Matthew Monk


 
Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Book Review: "Tor! The Story of German Football"



    I usually have a problem reading books. All too often I find myself starting a new book, reading the first 50 or 100 pages, then getting bored and moving on to something new. Eventually I will probably come back to it and finish it, but it might be six or even twelve months later. I guess I have the problem that so many of my generation has - I have a poor attention span. Especially if my imagination or interest is not taken straight away.

    But every now and again I find a book that I have to read from cover to cover straight away, something I can't seem to put down. It does not happen all that often. In fact, I can still reel off the titles of books that have done that - Football Against the Enemy; Hand of God; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; Long Walk to Freedom - and now something else, Tor! - The Story of German football, a new book by the German journalist Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger.

    Within its 343 pages, Hesse-Lichtenberger has crafted a tale of immense sadness, a story of riotous victory and destroyed just about every stereotype ever created about German football. For the four days I sat and read this book it was like being back at university, being calmly educated about something I thought I knew a lot, when in fact I knew next to nothing.

    For instance, where else could you find out that every Englishman's stereotypical image of the ultimate German, Rudi Völler - yes him, the man of the grey bubble perm-cum-mullet, the owner of the world's worst moustache, the man who leapt around at the end of the Italia 90 penalty shoot-out in the tightest pair of white tennis shorts in the world - was in fact quite a nice guy, and is sort of a German Gary Lineker? If this book taught me nothing else, it taught me that we have so much to learn about our Teutonic cousins that any attempt of stereotyping is pointless. Forget the fact that they never seem to change, they are always there at the end of almost every major tournament, and forget that they almost always beat England, German football is a whole lot more complicated than that.

    And to his credit, Hesse-Lichtenberger easily makes the story uncomplicated. His book is divided into three natural sections: the primitive years of German football up to the Nazi take-over; the joyous rise from the only team of amateurs to win the World Cup to the professional world of Bayern and Gladbach; and the calamitous descent to the depths of England's 5:1 win. And within each section you are amazed at the amount of things you learn.

    How about another for instance moment? Well forgetting the fact that the 1954 World Champions were amateurs and did not even have a national league to play in - something we all should know, yet few of us actually do - how about the story of Robert Schlienz. Possibly Germany's greatest natural goalscorer ever - yes even better than Gerd Müller - he dominated German football in the immediate post-war years and even inspired Alfredo Di Stefano to say after a friendly against Real a decade after his peak that, "He was the best man on the pitch. I would never have thought it possible that anyone could do what I saw him do." And so why have we not heard of him before? He only had one arm, and German coach Sepp Herberger only ever picked him in friendlies, so that the opposition would not feel too 'inhibited by his disability'.

    Yet regardless of how much Hesse-Lichtenberger loves German football, and relishes in relating its rise to the very pinnacle of the world game, you cannot help feel that he feels slightly embarrassed by it all, and that when he had finished writing his book in March of this year, he was left feeling very down by the sorry state he perceived his national game to be in. The final account of how German international football fell so spectacularly from the glory days of Der Kaiser's victorious return in 1990 is as mournful as could be written. Everything that could have gone wrong for Germany seems to have happened. First Beckenbauer made his famous comment that once West Germany merged with the East, the unified German team would become 'invincible' (that didn't happen), then boring old Berti Vogts took over and stumbled from one loss to another with the same team for eight years. Even the only highlight of the 1990s - Germany's comeback victory at Euro 96 - is essentially a sad story. Within months of inspiring his country back to the heights of play and sportsmanship they were once renowned for, Matthias Sammer suffered a crippling knee injury, and would never play again.

    Could it get worse? You bet, because then Germany had to endure the ignominy of watching their once proud World Champions decimated by England and Portugal's reserve side at Euro 2000. Lowest point reached yet? Not quite, because Germany still had one further rung to fall.

    Into the breach was now supposed to step Christoph Daum, the loudmouth but respected coach of Bayer Leverkusen, and he would surely reinvent German football. Not a chance - he was accused of cocaine use in a newspaper story. When he singularly refused to dismiss the otherwise ignored story the German hierarchy got worried. Eventually he succumbed to pressure and relented to demands to a drug test. When the results came back positive he cried, "This can't be", still in denial to his old friend and business partner. "You need help" was the reply, and Daum disappeared in the middle of the night on a flight to Miami, when he should have been on his way to a press conference announcing the new dawn of German football.

    And that is more or less where the book ends. Of course Hesse-Lichtenberger is too much of a realist, and too good a journalist, not to finish the story without England's demolition job in Munich. For this was the lowest point, not so much the loss, but instead the realisation that for all the previous 90-odd years of progress, Germany was now back where it had been decades before: thrashed 5:1 at home by an English side playing football that seemed generations ahead of them. And how much he must have wished he had waited just three months to finish the book.

    As everyone knows by now, Rudi Völler picked up the remains of that German side, had injury problems upon injury problems, found a job-lot of untried youngsters, and reached the World Cup Final. And don't forget as well that if Marcos had not made that fabulous save to deny Oliver Neuville, Germany would be World Champions today. Now that would have been the perfect place to end the book, because it would have tied up the thread that permeates all the way through - Germany's love affair with one player from each generation, who is lauded wherever he goes, and who comes to sum up football at that time. First there was Fritz Walter, the great survivor of the war and hero of 1954, then Uwe Seeler, then Rudi Völler.

    This is the great beauty of this book - it changes your mind. Growing up as an England fan, Seeler and Völler seemed to be the two most 'German' players that Germany had. They were both always there in the right place at the right time (or wrong time for the English) and both seemed to be able to annoy simply by being there. Hesse-Lichtenberger writes about the shock the German nation felt when it saw Seeler slapped by a Uruguayan in 1966 and Völler spat at by Frank Rijkaard in 1990. Almost all English fans were sat at home cheering the assaults on. And yet, by the time you have read how these two came through, and were so utterly committed to doing the best they could, you see them in a different light. Völler in particular shines through as a working-class boy who just wanted to be half as good as his hero Günter Netzer. And how many of us wanted to do exactly the same when we were growing up?

    Criticisms of the book? Well there are very few, but just occasionally Hesse-Lichtenberger's prose does betray that he is writing in his second language, and once or twice you wonder why some material is included while other parts seem criminally overlooked. But of course that misses the point that this is very much Hesse-Lichtenberger's personal story of German football. He writes early on that he is not trying to analyse anything in this book, wanting to present the bare facts and let the reader make their own minds up. Is this another criticism? Probably, because you want to know what he felt about Bernd Schuster, the man who arrived in Leverkusen for his 'swansong' with five fighting dogs, ten bodyguards, fifteen horses and a soft-porn star for a wife and business manager, but who turned his back on German football when it needed him most. It is quite obvious that Hesse-Lichtenberger is a big Dortmund fan, but again he restricts himself, barely commenting on their European Cup victory while spending page after page documenting Bayern's every move. Just once or twice it would have been good for Hesse-Lichtenberger to have let himself go, and have given us a bit of analysis. Maybe next time.

    So do read this book if you can. I guarantee you will learn a lot, and will change your mind about Germany and it's footballers. The book is published by WSC Books Ltd, in London, and is available for £16.99 (about $25 or 28 euros) from www.wsc.co.uk and www.amazon.co.uk.


 

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