WORDS: LAYTH YOUSIF
This is a story about a man who not only survived the Second World War, but who played the game of his life in order to save his life in a prisoner-of-war camp. Nine years after Fritz Walter’s ability had saved him from near-certain death in a Siberian gulag, he would go on to win the World Cup…
In 2004, to celebrate its Golden Jubilee, UEFA asked each national Football Association to nominate a single player who was deemed to be their most outstanding talent of the previous 50 years.
England chose Bobby Moore, Scotland picked Denis Law, Johan Cruyff was the Dutch choice and Dino Zoff represented the Italians.
But who did the Germans select? Seeler? Muller? Netzer? Breitner? Beckenbauer? Rummenigge? Matthaeus? Klinsmann? No. The player the Germans elected was Fritz Walter. You might be forgiven if you haven’t heard of him.
Walter was born in Kaiserslautern, in the south-west of Germany, in 1920. It is fitting that the coat of arms of the city of Kaiserslautern bears a fish on it, for no German footballer has been so influenced by wasser, and rain in particular, as Fritz. But more on that later.
The renowned football writer Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger stated: “German football history [cannot] be written without a large dose of grief.” So we must start, as most German stories from the 1940s must, with the war. As the Bletchley Park code-breakers were deciphering Adolf Hitler’s plans for the Battle of Britain in July 1940, a 19 year-old Walter was making his debut as centre-forward for the German national team against Romania. They won 9-3, with young Fritz scoring a hat-trick, and their hoary old manager, Sepp Herberger, told him: “You didn’t disappoint me. You can come again.”
However, as Germany incessantly attacked Europe, Walter was called up for the Reich’s armed forces, the Wehrmacht. Throughout the next two years, from 1940-42, Walter marched through France and various islands in the Mediterranean. It was during one such trip that he contracted malaria, a debilitating disease that could have led to death if not treated quickly. Fritz received treatment but, curiously, the aftershocks of the malarial trauma, which rendered him highly vulnerable to muscular fatigue and pain, only struck during hot weather.
Fritz continued to play for the German national side, while the wily manager, Herberger, as his biographer stated, “feinted, wooed and plotted to guarantee some sort of shelter for the protection and nurturing of the football genius [Walter] amid the increasingly menacing turmoil of war.”
Called back from the front in May 1942, the lad from Kaiserslautern played the game of his life in more ways than one. Although many of the matches the Germans played were meaningless, against frightened players of occupied nations, and were only useful for war propaganda purposes, to lose was seen as a public relations disaster. To a country that was fighting on two fronts, every available man was needed: the repercussions of a loss may have had fatal consequences for those involved in an unexpected defeat.
So it was that, at half-time in Budapest on May 3rd 1942, Germany, with Fritz at centre-forward, were losing 3-1 to their allies Hungary. “Don’t let this become a catastrophe”, a visibly shaken Herberger cautioned his team during the break. With Fritz leading the way, Germany eventually won the game 5-3. Thankfully for Walter that day, at least one Hungarian in the crowd would never forget his performance.
Walter spent 1943/44 playing for the football team of the Red Fighter Pilots, led by the enigmatic Major Herman Graf, a Luftwaffe ace (Graf, at great risk to himself, also helped Jews escape to neutral Switzerland as a pre-war clerk). It is worth noting that, as a football-mad teenager, Graf was also coached by Herberger. Were strings pulled by their manager and mutual friend so that Fritz could survive, and once again play for Germany after their forthcoming defeat?
Whatever the machinations, by January 1945, the Russian Red Army were on the march towards Berlin. Walter recalled later that he thought Major Graf was going to abandon his boys and leave them to an uncertain fate against the men from the East. Yet, Graf stood by his troops, proclaiming, “We will destroy the planes that are left, and we’ll all be taken prisoner together.” Walter never forgot Graf’s bravery. It was just as well; he needed some for himself.
40,000 German prisoners of war were captured by the Russians at the start of 1945 (including Walter and Graf). They were headed to Siberia and what was likely to be a pitiful death in sub-zero temperatures.
However, the people of Kaiserslautern and its environs are known in Germany to be particularly phlegmatic. Walter was no exception. He must have known that he was facing impending death, yet through his obsession with football he still looked for opportunities to play. Then, during a stop-off on the way to Siberia, Walter watched the guards kicking a ball around.
Budapest 1942 had been, until that moment, the game of Walter’s life. But the game between the Guards and the Prisoners in Maramarossziget, Romania, amidst the freezing winter of 1945, was to prove the most important football match he would ever play in. Unsure of what to do, Walter watched the initial stages of the game, helpless, from the touchline. Was it fate that the ball was hoofed towards him? Quickly he passed the ball back, and sensing a fellow football lover, the Prisoners team asked him if he wanted to play. He agreed.
What happened next was simply extraordinary as, during the half-time break, one of the Hungarian guards on the opposition side whispered in Fritz’s ear: “I know you.”
Fritz froze, fearing the worst, and then the guard spoke again: “Hungary v Germany in Budapest, 1942. You won 5-3.”
The next day, Walter’s name had mysteriously vanished from the list heading to the Siberian death camp. Football had saved his life.
Walter eventually returned home to his beloved but war-ravaged Kaiserslautern. With the conflict over, he spearheaded his hometown team to their first German Championship in 1951, and then to another in 1953, before achieving two second-place finishes in 1954 and 1955. He was so influential that the team became known as Walter’s XI. In 1985, Kaiserslautern’s stadium was renamed Fritz Walter Stadion in veneration.
But his story doesn’t end there.
In the decade after they were defeated, Germany was still recovering from the damage and distress of fighting a losing war. Yet the West Germans managed to qualify for the 1954 World Cup, to be held in Switzerland, where they would be led by the indestructible Herberger. The clear favourites were the Mighty Magyars of Hungary, captained by Ferenc Puskas. So dominant were they at the start of the tournament that they actually thrashed West Germany 8-3 in the group stages.
Somehow, Walter and his team battled their way through to the final, where they would once again meet the Hungarians, in Berne, the Swiss capital.
It is dawn on Sunday, 4th July – the day of the 1954 World Cup Final. Walter draws his curtains and looks out. To his utter consternation, it is clear and bright, intimating a hot day. The 34-year-old veteran sadly shuts them, and returns to bed concerned about the forthcoming heat precipitating muscle fatigue from the malaria he suffered. He is inconsolable.
However, at noon he is woken by his teammates cheerfully shouting, “It’s raining, it’s raining!” For, as everyone knows, when it rains Fritz Walter plays well.
Walter does indeed play well. Just not at first. After eight minutes, the Germans find themselves 2-0 down, but recalling how he fought back against the Hungarians in 1943, Fritz rallies his team. At 2-2, with six minutes left to play, Helmut ‘Der Boss’ Rahn volleys the ball into the net and West German radio commentator, Herbert Zimmermann, screams a line that will become every bit as famous in Germany as Kenneth Wolstenholme’s 1966 punchline would in England.
“Tor! Tor! Tor! Tor!” he proclaims, repeating the German word for ‘goal’ over and over. “Germany leads 3-2… call me mad, call me crazy!”
Some people will date the start of the German Economic Miracle to this day, forever known as the ‘Miracle of Berne’. The new Germany finally has something to be proud of. Nine years on from playing for his life, Fritz Walter – the ‘Hero of Berne’ – has won the World Cup.
Walter would always become emotional about 1954. On his 80th birthday, German TV broadcast the match in tribute. Walter cried unashamedly, saying: “I still have goose-bumps watching it.”
To this day, steady rain in Germany is known as ‘Fritz Walter Weather’ in his honour.
Postscript: Fritz Walter died, aged 81, in June 2002. His greatest wish had been to see a World Cup match played at his beloved Kaiserslautern’s ground at the 2006 World Cup. On the fourth anniversary of his death, a minute’s silence was held with the deepest respect, at the Fritz Walter Stadion, ahead of Italy v USA at the 2006 World Cup. He would have smiled at the irony of the game being played in a heatwave.