker teams of the group. Brazil met Yugoslavia in a repeat of the last group match of 1950. Both sides displayed great skills only to end the match in a 1-1 draw even after extra time. Both sides finished on equal points and progressed to the quarter finals. Brazil topped the group after the draw of lots.

Group 2

Hungary were the only team to be correctly seeded in this group. Turkey were seeded only because they qualified by defeating Spain (albeit by the draw of lots) who were seeded before the tournament started. It was a case of presumption of the worst kind by FIFA. Hungary played South Korea in one of the biggest mismatches in the history of the tournament. The Koreans, one of the three debutants in the tournament, had no training and were exhausted by the middle of the first half chasing after the quick passing Hungarians. The final score was 9-0 with Sandor Kocsis scoring a hattrick, Ferenc Puskas and Peter Palotas scoring a brace each and Czibor and Mihaly Lantos also on the score sheet. The West Germans, also debutants in the tournament, played Turkey and Herberger introduced a novelty. It was not in tactics or strategy but in equipment. Herberger had appointed Adolf (Adi) Dassler as the consultant for team shoes. Dassler invented adjustable spikes, which could be adjusted based on the condition of the pitch. Though it sounds rather simple, it was a revolutionary concept back in those days. Dassler went on to use his innovations and experience to establish Adidas, a company synonymous with football, till today. The West Germans promptly dispatched the Turks 4-1 making a mockery of the FIFA seeding system. Hans Schäfer, Morlock and Ottmar Walter were all on target. The second round of matches pitted the West Germans against the Hungarians. Herberger, the shrewd manager, put out a skeleton side with only four regular starters playing for a draw against Hungary. The Hungarians however were impressive as ever with a thumping 8-3 victory. Kocsis scored 4 goals, Hidegkuti and Puskas also scored a goal each. However, this match had the most key moment of the entire tournament when Werner Liebrich, the West German defender tackled Puskas and left him with a sprained ankle. This would put him out of the next two matches. The Turkish team steamrolled past the South Koreans 7-0. Hungary had qualified as group winners, West Germany and Turkey met in a play-off to decide the second team to qualify and the full strength Germans cruised to a 7-2 victory on the back of a Morlock hattrick.

Adolf (Adi) Dassler with his adjustable spikes in the West Germany bench

Group 3

 

Uruguay played Czechoslovakia on a heavy pitch which did not suit their style of play. They still had enough class to win 2-0 through a goal from Oscar Omar Miguez and a Juan Schiaffino free-kick which was curled in from the edge of the box over the Czech wall. Austrians who were touted as the best team in Europe after Hungary, made heavy weather of their match against the debutant Scotland team. They dominated play but could not find the net. Eventually Erich Probst scored to give them a hard fought 1-0 victory. The second round of matches featured Scotland buoyed by their narrow loss to Austria against Uruguay and Austria against Czechoslovakia. The Austrians showed that their result against Scotland was merely an aberration as they ran out 5-0 winners with the goal-scoring problems seeming a distant memory. The Uruguayans ran riot against the Scots, winning 7-0. It was a comprehensive defeat which made the Scottish team realise that they were not in the same league as the big boys. Uruguay and Austria both qualified and Uruguay won the group on the draw of lots.

Group 4

The first match featured England against Belgium, the shock conquerors of Sweden in the qualifying round. It was a brilliant match where Sir Stanley Matthews was outstanding, creating all the four English goals. At nearly 40 years, he was the best player on the field. However, the English defence could not emulate the great man and allowed four goals. The final score was 4-4 after extra time.

The hosts, Switzerland shocked Italy 2-1 in a match which was dominated by counterattacking wing play by both sides. Italy, to be fair, was rebuilding but still had a world class player in Benito Lorenzi. The second round matches featured England against the hosts. With Matthews and Nat Lofthouse both unfit, it was a refreshingly attacking English team who dominated the Swiss and won 2-0. The Italy-Belgium match promised a lot based on the Belgians’ performance against England. The Italians were in control and won easily 4-1. England topped the group to qualify for the quarters but Switzerland had to play Italy in a play-off match. The Italians started confidently but soon allowed the hosts to dominate possession. Eventually a 4-1 loss was greeted by Italian press as a complete ‘disaster’. Some Italian players complained of boredom in the training camp at Vevey. In reality, they were a side which was rebuilding itself and was a decade away from becoming the great team the Italians expect their national team to be.

Quarter Finals

FIFA, after the faux-pas of the groups and seeding system, went on to have a free draw for the quarterfinals which meant that the group winners might have to play each other. That’s what exactly happened with Uruguay drawn against England and Hungary against Brazil. Austria was playing the hosts Switzerland and West Germany met Yugoslavia. Uruguayans were superior to the English who were discovering that international football was not a stroll in the park. The South Americans comfortably controlled the game to win 4-2 with goals from Schiaffino and Varela. Stanley Matthews was again England’s only shining light. England played their best match of the World Cup yet but still ended up losing to a far better side.

The Austria-Switzerland match was a classic. The hosts quickly went up 3-0 by the 18th minute. The Austrians scripted one of the greatest resurrection stories since Lazarus of the New Testament. They were level (3-3) by the 28th minute and went into the break 5-4 up, a remarkable score-line. The second half did not have as many goals as the first, with only three. At the final whistle, the score was Austria- 7, Switzerland- 5. Till date, this remains the highest aggregate of goals scored in a World Cup match. The first match of this tournament was dubbed ‘The greatest match ever’, however this was an aperitif. Two more matches were played later in the tournament which laid claim to the same title. West Germany-Yugoslavia match was an evenly matched contest, with both sides attacking in earnest. The Yugoslav problem of scoring goals finally caught up with them and they were defeated 2-0 with an own goal and a Helmut Rahn strike late in the match.

Battle of Berne

The last quarterfinal featured the tournament’s highest scoring teams till then – Hungary and Brazil. With the array of attacking prowess on show, it should have been a spectacle. However, it ended up in a brawl which was dubbed ‘Battle of Berne’.

Both sides were not very good defensively. Hungary had two very average defenders in Gyula Lorant, a standard stopper and Lantos, much too well built for a full-back. Brazilian defenders were a bit too robust and rough in their style as well.

Hungary was given a flying start by the opposition defence when Joao Carlos Pinheiro tried to dribble out of his penalty area to lose the ball to Hidegkuti who blasted a shot which was saved by the keeper. The rebound came to Hidegkuti again who hit a high shot to the roof of the net. Then Hidegkuti’s shots were ripped by a Brazilian defender who took his job of man-to-man marking a bit too seriously. After that he clipped a magnificent cross which was headed in by Kocsis to give the Hungarians a 1-0 lead. Djalma Santos pulled a goal back from a penalty given when Jeno Buzanszky pulled down Indio in the area. Arthur Ellis, the English referee had lost control over the match as fouls were flying in from both ends. Ellis then gave a penalty to Hungary for a foul on Kocsis, who looked astonished. The penalty was duly converted to give the Hungarians a two-goal advantage. Julinho, one of Brazil’s greatest wingers, later overshadowed by a certain Garrincha, scored a fine goal cutting in from the right to make the score 3-2, in favour of Hungary.

In the meantime, Jozsef Bozsik was brought down by the large Brazilian defender, Bauer. He was infuriated and following treatment started an impromptu boxing match with Nilton Santos. Both were duly sent off by Ellis. Then the Brazilian mid-fielder, Humberto Tozzi jumped with both feet on Kocsis who had attempted a sliding shot off a rebound. The leap by Humberto was reminiscent of the jumps performed by athletes in the now defunct Olympics event of standing long jump. Of course, the referee was not impressed with his athletic prowess and sent him off. Kocsis remained on the field to score the final goal of the match with a driven shot from outside the box to give the Hungarians a 4-2 win.

Meanwhile the fighting continued along the touchline with Djalma Santos, a former bouncer at a Rio night club, chasing Czibor and Hidegkuti – the best player on the field, stamping on Indio who was trying to kick him while lying on the ground. The referee was at a total loss and strangely did not send off any of the players. After the final whistle, the brawl continued into the dressing rooms where the injured Puskas retaliated with bottles and broken glass. It was a shame that the best attacking teams of the tournament gave the world a glimpse of their hand-to-hand combat skills instead of the footballing acumen that they possessed.

Semi Finals

In the semi finals, due to FIFA’s draw, West Germany met Austria and Uruguay played Hungary. Austria had to play their second choice keeper Walter Zeman, considered one of the most reputed in Europe. Unfortunately he had the worst game of his career. Ernst Happel, one of the best defenders of the tournament, also had an off day. Together it spelt catastrophe for Austria as they were thrashed 6-1. Both Walter siblings scored a brace of goals while two other goals were scored by Morlock and Schafer.

West Germany were into the final on their World Cup debut but would be underdogs to the winner of the other semi-final which was arguably between the best two teams of the world at that time. The second semi-final was ‘one of the best games of football ever played’ – a term used for a lot of matches, but very befitting for this contest. Hungary started with an all out attack but the opposition defence was resolute. Then Roque Maspoli, the Uruguayan goalkeeper and hero of the last World Cup, gifted the Hungarians the lead when he could not hold on to a cross cum shot by Czibor. Schiaffino went around Gyula Grosics in the Hungarian goal but could not keep his balance and missed the target. The Hungarians held a slender lead at halftime.

After the break, Hungary was two goals up with a fantastic diving header from Hidegkuti off a Budai cross. Uruguay was facing their first ever defeat in the World Cup. The Uruguayans were then known as the comeback masters of international football and they lived up to their reputation (the tag would pass on after this tournament final). Juan Eduardo Hohberg, a naturalised Argentinean of German origin playing in the Uruguay forward line was put clear by a Schiaffino pass in the 76th minute and he beat Grosics with a low cross-shot. With only three minutes remaining in normal time, Hohberg got a through pass from Schiaffino; he beat two defenders with his pace and pushed in the rebound after the first shot was saved by Grosics, to make it all square. The Uruguayan celebrations with the goalscorer were so robust that he had to undergo treatment. In extra-time, Hohberg hit the post after going through on the Hungarian goal again. The ageing Uruguayan players started tiring and Hungary regained the lead through a Kocsis header. Hungarians made the game safe with another header from Kocsis.

Sandor Kocsis, the highest scorer using his head

 

Kocsis was considered one of the greatest headers of the game ever. Standing only 5’9”, his thick neck which almost looked deformed on his slim frame gave him immense power from headers in around the edge of the box. The stage was set for a final between Hungary and West Germany. In the third placed match, a visibly tired Uruguay was overpowered by the Austrians 3-1.

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Fritz Walter (L), Mervyn Griffith (C) and Ferenc Puskas (R)

 

Final Miracle of Berne

The final of the 1954 World Cup has gone in the history and lore of football. The Hungarians, who had crushed their opponents 8-3 in a group match, were quietly confident. They had not been beaten for 34 matches. The biggest question was whether their talismanic captain, Ferenc Puskas would play in the final. He looked half fit, to be fair he often was, he looked rather rotund around the middle: his team seemed to do fine without him. Yet he was the most talented and inspirational player of that time. Legends have been woven around his left foot which was said to have juggled soap bars in the Real Madrid dressing room. To tell the truth, Hungary was always a better team with him playing. On the opposite end, Fritz Walter, the West German captain was a consummate team man. He was a survivor of a Soviet war camp who hated playing in the sun and loved it when there was a light drizzle. That type of weather is still called ‘Fritz Walter weather’ in Germany. Plus their manager, Sepp Herberger after studying the opponents decided that it was not Puskas or Kocsis but Hidegkuti who must play in the hole behind as the key to Hungary’s attacking system. He instructed his defender, Horst Eckel to follow Hidegkuti like a shadow even when he was dropping back (England should have thought of it during their two drubbings). Then it suddenly rained and the West German underdogs were gaining in confidence, equipped with flexible spikes on their shoes.

The Wankdorf stadium in Berne was filled to the rafters. There was a buzz in the stadium when the match started in a heavy pitch, sodden due to the rain. It did not seem to bother Hungary very much though. In the sixth minute, Bozsik passed to Kocsis in the penalty area. Kocsis took a prompt shot which rebounded off Liebrich to the left and Puskas beat Toni Turek, the goalkeeper with a low shot (1-0). Two minutes later, Bozsik tried to find Kocsis again only to have his pass intercepted by the opposition defender, Werner Kohlmeyer. Kohlmeyer then attempted a back pass to his goalkeeper which was intercepted by Czibor who kicked the ball into the goal (2-0). The repeat of the group stage match seemed imminent. The West Germans were rescued by their teamwork and understanding – six players in the starting line-up played for the same club (Kaiserslautern), and an instant comeback goal. Just two minutes after the second Hungarian goal, their defender, Jozsef Zakarias lunged facing his own goal, trying to intercept a cross from the left but only managing to push it back towards his keeper. Before Grosics could dive in to gather the ball, Max Morlock slid in to divert the ball past the goalkeeper’s right hand into the goal (1-2). The West Germans visibly lifted by the goal, attacked and gained a corner in the 19th minute. Fritz Walter took the corner; Grosics could only flap the ball sideways, being challenged by Schäfer,and Helmut Rahn was on hand to stab a half volley past two Hungarian defenders on the line (2-2). The West Germans were now level against the best team in the world. The Hungarians were at last facing a team who were not intimidated by them. The scores were level till half-time.

FIFA World Cup 1954

West German celebrations after the equaliser

 

The Hungarians, stung by the reversal of their fortunes, came back with all guns blazing. Hidegkuti’s snap shot hit the post. German defender, Karl Mai was given the envious duty of marking Kocsis — a job he did quite successfully. Still Kocsis managed to hit the bar with one of his trademark headers. A shot from Mihaly Toth was cleared off the line by Kohlmeyer. It was a continuous procession of Hungarian attacks on the West German goal. The West Germans were still dangerous in the counterattacks through their wings led by Helmut Rahn. Five minutes from the end, Schäfer dispossessed Bozsik by a shoulder charge, and crossed. Hungarian defender, Lantos headed away under pressure only to find the dangerous Rahn. Rahn took it away from Lantos to the left and hit a low left footer past the right hand of Grosics (2-3). The ultimate comeback was complete but could the West Germans hold on till the end? In the dying minutes, Puskas ran from the inside left channel and slid the ball into the goal under Turek. The Welsh referee, Mervyn Griffiths deemed that he was off-side; a decision which has been discussed by football fans ever since. The videos are not conclusive either. Czibor hit a piledriver which was brilliantly saved by a 35-year old Toni Turek. The final whistle was blown and the West Germans had won the World Cup on their tournament debut. It was a great gift for a nation struggling to cope after the ravages of World War II and the guilt that they were responsible for it. It was the greatest final match of the tournament till then, which had both the ingredients of spectacle and drama. The West Germans were tagged as ‘comeback kings’, a name which they have lived up to, time and again, over the years.

Memorial at the Stade de Suisse which was built after demolishing the Wankdorf Stadium

 

Czibor and Kocsis of the Hungarian team played another final in the same stadium seven years later – the European Cup final for the Barcelona team. They both scored but once again ended up suffering a 2-3 defeat after being overwhelming favourites to win. Sandor Kocsis has the best-goal-per-match record for a player with more than 2 goals in the World Cup till date.

 

It was a spectacular tournament with most goals scored per match. There were huge crowds and FIFA was elated at the culmination of such a resounding success. The Hungarian golden team was destroyed by the Hungarian uprising of 1956 when nearly the entire team defected. Many of their players went on to achieve spectacular success at club level in Europe. They will still be remembered most for being the greatest team to have never won the World Cup.

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West German players after the final whistle

 

Fritz Walter : A Footballing Grandmaster

His name was Friedrich “Fritz” Walter, the best player Germany produced until Franz Beckenbauer and there are more people than you would consider who would still place him above ‘Kaiser’. A brilliant tribute from Nibaron Chakraborty

Prologue

In the early hours of a Sunday morning, a lean well built man is standing on the balcony of a hotel, overlooking the Lake Thun.  The lake is calm and the first rays of the sun rising over the foothill of Alps, lighting it up in a reddish-golden tinge, promising that the day is going to be pleasant and beautiful.

Clearly looking dismayed, he goes back to his room and lies down. At nine o’clock, he is out again in the balcony, now the sun is effusively up.

At lunchtime around half past twelve, his brother stormed down the corridor of the hotel, shouting, “It’s raining! It’s raining.. !” Visibly surprised, he ran down to his hotel balcony. It was indeed raining. Big grey clouds had gathered over the lake and the raindrops promised wind, cold and mud. “Now nothing can go wrong”, he grinned.

In two and half hours, he and his mates, will be playing a game of football, against the best team in the world, who had humiliated them just a few days ago. In little more than 5 hours, he and his friends will be living legends and literally will liberate their fellow countrymen from all their burdens and guilt, after World War II.

It was July 4, 1954.  His name was Friedrich “Fritz” Walter, the best player Germany produced until Franz Beckenbauer – and there are more people than you would consider, who would still place him above ‘Kaiser’.

fritz walter

Early Career

Friedrich Walter was born on October 31, 1920, in Kaiserslautern, remote and backward area of Pfalz, which is 65 km of Mannheim, home town of national coach, Sepp Herberger. Walter’s father worked as a lorry driver until an accident cost him an eye. He opened up a restaurant in his hometown, before he spent some time in the USA, but returned home before World War I, and married a woman from Berlin.

Fritz, Ottmer and Ludwig (his two younger brothers) lived in the proximity of two boys called Ernst and Werner Liebrich. All of them were suffering from an English disease called football, and in the near future they all would play for FC Kaiserslautern and four of them would go to win the World Cup for their country. By 1928, Walter had joined the Kaiserslautern youth academy and made his first team debut at 17.

War, Football and Debut

Before being called up into the national side, Walter got his share of a World War. He was drafted into the army in the 1940’s, when things got severe on the fronts.  At that time, Germany’s so called clean and swift war machine started to show some signs of rust and waning. More men were needed on the front, footballers were no exception.

Walter the soldier or paratrooper marched or flew across France, Corsica, Sardinia, Romania and many other places during the following years, but before that, he made his international debut in July 1940, against Romania. He scored 3 goals, playing as a forward in a relatively easy 9-3 victory. National coach Sepp Herberber was immensely impressed, and soon Walter would become his favourite player, in fact he liked him as his surrogate son. “I’m happy Fritz, you can come and play for your country again.” told Herberger. That sure was easier said than done.

In those chaotic times, until late 1942 (when everything collapsed), Herberger tried every trick in the book to get his young players from the mortal dangers of the front and back to the shelter and safety of a football ground. Incredibly he succeeded, and in those times German national team played another 25 matches, Walter only missed two of them.

Most of the matches during the war were worthless games, either allies or occupied countries, with two exceptions. In April 1941, in Koln, a magnificent German team unexpectedly beat Hungary, 7-0. In the return match, Budapest, May 1942, the Magyars playing for their pride, led 3-1 at halftime thoroughly dominating their opponents.   “Don’t let this become a catastrophe”, Herberger was worried, he knew humiliation of any kind on foreign soil would not go well with the Nazi commands in Berlin. The second half was a different story though; led by a young Fritz Walter, the Germans managed to fight back, eventually winning 5-3.

3 years later, his performance in this match would save Walter’s life. 12 years later, memories from this match helped him win the World Cup.

All international matches were suspended when Goebbels declared the country to be in total war. Herberger was out of a job and the entire nation was waiting for the inevitable. However, local leagues were still on, as some newspapers pointed out, “Sporting competitions to be carried through in order to sustain the work ethic”, but things were farcical to say the least.

Meanwhile, Walter joined the Red Fighter Pilots in 1943. They were an Air force football team, founded by Major Graf, a war hero and an ex-goalie. Given the circumstances, he had spent 1943 and 1944 in relative safety. Russian offensive signalled the end of the team in January 1945.

In April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler shot himself. The day before Hamburg won the last official football match played during wartime, against Altona 1942.  A week later, Germany capitulated.

The entire team of Red Fighter Pilots were taken prisoners together by the Russians. Everybody preferred to be captured by the US troops, rather than the Russians, but that was not going to be the case for Walter. It meant Siberia, and a near certain agonising death.  However, during the march towards the Siberian Gulag, he kept his eyes open for some football, if possible.

One day, in a Ukrainian War Camp, he played one of the most important football matches of his life – Prisoners vs Camp Guards.  At half time, one of the Hungarian guards recollected the memories of May 1942, and came down to ask him, “I think I know you” he said, “I was there in 1942. I have seen you play against us. Hungary lost 3-5”. The next day, Walters’ name was strangely removed from the prisoners list to be sent to Siberia. He returned to his home town in late 1945. Being a famous footballer saved his life, but not many people were that lucky.

Post War

Hours after West Germany’s first post-war game against Switzerland in the 1950, representatives of a French club FC Nancy, met Walter and offered DM 100,000 for his signature. A year later, Helenio Herrera, in charge of Atletico Madrid, negotiated with Fritz Walter. He offered DM 225,000, but in both the cases, the player declined the offers.

That was partly because their club and particularly, the national coach, somehow found ways of giving him at least some kind of financial security and stability. He was granted a loan so that he could start a cinema and laundry and that guaranteed him a good life in 1950’s West Germany. Another reason for the player’s disinclination was that, they knew that they would never again play for their country, as professionalism was a strict no-no at that point of time, in West Germany.

Walter inspired Kaiserslautern to win German Championships in 1951 and 1953. The side became known as ‘Walter’s 11’ in recognition of its most outstanding player.

 World Cup 1954

West Germany had not been allowed to play in the 1950 tournament but they qualified for the 1954 tournament, first FIFA World Cup in Europe since the end of the war. Competing in the WC was indeed a proud moment for them, but challenging for it, was like unthinkable for the Germans as the international scene was dominated at the time by the apparently invincible Hungarians, who arrived at Switzerland as runaway favourites after a four-year undefeated spell. A wager on the ‘Magical Magyars’ and their mystical captain Ferenc Puskas looked like a safe one for the 1954 tournament.

Germany defeated Turkey 4-1 after going down 1-0; humbled by the Mighty Magyars 3-8, needed a playoff match against Turkey. Walter shone in the 7-2 rout, and again as the Germans beat a strong Yugoslavian side 2-0 in the quarter finals. The captain buried two penalties in the 6-1 semi-final victory over Austria to set the stage for a re-match with the mighty Hungarians in Berne’s Wankdorf Stadium.

 Miracle of Bern

July 4, 1954. 8 minutes gone into the final, Fritz Walter stood on the half way line, staring at the ground, amidst the rain. West Germany trailed the favourites, 2-0.

Walter was not the same man after the World War. His football instincts were intact but he was moody, sensitive and prone to self doubt. Anything would throw him off balance; bad refereeing decisions, critical remark and specially the weather. Ever since he caught malaria during his wartime marches, he was ineffective on hot sunny days. But he loved rain, and a steady downpour is still called “Fritz Walter “weather in Germany.

Walter was desperately trying to think about the game in May 1942, when his team came back from 3-1 down, against the same opponents. And somehow, like that match West Germany recovered quickly. Two minutes later, Max Morlock poked the ball past Grosics to make it 2-1, as the Germans slowly controlled the tempo of that game. Quarter of an hour gone, Max Morlock dribbled past 3 defenders and earned a corner. Helmut “Der Boss” Rahn volleyed the ball into the net. 2-2 it was.

The first 15 minutes after the interval The Magyars dominated, denied multiple times by Tony Turek (goal keeper) and the crossbar. Somehow, Hungarians lost some faith after that incident as the match again opened up from a neutral perspective.

Six minutes left to play, “Schafer sends a cross into the box” – Herbert Zimmermann reported, he was doing commentary for the West German Radio.  “Header… Cleared”…..   The Ball falls to Rahn who fakes to shoot with his right foot, turns, and strikes it with his left… Grosics is not going to reach it… Zimmermann cried in the radio “Rahn Schiest…….. Tor ! Tor ! Tor ! Tor !..”  “Germany Leads 3-2.. Call me mad, call me crazy.

It was an unlikely and inspiring upset, one that had ramifications far beyond the world of sport. It marked the beginning of a new Germany, restoring national self-belief after the horrors of conflict and inspiring a new determination the length and breadth of the land. It was a kind of liberation for the Germans from all their burdens after World War II.

Walter became the first footballer ever to earn the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the highest honour in a long list of decorations. Years later, Walter would still grow emotional when he recalled the events of 1954. As a tribute to him on his 80th birthday, German television showed the 54’ final. Walter wept: “I still have goose-bumps watching it.”

After the World Cup and Retirement

Walter retired from the international football in 1956. He had a soft corner in his heart for Hungary and after the crackdown by the Soviets of the Hungarian uprising, the Hungarian football team were caught away from home, and for two years, Fritz managed their games and provided the financial backing, and in small measure, paid them back for having saved his life.

He made a comeback as Herberger persuaded him to come back for 1958 World Cup hosted by Sweden. He was 37, and hadn’t played for the national team for at least two years. Germany struggled up to the semi-finals where they were beaten by the host nation in controversial circumstances. That was the last international match Walter played, ending his international career with 61 caps and 33 goals.

In 1959, he left league football as well, having played 379 times for Kaiserslautern, and having scored 306 goals. As a player, he was ahead of his time – an attacking midfielder before midfield had even been invented.

Later life and Legacy

Fritz Walter was named an honorary captain of the German football squad in 1958. The other four are Uwe Seeler, Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthias and Bettina Wiegmann.

Since 1965, he was living in Alsenborn, a small village near Kaiserslautern and sensationally taken their local team within one point of being promoted to Bundesliga.  After that, Walter turned his back on coaching and management, shifting to a completely new career. He worked with offenders, helping them to get back to their normal lives after leaving prison. Manfred von Richthofen, president of the German Sports Federation, said: “Fritz Walter was a symbol of German sport in the post-war era. A man with marvellous abilities on the field, he was also engaged in social goals later in life. That has made him a model for future generations of sportsmen and women.”

In 1985, still in the player’s lifetime, the Betzenberg Stadium in Kaiserslautern was renamed after him. He said his last wish in life was to watch a game at the 2006 World Cup in the ground that bore his name. But his beloved wife Italia had died earlier that year, and he never got over the loss. At 2:14 on June 17, Fritz Walter, the true icon of German Football, left for his heavenly abode.

Four days later, Germany played USA wearing black armbands, on the following Sunday. 10,000 mourners were present for the funeral service, among them Gyula Grosics and Jeno Buzansky, members of the 1954 Hungary Team.

Four years later, on his death anniversary, USA met  Italy in a World Cup match at “Fritz Walter Stadion”, and a minute of silence was observed  in his memory. People of Alsenborn later built a small museum named “Fritz Walter Haus” in memory of their favourite footballing son.

 (Walter’s boot used in 1954 World Cup)

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References/Influences:

  1. Tor! – By Ulrich Lichtenberger
  2. Das Wunder von Bern 
  3.  Fifa.com/ Classic Players
  4. Fritz Walter – An Obituary by Independent