The phenomenon of association football had already swept through the United Kingdom and some parts of South America at the start of the twentieth century. The English influence had made a crucial impact in the development of the game globally and British clubs were considered the benchmark. However while most British clubs which were founded for football only, German sports clubs were involved in a host of different activities; in particular, gymnastics.
In the mid-1800s, gymnastics was used as a tool for “Muscular Christianity” within the population to develop strong characteristics and create the perfect man through a healthy body and mind. The explosion of association football came towards the end of the 1800s with some British influences credited for the rise of the early German game. Naturally, those in the north of Germany – such as Hamburg, Bremen and Lower Saxony – were the first to trial the new game.
By the 1900s, football had become increasingly popular across Germany with many schools and colleges now seeing the sport as a ‘fashionable’ leisure activity when it had faced stiff opposition in the previous century.
One of Germany’s most traditional clubs is 1.FC Kaiserslautern from the Rhineland-Palatine region in the southwest of the country. In their early years, FCK were involved in the Westkreis-Liga and became just the second team to win that division in 1909 before the structure was disbanded in 1918.
But one of the club’s famous sons is celebrated as a legend of German Football after playing a crucial role in the country’s first ever World Cup win in 1954 – securing the term “The Hero of Berne”.
Fritz Walter was part of the Kaiserslautern Football Academy in his teenage years and made his debut as a 17-year-old in 1937, creating a lasting relationship between player and club that would survive the Second World War. His first chance at wearing the famous White-and-Black national shirt under Sepp Herberger came in 1940, in a friendly against Romania where he scored three goals in a 9-3 win.
Walter’s early career as a footballer was disrupted by the Second World War when he was signed up to the Wermacht and the promising athlete would soon be deployed to France and Southern Italy. In the last few months of conflict, Walter was captured by the rampant Russian forces and his footballing abilities saved him from being transferred to a horrific POW camp in Siberia.
But during that time in the Armed Forces, Walter became a prominent part in the DFB-elf under Herberger playing an incredible 23 matches for the national team during the war years. He would eventually go on to play 61 official matches for the German international team, scoring 33 goals.
His club career continued after the conflict – despite contracting Malaria during his time in Eastern Europe – with Kaiserslautern becoming one of the most successful teams in the years after 1945. Walter and his brother Ottmar scored 46 goals between them in the 1947 season, and the club soon became the dominant force in the newly-structured Oberliga Südwest with eleven domestic championships in twelve seasons.
And then came the 1954 World Cup, the moment that some say united Germany after the fall of the Nazi regime.
The German national team was in chaos. Their long-serving coach Herberger was under intense criticism and was generally mocked amongst the media and supporters. At the age of 34, Walter was the heartbeat of the World Cup squad – in a football sense – but as a person he was a quiet figure, who was rarely keen to be in the limelight, with a sensitive temperament. The German team needed a presence alongside their star man, which is why Herberger decided to pair Walter with Helmut Rahn, the loudest and most self-confident player in the squad.
It was sensible management from the much-criticised Herberger as the 1954 squad produced a stunning revival in the competition to shrug off an 8-3 defeat to the famous Hungary side in the opening round. The two teams would meet again in the final of the tournament in Berne with Hungary leading 2-0 after just 10 minutes. The German team-spirit would become famous for decades to come with the nationalmannschaft pulling the score back to 2-2 before Rahn smacked home a stunning goal in the later stages of the game.
Legends and celebrities were made. From the coach, to the players and to the famous commentary of the final in Switzerland.
The German game in the present era is renowned across Europe for its strict financial regulations and has become the perfect model for other top leagues in the continent to follow. But German clubs and players have always been prudent financially. Despite his new found fame, Walter refused to move abroad; the Kaiserslautern star preferring to remain in the largely ‘amateur’ game, as opposed, to heading to bordering countries Switzerland and Italy in the wake of Germany’s sensational World Cup win.
Instead, Walter was handed enough incentives to remain in the country and was handed a loan to start his own business whilst still playing his football with FCK. The Red Devils legend was offered bumper contracts at Atletico Madrid, Paris FC and Inter Milan amongst others, but carried on his stunning international achievements into his club career at the Betzenberg with Kaiserslautern becoming champions of the South-west league five years on the spin from 1953-1957. In total, Walter went on to score 327 goals in 384 matches for the club.
The legacy of Fritz Walter will always remain in German Football with Kaiserslautern in awe of their hero – naming the Betzenberg the “Fritz-Walter-Stadion” and the player becoming a UEFA Golden Player in 2003, just a year after his death at the age of 81.