Football's Pioneers: Sepp Herberger
On 4 July, 1954, West Germany won the World Cup with a shock 3-2 victory over hot favourites, Hungary.
It was the Germans' first appearance at a World Cup following their re-admittance to international football after the Second World War.
The so-called ‘Miracle of Bern’ holds an important place in post-war German society and culture.
In 2003, a film of the same name was released in time for the 50th anniversary, while The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), a classic film by the famous director Rainer Fassbinder (1945-82), used the game’s climatic commentary at the end of the film as a metaphor for the impending revival of post-war West Germany.
The commentator in question was Herbert Zimmerman. During the game, Zimmerman became increasingly hysterical due to a growing realisation that Germany could actually upset Ferenc Puskas’s ‘Magical Magyars’.
His commentary reached a climax with the famous line: ‘Drei zu zwei führt Deutschland. Halten Sie mich für verrückt, halten Sie mich für übergeschnappt!’ (‘Germany lead 3-2. Call me mad, call me crazy.’)
The German coach was Sepp Herberger (1897-1977). His career itself embodied the extremes of 20th century German history – from the hedonism and galloping inflation of the Weimar Republic, to Nazi dictatorship, the collapse of Germany after the Second World War, the onset of the Cold War and then West Germany’s ‘economic miracle’.
Throughout all this turmoil, Herberger represented a metaphorical strand of continuity.
Born in Mannheim, Herberger initially played for local clubs as a striker, although his career was interrupted by his call-up for military service in 1916.
He won three caps for Germany before moving to Berlin in 1926 to play for Tennis Borussia Berlin. The following year, he enrolled at the capital’s newly established University of Physical Education, where he studied for a coaching diploma; his final year dissertation title was appropriately titled, ‘Towards peak performance in the sport of football’.
In 1932, Herberger was made assistant coach to the national team by his mentor, Otto Nerz.
Nerz had been Germany’s first-ever national coach after his appointment in 1926 on the initiative of a forward-thinking German football official, Felix Linnemann; it had been Linnemann who had also advised Herberger to take up a career in coaching. After Germany’s failure at the Berlin Olympics’ football tournament, Herberger replaced Nerz as the national coach.
He held this position until 1942, when football was finally abandoned during wartime.
In 1950, after FIFA had reinstated West Germany to international football, Herberger was re-appointed national coach, enabling him to build the team for the 1954 tournament.
Later, in 1964, Herberger retired. He was succeeded by his assistant, Helmut Schön, ensuring a continuity of ideas and methods that had been established in the 1920s, and hence, laying the foundations for future German football success.
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