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
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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
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
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