When you congratulate a dead person on his 100th birthday, there must be great reasons. Like with Fritz Walter. Only one thing is sad: as a child, I tried, unsuccessfully, to break his 32-stroke record on the mini-golf course in Obertal in the Black Forest.
Every year, just before the holiday season, a colourful brochure from the Belvedere Hotel flutters into my letterbox. In the past, it was delivered by the postman. Today it arrives by e-mail.
Have you ever been to the “Belvedere”?
The hotel in Spiez on Lake Thun has been a place of pilgrimage since 1954. Every self-respecting German should visit it at least once in his life and kneel before the steps at the entrance, and when I spent a night there a few years ago, Fritz Walter’s shirt was still available in the fan shop. “From the original jersey,” the hotel guaranteed, “the pattern was taken.”
At the time, however, I had not travelled all the way to Switzerland to buy the old hero’s imitation shirt; rather, I wanted to breathe the unadulterated breath of the heroic deed in the place where the captain Walter and the right-winger Rahn, in short: the “Boss”, had stood in front of the mirror and shaved every morning back then. So I asked the friendly lady at reception, “Can I have room 303?”
She was inconsolable as she revealed to me the bitter truth: “We have remodelled.”
Room 303, the base camp of wonder, was no more. All the more, however, and this halfway saved my day, I could still make out the outlines of the historic dining room where probably the most important three words of German football were spoken on 4 July 1954 – the DFB kickers were sitting at lunch when Max Morlock from Nuremberg suddenly stared through the window and cried out as if electrified.
“Friedrich, it’s raining!”
Friedrich, that was Fritz Walter. “We were gnawing the bones off our chicken at the table,” the captain later described the moment of happiness. He liked damp grass, and his ball skills came into their own perfectly on slippery surfaces. National coach Sepp Herberger also winked: “Fritz, your weather.”
It was weather to produce heroes. And we Germans desperately needed new heroes. The old ones were dead.
The rest of the day is history, the images of the miracle are indelibly stored is all survivors. Boss Rahn’s 3:2. The soaking wet Hungarians. The damp and happy German supporters in their mackintoshes. Herbert Zimmermann’s voice, which increasingly rolled over as he shouted through his radio microphone back home: “Off! Off! The game is over! Germany is world champion!”
4 July 1954 is considered the true birth of the Federal Republic of Germany. “We are who again!”, felt a united people. Overnight, the battered German soul dared to walk upright again – and the German man reached for curling iron and pomade to come across as brilliant as Fritz Walter.
He was no ordinary man. When you congratulate a dead man on his centenary, as you are doing now to this Palatine, there must be serious reasons.
Where do we start?
The best place to start is with his goal of the century. On 6 October 1956, 1. FC Kaiserlautern played against Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt in front of 110,000 spectators in Leipzig, won 5:3, and Fritz Walter gave the GDR champions the golden shot. In his book “So habe ich’s gemacht …” (That’s how I did it …) he describes it like this: “The cross ball coming from the right sank behind my back. Then I dropped forward, almost in a handstand, and hit it with my heel. From a distance of twelve or fifteen metres, the ball flew into the top corner of the goal. I was lucky that it was a goal. But the fact that I got to the ball at all in that situation and hit it, that wasn’t luck.”
It was skill. He was a gentle stroker of the ball, and old writings describe him as a brilliant playmaker and strategist who defended and executed on the side. In 61 international matches, Fritz Walter scored 33 goals. But virtually none of them came live and in full on television, and certainly not in colour, the pictures were just learning to walk. How good was Fritz Walter? It’s like Muhammad Ali, whose coach Angelo Dundee said, “We never saw the best Ali.” That’s because in his prime Ali was banned as a conscientious objector.
Young Walter went off to war and lost his best days at the front. In 1940, the Reich coach Herberger had nominated him for the first time, he was 19, today one would say wunderkind, and against Romania he scored three goals at the first attempt. Then in 1945 he returned home from Russian captivity, in 1951 he returned to the national team, and he said: “The war stole my best years.” He was past 30. Actually, it was all over. But it was just beginning.
The second life.
Walter no longer played for Hitler, but still for Herberger. The two were like father and extended arm, the filigree implemented the coach’s ideas, and conversely, Herberger was his best man when he walked the good-looking Italia Bortoluzzi down the aisle in 1948. The Palatinate people whispered worriedly in view of the fiery Italian: “The black witch with the red fingernails, I hope she doesn’t finish off Fritz.” In truth, she really got him going. Twice Kaiserslautern became German champions, and Atlético Madrid and Inter Milan lured him with money bags. Unsuccessfully. “Dehäm is dehäm”, Fritz is supposed to have said.
Then came the 1954 World Cup.
The miracle is always explained with the “spirit of Spiez”, but the spirit of the Black Forest was also behind it. I know that, my grandfather Artur came from Baiersbronn-Obertal, we always celebrated our annual family day there, and in the “Blume” inn at the entrance to the village, Herberger’s heroes have left their mark to this day, the old photos of the innkeeper with Sepp and Fritz keep the glorious past alive. Before the World Cup in Switzerland, the would-be world champions refuelled in Obertal for the miracle, and on the mini-golf course Fritz Walter set a new record: 32 strokes. As a boy, I later tried to break it every year, but surrendered unsuccessfully at some point.
At the World Cup, the Hungarians beat our Germans by eight strokes. Ferenc Puskas and his Puszta Wizards, undefeated in four years, dismantled Fritz Walter’s team in the preliminary round, the final score 8:3. In anticipation of defeat, Herberger had left out his best players as a precaution, and he would have been better off sparing his sensitive captain the humiliation. “For years I was so excited before every game that I felt sick,” Walter once confessed, “I often sat on the toilet until shortly before kick-off.” But Herberger, a fox when it came to people management, found the proven antidote at the “Belvedere”: in room 303 he combined the brooding man with the carefree Helmut (“Boss”) Rahn, a mood cannon. “Helmut,” said the boss, “build me up Fritz.”
The two complemented each other in such a way that the Grübler calmly sank two penalty balls into the Austrian box in the semi-final and the Boss first scored the 2:2 in the final against the unbeatable Hungarians and then also elicited the cry of all cries from Herbert Zimmermann: “From the background Rahn should shoot, Rahn shoots, Tooor, Tooor, Tooor – Tooor!”
As world champion, Fritz Walter received 2300 marks, a motor scooter, a couch set, a television, a hoover and a sewing machine. He wrote the bestseller “3:2” and, to make up for the lost war years, played in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. And it almost came to the final duel between the kings: 37-year-old Fritz Walter against 17-year-old Pelé.
A terrible semi-final shattered the dream, especially that of the chronicler here, who was eight years old when he attended his first World Cup. A boy forgets nothing. I lay in front of the radio, first shaking and then crying. It was one of those music chests that were very popular at the time, on the left was the compartment with the eggnog and cognac, on the right the record player with the radio, and from it 50,000 Swedes roared their “Heja! Heja!” on that dreadful evening that ended with Herbert Zimmermann relaying to the home front how Fritz Walter was fouled and carried off the pitch by the cotrainers Schön and Gawliczek, his head buried in both hands. For the rest of the game he limped like a war invalid at right wing.
It was Fritz Walter’s last international match. Afterwards, he became an honorary captain, and among other things, a street, a school, a railcar of the Bundesbahn, a champagne, a football tournament, a foundation and the stadium at the Betzenberg were named after him, and in 2002 he was laid to rest. But he lives.
Because a great dead man never dies. In the “Belvedere”, his jersey has been reproduced for decades, and flanking it, on the occasion of a round birthday of the Bernese wonder, there was also an umbrella with the imprint “Fritz-Walter-Wetter” in Germany for 14.90 euros. It was modelled on the umbrella held out to the German captain when FIFA President Jules Rimet presented him with the World Cup trophy in the Wankdorf stadium.
It was a mess on 4 July 1954 – but that’s the way Fritz wanted it.