Forgotten Trinkets – The Legend of Breslau-XI

In the second episode of this series, Subhodip Basu follows the fortunes of the German national team through the late 30s


The Bloom in Defeat

Football in Germany, though immensely popular from the turn of the 20th century, took time to reach world-class levels. This was not helped by the virtual ostracising of Germany from international sport post World War I. It was also not amongst Adolf Hitler’s favourite sporting disciplines, allegedly due to its English origins and professional stature. The prevailing German zeitgeist was more aligned to participative and amateur disciplines. Sport was considered a tool for physical development and character building, and Gymnastics sat at the centre of this line of thinking, widely promoted by the Nazi hierarchy as well.


.To make things worse, Germany suffered a defeat to lowly Norway in the Berlin Olympics, with Hitler watching. This was unpardonable, especially in an event which was used as a propaganda tool. Hence, off went Otto Nerz, the German trainer, to be replaced by his protégé Sepp Herberger. Fortunately, along with Nerz, German football’s obsession with English style of play also came to a happy end and a football philosophy inspired by a bunch of footballers with highly left wing backgrounds from Gelsenkirchen took shape in a right wing Third Reich.

Sepp, of course, was a man with no real political alignment. He understood and lived just one thing, football. Thus began the most attractive phase in German football {till the (Franz) Beckenbauer and (Günter) Netzer inspired 1972 team} under Sepp, who in later years became an embodiment of the German ‘functional’ style of football. What’s more, it was made possible by a team which was almost entirely crafted by Nerz himself.

 Making of the Legend

On the afternoon of May 16, 1937, Germany took on a decent Denmark team in Breslau (now Wroclow in Poland). After an opening goal by Ernst Lehner, a stunning volley, Otto Siffling scored five in 32 minutes, a sort of record in amatch between two established footballing nations. Left wing Adolf Urban scored the seventh and sentimental favourite Fritz Szepan rounded off the tally. The legend of Breslau-Elf (Breslau eleven) was born. The team went on to win 10 of 11 matches, the most successful run by any European team against continental opposition in that decade. It was too good to last.

Breslau Elf before the Denmark Match, 16.05.1937

What made the Breslau-Elf different? For one, they completely abandoned the traditional English obsession of German teams and adopted a more fluid and skill- intensive strategy. The strategy itself was a mesh of the Austro/Danubian passing game, fondly named as ’Schieberl’ and the ’Kreisel’ or ’Spinning Top’ tactics by Schalke 04. Schalke 04 was the strongest German club at the time, winning five titles in 7 years. Their key inspiration was the duo of Fritz Szepan and Ernest Kuzorra. Herberger built his forward line around the Schalke 04 players, with three of them –Rudolf Gellesch, Urban and Szepan playing together in most matches. It also gave a fresh lease of life to Szepan himself, who was known to underperform internationally. Kuzorra, the genius, was sadly considered too old. However, trouble was on the horizon.

 The Destruction in Victory

In early 1938, Germany annexed Austria under Fuhrer’s ‘recommended’ policy of Anschluss. Part of the package was a visible display of solidarity with annexed territories. Hence, Herberger was ‘advised’ that the national team should have five or six Austrians with the balance being German. It was a strategy doomed for disaster.

The omens were borne out in April ’38, in the last ’official’ game between Germany and Austria. After a boring first half, where the players were allegedly asked not to score, the Austrians broke free with goals by Karl Sesta and Matthias Sindelar. Sindelar, no lover of anything German, and arguably the greatest player of his generation, followed up his goal with a victory jig in front of the Nazi box for good measure. Herberger was harbouring no illusions.

However, this was still Nazi Germany and he was just the Geschäftsführer (manager), not the Führer himself. He duly obliged in the opening game of the 1938 World Cup against Switzerland. Although the first game was drawn, there was inevitability about the ultimate result. The Austrians would not pass the Germans and perhaps even rejoiced the loss in private. The Germans, long tired of the big headedness of the Austrians, and perhaps even peeved that their high performing team had been broken up, would be no angels either. So Switzerland, the perfect opponent, both politically, due to their neutral stance, and in football terms, as the Germans hardly lost to them, ended up eliminating them in replay. This remains the worst German performance in a World Cup.

 The Players

Like all great teams, they had both class and depth in each position. Hans Jakob who typically kept goal, was a worthy successor to Fritz Herkenrath. Jakob kept 11 clean sheets in his 38 games, not a mean feat in those days, with Germany having just eight defeats in those games. Rudolf Raftl was an able ally.

In defence, there was Paul Janes, Germany’s best defender before Beckenbauer, and perhaps the best full-back in his era. Unlike his contemporaries, he was an outstanding dead ball shooter who frequently scored. Janes formed a very effective partnership with Reinhold Munzenburg, who was equally at ease at both full-back and centre-half and was one of the best athletes amongst footballers in his era.

Paul Janes, Germany’s best defender before Beckenbauer

At half-back, were the Schweinfurt twins, Andreas Kupfer and Albin Kitzinger. Kupfer was the more elegant of the two while latter was a box-to-box dynamo. Between them was Ludwig Goldbrunner, the first Bayern superstar. Rudi Gramlich, their captain in 1936, was a skilful half-back who perhaps bore the brunt of the Olympic disaster. All defenders and half-backs were frequently chosen in representative teams for Europe, though due to politics of the time, they rarely participated.

For most of the 30s, their best forward was Ernst Lehner, extremely fast, modern winger of his time with a great goal-scoring record. He was often referred to as the best amateur player in Europe. On the left side there was equally prolific Adolf Urban, of Schalke 04. Urban was soon to be drafted and died a lonely death like many of his comrades, in Russia.

The classy Kuzorra missed out on the Breslau-Elf stretch of 10 wins but was picked off and on till ’38 while continuing to shine for Schalke 04. He was still there to take Schalke 04 to their customary national title even in 1940. His brother-in-law Fritz Szepan, was arguably Germany’s greatest player before the war and one of the global greats of all time. Szepan was versatile enough to play more than 20 internationals as a centre-half. He was at his best, however, at inside-left. The other inside was another Schalke 04 man,Gellesch.

The team had a surplus of classy strikers. There was Otto Siffling of Mannheim, a mobile inside-forward who abhorred physical play. Tragically he died within two years of his 5-goal performance, of pleurisy, when just 27. Josef Gauchel was slightly older and a more classical no. 9 than Siffling but with an equally good strike rate. There was also, Karl Hohmann, the third high-scoring forward who perhaps lost his place to Siffling. Edmund Conen, their top-scorer in 1934 World Cup, played off and on till 1940.

 Until Better Days

Despite the crushing defeat in 1938, Herberger thankfully remained at the helm. Also, with Austrian clubs getting more success in the unified national championships, the tensions between the two sets of players were beginning to reduce to a more manageable level. So, skilful Austrians like inside Wilhelm Hahnemann, winger Hans Pesser, full-back Sesta and most notably the legendary Franz Binder (of the 1000-goal fame) began to form the core of the German team. However, Germany mostly played weaker football nations as the established powers were beginning to shun sporting contact with Germany. So the strength of the team remained untested post the ’38 World Cup.

As the new decade kicked in, the trickle of football players to the army turned to a torrent. Herberger, a football man through and through, tried his best to keep a tab of his stars and by some accounts even succeeded in influencing the authorities to keep some from the deadly eastern front. Within this mayhem, two fresh high-scoring inside-forwards debuted and managed to play a clutch of games before being drafted. One, a classy thinking ballplayer from an aristocratic family in Dresden, called Helmut Schoen, who scored 16 goals in seventeen games. The other, a proletarian from Kaiserslautern, called Fritz Walter. Between them and Herberger himself, they introduced such an era of consistent German dominance that the Breslau-Elf soon faded as a forgotten relic in German conscience.