"Our family is from Holland. My ancestors were born in the Netherlands where everything is dull and flat as a pancake. From them, I inherited the feet. A miracle it is not. If one always has to traipse through an area where there is not the smallest hill, you just have to get flat feet!"
Born and raised in Kleve in North West Germany by his German mother and Dutch father, Willi Lippens arrived at Rot-Weiss Essen as a brash 19 year old trialist in the spring of 1965.
Despite a lethargic style and gait more akin to that of a duck (Der Ente - The Duck - was a tag that remained), RWE coach Fritz Pliska admired the VFB Kleve winger’s ability to caress the ball with his - somewhat flat - feet. Ungainly, but tremendously gifted, Lippens was decreed worthy of a playing contract and a transfer fee of 4,000 Deutsche Marks was paid to VFB.
A week before the Regionalliga West season was due to begin in the summer of 1965, recently arrived left winger Franz Fliege suffered an injury which would rule him out of RWE’s season opener; a cup match against Karnap 07. Short of first team players to utilise as a replacement for Fliege, Pliska had little alternative but to consider options from the club’s youth team. Among the group of fresh faced hopefuls was the precocious Lippens.
Training at Essen was proving far more difficult than he could recall from his time with VFB, the hot August sun compounded another exhausting session, but confident in his ability, Willi Lippens knew he would not be out of place in the Regionalliga if selected. “I need you to play left wing this Saturday, are you ready?” enquired coach Pliska following a Friday morning training session with the first team. The request was unusual; Lippens was right footed and had played most of his formative years with VFB as a right winger. Should he point this out? Recognising the knock of opportunity, the youngster didn’t hesitate, "On the left wing? Yes." he replied, innocently.
Pliska’s almost blind faith was rewarded immediately. The right footed Lippens started against Karnap and scored five goals in a resounding 7-1 win, delighting his coach and the Essen support. Having watched his young charge secure a place in RWE’s starting XI for the season opener, Pliska congratulated Lippens on his display and asked if he had ever played as well at Kleve; “Yes,” replied Lippens, “but only on the right wing.”
Twice a week, Lippens hitchhiked from his parents’ home in Kleve to Essen in order to save the DM8.20 travel money he received from RWE. Now a first team regular at the club, Lippens’ reputation in Germany was growing and other clubs were taking an interest in the free scoring wide man. Fuelled by enthusiastic scouting reports, ambitious Armenia Bielfield took the young attacker on trial, but coach Hans Wendtland was unimpressed; “You're not fast enough, your style of running is impossible. You have feet like iron. Go back to Kleve." his damning judgment. In later years Lippens would recall the remarks as critical to his development; a motivational reference point. Content with his lot at Essen, Lippens acknowledged that the familiar turf of RWE’s Georg-Melches Stadion provided grass as green as he could wish for.
Possessing a powerful shot and a potent repertoire of tricks that he would keenly parade at any given opportunity, Lippens’ somewhat lackadaisical approach was gleefully indulged by coaches and team mates alike. For every 70 minutes of apparent unwillingness, twenty of unfettered genius would ensue and goals would flow.
Noted for his sense of humour, Lippens would antagonise rivals on the pitch with a succession of remarks and boasts designed to rile opponents. Former German international Berti Vogts would conclude in later years that the Lippens package of breathtaking skill and provocative commentary made him one of the World Cup winning defender’s most demanding opponents.
Lippens was idolised in Essen and with their talented winger in tow, Rot Weiss enjoyed a period of relative success; spending six of twelve seasons in the Bundesliga. Between 1965 and 1976, ‘Der Ente’ (The Duck) scored an impressive 186 goals in 327 appearances for the club.
By the end of the 1960’s, the right footed left winger with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for goals was, along with Gerd Müller, considered the most dangerous attacker in Germany. Determined to add Lippens to the national roster, West German coach Helmut Schön called him repeatedly, asking the Dutch passport holder to become a fully nationalised German and play for die nationalmannschaft. Lippens declined the requests.
Despite being born in the country and speaking only German, Lippens’ father was adamantly against his son revoking Dutch nationality. During the Second World War, Lippens’ father and several other Dutch immigrants had been regularly forced into a basement and beaten with clubs by officers of the Third Reich after refusing to join the German army. Inevitably his father’s experiences left a lasting anti-German impression which Lippens recalled in his upbringing, “My father truly had hate in him. If there was an international match on television we supported the team who played against Germany.” His inability to recruit Lippens to the German national side remained a regret for Schön, who, when asked about the player in 1969, confirmed; "Lippens has everything - just not the right passport."
With the call to join a rapidly improving German national side proving resistible, Netherlands coach František Fadrhonc sensed an opportunity. Acknowledging Lippens’ popularity in Germany, and with one eye on the 1974 World Cup that would be played there, Fadrhonc called Lippens into the Dutch squad in 1970. “If we play in Germany, our popularity will grow if we have Lippens in the team,” stated Fadrhonc when discussing his latest selection, “I have informed the players about it, and all were in agreement.”
Fadrhonc’s claim of union within a perpetually fractious Dutch squad was unfounded. Despite scoring on his debut for the Oranje in a 6-0 win over Luxembourg, the transition to international football was not a pleasant experience for the German speaking winger. “I ran up and down, but the other players ignored me” he professed to the German media after the game.
With a degree of solidarity for midfielder Theo Pahlplatz, whose place was under threat from Lippens, several Dutch players, notably Feyernoord’s Willem van Hanegram (who confirmed in 1974, "I don't like Germans. Every time I played against German players, I had a problem because of the war."), refused to pass the ball to the newly capped winger. "I found it very bad that I was not accepted as a Dutchman. Van Hanegem was the worst" Lippens would later reflect.
The coach journey back to Amsterdam was equally unpleasant. As the driver tuned the radio to a German station, he was immediately barracked from one of the passengers; "Turn off the Nazi radio station!" The order had come from Rinus Israel. Lippens turned to confront the Feyernoord defender, a close friend of van Hanegram, and asked what his problem was, "You’re half German" Israel’s reply.
With his German roots an insurmountable issue for some, and despite Fadrhonc’s keenness to flank Johan Cruyff with Lippens and Ajax’s Piet Keizer, the Dutch coach relented to dressing room pressure and Lippens’ services were never called upon by the Netherlands again. A single goal from a single appearance was to prove Lippens only mark on the international stage.
The international setback appeared to have little impact on Lippens’ domestic form. He continued to score regularly for Rot Weiss, but an element of regret remained. Discussing the 1974 World Cup Final between Holland and West Germany in 2008, Lippens remained forthright; “Although Rensenbrink (Holland’s left winger at the tournament) was injured, he went to the finals. I was better than Rensenbrink, dangerous in front of goal, and, above all, I felt glee,” he offered, before stating, “If the Netherlands had selected me they would have become champions.”
After three consecutive years in the Bundesliga, Rot Weiss Essen were relegated from the top flight for the third time in Lippens’ career with them in 1976. Now 31 and having shunned a succession of offers to play elsewhere, including a proposed move to Johan Cruyff’s Ajax, Lippens transferred to newly promoted Borussia Dortmund where he would stay for three years before agreeing a short deal to partake in the NASL with Dallas Tornadoes.
Lippens returned to Rot Weiss Essen in 1979 and found his beloved team in the third tier of German football and clearly in need of a lift. The 34 year old was unable to prompt a revival at the club, who have continued to stutter since Lippens heyday in the early seventies, but it didn’t matter. Lippens scored regularly, and, as he had throughout his career, entertained crowds with his array of tricks and skills.
Unable to quite recapture former glories, but still capable of making his adoring public smile, Willi Lippens proclaimed in 1980; “I am not the messiah, I am just a footballer.”
To the fans of Rot Weiss Essen, his statement could not be further from the truth.
Jeff is site editor for IBWM and would like to pass on his thanks to the staff at Reviersport for their help on this. You can find Jeff on Twitter @IBWMJeff.