Friday, July 11, 2014

And Now For Some German Backstory

I suppose it's Germany's turn today, then. They have a much happier memory of World Cup triumph that has off-the-field effects.

Going into the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, Germany was still recovering, physically and emotionally, from World War 2. Everywhere they looked in life, there was death, rubble, shame, scorn. It was barely even living as opposed to existing. They, along with Italy and Germany, had not even been permitted to attend the 1948 Olympics in London, and along with Japan were banned from attempting to qualify for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. They were allowed back for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, but came away without a single gold medal, compared to the Games-lead 33 they picked up as hosts in Berlin. The hopes for the 1954 World Cup were thus muted, especially as the nation had by then split into not only West and East Germany, but also a small short-lived nation called the Saar protectorate, administered by France until 1957.

West Germany didn't have to do much to qualify, just win a three-team group against Norway and, as luck would have it, the Saar protectorate. This was not hard, even for postwar Germany. Saar had a tiny talent pool and was just as wrecked as they were, and Norway was a terrible soccer nation at that time. Three wins and a draw (against Norway in Oslo) later, West Germany was qualified.

The Cup that year was set up rather strangely. In each group, there were to be two 'seeded' teams and two 'unseeded' teams. Instead of the round-robin we know today, in 1954 the matches would all be seeded vs. unseeded. A tie in points would end in a playoff game between the tied teams. In West Germany's case, they were quite understandably unseeded, along with groupmate South Korea, who turned out to be there just to make up the numbers, with their squad taken from military clubs who had just gotten done fighting the Korean War; all they had to do to get in was win a two-legged tie with postwar Japan. The seeded teams were Turkey... and Hungary's Magical Magyars, one of the candidates for greatest national team of all time.

Hungary got in after their qualifying opponent, Poland, withdrew for obvious reasons. Only Turkey had any real trouble: their opponent was the much stronger Spain, who the organizers had seeded before they even knew the makeup of the field. Turkey persevered, though, and managed to take things not only past a two-legged tie, but also a third playoff game. Qualifying came down to drawing of lots, which went in Turkey's favor.

So West Germany got to face Turkey instead of Spain. Hungary, predictably, slaughtered them 8-3, but the Germans had little trouble with Turkey, beating them 4-1... and then beating them again in a playoff 7-2 once the two came out tied in the group.

Two more Europeans awaited them in the knockouts, Yugoslavia in the quarters, dispatched 2-0, and Austria in the semis, eliminated 6-1. There was a reason the tournament was in Switzerland; being neutral and relatively untouched by the war, they were basically the only European nation who was a viable host at that point. Germany was devastated, but then, everybody else was recovering too. And they did still know how to play soccer; they'd come in third in 1934.

Hungary awaited them again in the final.

Let it be noted that Germany's team was made up entirely of amateurs, and the Bundesliga wouldn't be created for nearly another decade. But that was largely due to circumstances; after all, occupying Allied forces weren't exactly keen on seeing anyone in Germany organize in any way, shape or form, and who in Germany had money to pay soccer players? They mostly came from clubs that would be recognizable today- Bayern Munich, Hamburger SV, Eintracht Frankfurt, FC Schalke 04- and the 8-3 loss to Hungary came partly from Sepp Herberger sending in his B squad in the group stage; they'd already gotten the first win against Turkey and were sure they could do it again, and Herberger didn't feel like giving the Hungarians a free scouting report. This time, though, out went the A team.

It helped that Hungarian star Ferenc Puskas, who had missed two earlier games due to injury, was not yet 100%, and that it happened to be raining that day, which seemed to be the preferred weather of German captain Fritz Walter, to the point where rainy conditions are to this day known as 'Fritz Walter weather' in Germany.

This is where it irritates me that there's no good video of the game narrated in English. So here's one that at least has an English subtitling (which I'll tell you right now doesn't match up to the narrator.) West Germany's in the white shirts, Hungary is in red which shows up on the video as black because this is black-and-white.

It may have just been a game. For West Germany, for whom this was their first title, it didn't matter. It was something. Anything. Anything to give them a sense of pride again, of joy, of hope. It was something to let them know life might get better. The 1954 final is when the healing truly began, and there are honest-to-goodness academic papers, from out of Germany, that will back up that assertion.

2014 doesn't have quite those stakes, but there are some. Even though it would be their fourth title, it would be their first as a unified nation. It's not going to make East Germany magically heal any more than it already has post-Berlin Wall, but it would give them a title of their own to celebrate, which isn't nothing.

After all, it's not like winning the 3rd-place match is going to make Brazil heal any.

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