Roger MacDonaldComment


Roger MacDonaldComment

Despite struggling so hard to reach the World Cup finals, West Germany present a serious obstacle to England's prospects and progress.

The "fixing" of the draw indicates a quarter-final clash between the two Nordic nations, who have already arranged to meet this month in a Wembley friendly.  The Germans' rapid improvement arises from two factors; the ascendancy of new coach Helmut Schön, and the success of their new National League. 

Schön, 50, existed so long in the shadow of the legendary Sepp Herberger, that one wondered unkindly if the marionette could dance without someone to work the strings. After all, like Alf Ramsey, he made an inauspicious beginning; Germany losing 3--4 at home to Czechoslovakia In his first match. In fact, their only victories in seven games were against Finland and Cyprus, scarcely the Mecca of a World Cup pilgrimage.           

But if the results gave cause for pessimism, Schön hid it well.  Always ready with a quote and a smile, he made dropped stars feel they were a worthy sacrifice to the gods. He breathed energy and enthusiasm, he tuned in neatly to the players' wavelength.  Uncle Sepp helped him - by staying silent. He refused to be sucked back into the whirlpool of speculation about his successor's talents and prospects. When he did voice a tiny criticism, about Schön's gamble on five new caps against Austria (4-1), Germany had already qualified and Schön was almost a national hero.   

The crunch came at the end of September when West Germany beat Sweden at Stockholm for a place in the last 16. The magnitude of this task could be seen in the statistics - six victories over Sweden in 19 matches, not one in Stockholm since 1911.

Schön's main problem lay in the selection of Uwe Seeler, in and out of action for a year with a troublesome achilles tendon.  Seeler made a remarkable recovery from a close-season operation, and pleaded with him for hours to be allowed to play.  Some of his team-mates added their own, almost pathological pleas - more than enough for Schön to realise that Germany's morale depended on Seeler's presence, even if not fully fit. So Seeler played, with special protection of his heel, and scored a splendid winning goal in an otherwise abysmal match. 

Touching the usual level of football criticism, Germany's reporters turned Schön from a potential mug into a potential magician overnight. No one bothered to speculate on what would have happened if Sweden could have fielded Agne Simonson and Roger Magnusson.    But Schön, at least, was under no delusions. Released from the World Cup straitjacket, in which victory was vital, its manner secondary, he made bold and fruitful experiments.  I liked, particularly, the use of Meiderich's Kramer, nominally a clever ball-playing inside-right, on the wing - the extra space has done wonders for his confidence.  Now that he has recovered from a severe knee injury, Kramer can easily be a match winner. 

In midfield Germany's manager seems to have settled for Weber of Cologne, who played on in agony against Liverpool in last season's European Cup, despite a broken toe. Weber’s courage and stamina can probably "carry" Friedhelm Konietzka, who might be described as a luxurious necessity.  Konietzka is the key forward in Borussia Dortmund's team, slightly built, but with brilliant footwork. You won't find him chasing passes or risking hard tackles, but he lays on many goals, and scores some beauties himself. 

But Germany could never base their team on finesse. Schön is well aware that it is essentially fast, physical, fearless players who have brought them one world crown, and twice within sight of another. It is the Seelers and the Syzmaniaks who make the vital difference.

Seeler, of course, must play, he is still the finest centre-forward in Europe, even if past his peak. He will cheerfully run through a brick wall, if the net is rumoured to be on the other side. And some of his goals - flying headers, acrobatic volleys -seem quite beyond the capacity of other European footballers.       

The German assembly-line has produced several dashing centre forwards to partner or challenge Seeler - the best being Rudi Brunnenmeier, in tremendous form this season for Munich 1860. Still only 22, but now a full international, he possesses a lethal shot in either foot. He won't create chances out of nothing, but give him a clear run near the penalty area, and there's just no stopping him. The third "striker" will probably be Cologne's dependable if scarcely brilliant left-winger, Hornig, leaving Weber and Konietzka to provide the midfield polish. The much-improved Italian exile, Helmut Hailer, has strong claims for a place - but it is difficult to see who can be discarded, and Schön wants him released for practices as well as full internationals.   

As for the other wing-half position, Horst Szymaniak's stay with struggling Vittoria Berlin has not helped his self-confidence, but Schön will be hard put to find a tougher, more powerful defender.  The German manager has already realised the physical limitations of ball-playing half-back Franz Beckenbauer - going so far as to tell Bayern Munich to send him on a weight-lifting course.  Beckenbauer's World Cup place seems to rest on Schön's undisclosed attitude to the Werder Bremen defenders - Pionteck, Hottgu and Lorenz, who lost their heads in a recent European Cup-tie, and might well be temperamentally unsuited for the tensions of the World tournament.  With Nowak and Schulz suffering for the demise of Schalke, only the wonderful Schnellinger, and the cool, blond pivot Sieloff can confidently pack their suitcases for England.

Stuttgart's Sieloff - top scorer last year, thanks to three immaculate penalties - is Germany's greatest defensive discovery for years.  Last line of defence should be Borussia goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski, happily recovered from the concussion he received against Italy. Second choice may be Manglitz of Meiderich, infinitely flexible, but still inexperienced. A move to Berlin has not helped Wolfgang Fahrian, voted the best 'keeper in Chile, to regain his form - but he is only one of many players to fall by the World Cup wayside. 

Schön has tried to develop the best facets of the national League - which is a carbon copy of the Football League in its speed and style. Not only is it booming financially, it is sharpening the Germans' play. Some of the matches I have seen produced fast, skilful football never dreamed of in the old, placid, regional competition. The players are more dedicated, more ambitious, and more professional in their outlook.   

Until the end of the season, Germany will concentrate mainly on practices against club sides similar in style to their World Cup opponents. Then, from May 30, the players go into retiro at Hamburg - the nearest one can get to English conditions.  What chance have they in the finals? It would be foolish to underestimate them. Argentina may prove the strongest team in their group, but Germany should be all too ruthless for the rather delicate and disorganised Spaniards. Indeed, were they likely to meet anyone but England, I would tip West Germany for at least a place in the semi-finals. 

Helmut Schön, never one for unrealistic prophesy, expects Germany to "hold her place in world football".

For me," he says, "that would be to reach the last eight of the World Cup."

Perhaps, who can tell, he may be setting his sights too low.    

This article originally appeared in the February 1966 edition of World Soccer