By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (November 30, 2006) — Why have the Germans — by their own admission not the most talented soccer players — achieved success more consistently than any other nation since World War II?
The easy answer is that they always play as a team and never concede that any match is a lost cause. But the ease of the answer begs the question. Every coach tells his players not be complacent if they’re leading and not to give up if they’re trailing, not be overawed by an opponent or to take them too lightly, and to concentrate and play unselfishly for 90 minutes. What separates the Germans is their unparalleled ability to translate slogans into results.
They have not won the World Cup as many times as the Brazilians, but they have never failed to progress as least as far as the quarterfinals since World War II and they only lost one World Cup qualifier, to Portugal in 1985, before England trounced them 5-1 in 2001. Even that setback, with it all indicated about the relative lack of quality in the side, didn’t deter them from regrouping and reaching the World Cup final the following year.
The Germans never exhibited this kind of character before World War II. They made it as far as the semifinal in 1934 World Cup, at which point the Czechs dispatched them 3-1, but were eliminated in the first-round by Switzerland in 1938. FIFA did not allow them to participate in 1950, but their 3-2 win over Hungary in 1954 to win the World Cup rejuvenated their self-belief and national spirit after entering the tournament impoverished and humiliated, and feeling grateful for having been granted the right to even participate.
The manager of the team, both before and after the War, was Sepp Herberger, a small man who, it was said, lacked perspective. He was fanatically committed to the success of the national team. He introduced a lot of slogans that are now entrenched in the German mindset such as, “The game lasts 90 minutes” and “After the game is before the game.” He believed achieving success was equal parts skill, togetherness, and luck.
He might have added cunning and preparation.
West Germany’s first round group also included Turkey, South Korea, and Hungary. They beat Turkey 4-1 in their first match, but Herberger decided to rest eight players for their second match against Hungary. The Hungarians were the clear favorites to win the tournament. They had not lost a match in four years and had recently become the first foreign team to beat England on home soil. In case anyone imagined that the 6-3 win at Wembley was a fluke, Hungary handed them a 7-1 beating in Budapest. Hungary was led by the recently-deceased Ferenc Puskas, whose left foot was so formidable that Alfredo di Stefano once remarked, “He controls the ball better with his left leg than I do my hand.”
The West Germans lost 8-3 (which led one paper to opine that, “It seemed the time had come to hang the treacherous coach Herberger from an apple tree.”) but Herberger wanted to save his players for their third match, a replay against Turkey. The subsequent 7-2 triumph justified his decision, but two other benefits came from resting most of his starters. Helmut Rahn played really well on the right wing, which convinced Herberger to start him come the quarterfinals, and the 8-3 scoreline might have lulled the Hungarians into complacency.
What’s more, after the result of the match was no longer in doubt, Werner Liebrich injured Puskas with a tackle that even some in the German press condemned: “The meanest deed was done by the rough Liebrich,” claimed Die Welt. “He took revenge on this wonderful player only because Puskas was the better man. Liebrich should never again be selected for the national team. He harms us more than ten defeats.”
Not surprisingly, Herberger ignored these protests and played him right through the final, which Germany reached by beating Yugoslavia 2-0 in the quarterfinal and highly-rated Austria 6-1 in the semifinal. Puskas did not play in Hungary’s next two matches — 4-2 wins over violent Brazil and Uruguay after extra-time. Hungary had played well without him — in fact, many old-timers consider the semifinal against Uruguay the best ever played — but he talked his way back into the starting lineup for the final.
The Germans had grown in confidence since the first match, but few felt that they had a chance of upsetting the team that was alternatively referred to as the Magnificent Magyars or the Golden Team. Herbert Zimmerman, who provided the radio commentary for millions of Germans, began his broadcast by cautioning his listeners: “This is a proud day. Let’s not be so presumptuous it has to end successfully.”
They did, however, have one secret weapon at their disposal: Adi Dassler. The man who co-founded Adidas gave the players shoes with screwable studs, which no doubt helped them adapt better to the rainy weather conditions.
It’s hard to say how much their improved footing or Puskas’s injury mattered. What we do know is that the Hungarians were up 2-0 within eight minutes. Puskas scored off a rebound and the German defense gifted Zoltan Czibor the second. Such a disastrous start coming on the heels of an 8-3 drubbing, against a team that had not lost in four years, would have done in most teams, but Fritz Walter, the team’s playmaker, told his teammates, “Don’t worry. Always remember what Sepp keeps saying, ‘When the 90 minutes are over, then we will do the accounts.'” And captain Max Morlock simply said, “Now let’s show them!”
It took all of two minutes for Morlock to score, after a failed clearance by the Hungarians. “Thank God, it’s no longer 2-0,” Zimmerman sighed. The Germans now clearly had the upper hand and Rahn justified Herberger’s faith in him by stabbing in a corner to the back post. This shocked the Hungarians. Nandor Hidegkuti hit the inside the post and Sandor Kocsis nicknamed Golden Head, forced German keeper Toni Turek to make such a good save that Zimmerman was moved to exclaim, “Toni, you’re a football god!”
The Germans had their moments, with Walter creating and Rahn threatening to score whenever he cut in from the right, but the Hungarians had so many chances that Zimmerman started thanking God and talking of miracles. The Hungarians hit the woodwork twice more, Werner Kohlmeyer had to clear his own line, and Turek saved point blank from Puskas, twice.
The Germans weathered the onslaught and the momentum gradually shifted. Zimmerman began to use words like “believe” after Rahn used his left foot to force the Hungarian keeper Gyula Grossics into a save at his near post. With six minutes left, Rahn retrieved a failed clearance and faked right to create space to shoot with his left and this time his shot to the far post beat Grossics so completely that Zimmerman started shouting “Goal” over and over before the ball reached the net. Rahn felt, he later recalled, well, “helpless. I felt a mountain of bodies on top of me. I almost suffocated. ‘Let me live’, I wailed. ‘Let me live’.”
The Hungarians were not done yet. Puskas scored, but he was controversially called offside, and Turek had to make one last point blank save from Czibor before the whistle blew. When it did, Zimmerman shouted “It’s over! It’s over! It’s over! It’s over! The game is over!” with so much gusto that a Brazilian announcer would have blushed.
The stoic, taciturn Germans went out of their collective minds, to a degree. The team train was mobbed everywhere it stopped, they were credited with rekindling the nation’s spirit, and an album of Zimmerman’s broadcast was a best seller. On the other hand, Zimmerman was chided for confusing Turek with God and the press warned against excessive nationalism. “Well, now, celebrate the players,” argued one paper, “but let’s become sober again: the game is over, and it was just a game … What kind of enthusiasm will we have left in store when the reunification of Germany occurs, or world peace breaks out?”
Zimmerman’s emotional outburst occurred because West Germany was at a unique juncture in its history — the nation was down and the soccer team had been all but counted out. But, given their recent catastrophic excesses, Herberger’s men’s achievement, however uplifting, had to be kept in perspective. There was no room for complacency, and certainly not for arrogance. Their country could recover, if they worked together and stayed humble.