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
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’.
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.
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)
- Tor! – By Ulrich Lichtenberger
- Das Wunder von Bern
- Fifa.com/ Classic Players
- Fritz Walter – An Obituary by Independent