The Wunderteam of Austria, the invincible Mighty Magyars, the all-conquering Selecao, the Dutch ‘Total Football’ or the present day Spanish armada of tiki-taka fame et al – these teams have carved an alcove for themselves in the history of this game. Germany, one of Europe’s most successful teams of all times, require no showing of verbiage about its vermiculite past. And according to many, their zeitgeist of success started from 1954’s miracle of Berne.
Au contraire, it was legendary Sepp Herberger’s first generation of protégés, who brought the fatherland all due panegyrics, even before the breakout of the war. Germany finally established itself on the international front, albeit ephemerally, proving the second round ouster in 1936’s Berlin Summer Olympics was an aberration, disproving the third place in 1934’s World Cup a fluke glacis and composing a prelude to Germany’s recrudescent symphony in 1954. This is a requiescat for Germany’s first ever Wunderteam in the game of football – the Breslau Elf.
Shortly after Germany’s 2nd round defeat in the Berlin Summer Olympics, coach Otto Nerz was given the bum’s rush and sidekick Sepp Herberger was asked to take up the managerial role. But Nerz asked for a gradual expulsion and decided to work hand-in-hand with Herberger to nurture the side to overcome the recent failure. Herberger soon trained the team to take up the Kreisel system of Schalke discarded by Nerz, an eclectic version of Hugo Meisl’s Danubian whirl and the Scottish flat passing game.
Schalke players, who had been blackballed by Nerz, were once again summoned to the national team so that the assimilation of the system happens faster. Fritz Szepan was given carte blanche as the skipper of the side and club-teammates Rudi Gellesch and Adolf Urban were included in the side as well. However, Schalke legend Ernst Kuzorra had called it a day by that time on international football.
Thus, Herberger built a team with Nerz’s assistance for the next cherry eighteen months after the Berlin debacle and brought back the belief of Joe Public and of the Fuhrer in German football. Though the team started off with a defeat against Scotland in Glasgow, the Scottish papers heaped praises on the German side, complimenting it to be the best ever continental side at that time to have played football on Scottish turf.
With time, the players bonded well and got accustomed to the new stratagem and Germany soon cruised to four victories and a solitary stalemate. And then they were pinned against Denmark, a solid side that remained undefeated for over a year. Wary of the Danish fortress at the back marshaled by Henry Nielsen, the wily coach decided to play primum mobile Otto Siffling a little deep as a false number nine, behind Szepan and Gellesch. The idée reçue was to keep the Dane defense guessing whom to mark, in a role kindred to Hungarian Nandor Hidegkuti’s one during ‘50s. This move soon proved to be the coup de maître as the apparently resilient Danish defense was left clueless of what happened afterwards.
The match took place in Hermann Göring Stadion in Breslau (now Wroclaw) on 16th of May, 1937 in front of 40,000 excited spectators. There were no fixed positions amongst the attackers in Herberger’s system and they kept swapping places, trying to run into pockets of spaces left unmarked by the oppositions, off the ball, playing short flat passes at a high tempo to bring Kreisel in full throttle. Germany soon broke the deadlock in the 7th minute when outside-right Ernst Lehner volleyed home the opener.
That was just the kind of start a team hungry for success needed. Then, between 33rd minute and 65th minute, the Siffling blizzard came, saw and reaped the oppositions apart. He scored five goals within that half-hour period. Later, Adolf Urban, who had already provided assists for a couple of goals, found the back of the net as well. Twelve minutes from time, Siffling released Szepan with a clinical pass which the latter gratuitously converted to register Germany’s eighth past a hapless Svend Jensen, the Dane custodian.
Thus the rout ended with the score line of 8-0 in favor of Germany and the legend of Breslau Elf (Breslau eleven) was born. Germany won the remaining four international fixtures of ’37 as well and continued their billet-doux in the build-up to 1938’s World Cup. In short, the Breslau Elf remained unbeaten in 11 matches, ten of which they won. During that period, Schalke too won 6-2 against then English first division side Brentford FC and German football started earning international recognition. Journalist Gerd Kramer wrote, “The robot style people like to pin on Germany sank in to the realm of legend. Artistic football triumphed.”
Hans Jakob (Jahn Regensburg) – Goalie ‘Jakl’ Jakob played in 38 games for Germany. He was drafted in the side following Willibald Kress’s howler against the Czechs in 1934’s World Cup semifinal loss. He kept 11 clean sheets in his international career and Germany lost only 8 games during his time.
Paul Janes (Fortuna Dusseldorf) – Known as one of the best German defenders of all time, Janes made the right half back position his for almost a decade. Despite being a defender, dead ball specialty earned him the nickname ‘World Champion of precision’. He scored 7 (4 free-kicks, 3 penalties) goals for Germany and was the first German player to specialize in the Bicycle Kick.
Reinhold Munzenberg (Alemannia Aachen) – The former center-half was soon drafted in as a left-fullback because of his priapic approach to the game. He came to prominence following 1934’s third place game against Austria where he shut out Josef Bican successfully.
Andreas Kupfer (Schweinfurt 05) – One of the best half-backs of all time was known for his mastery in kicking the ball with just moving his ankle joint. The left-footed right-half back was the only player who featured in Germany’s last international match before the war as well as their first international match after the war.
Ludwig Goldbrunner (Bayern Munich) – Finding a place in Bayern Munich’s top 20 best footballers and Germany’s top 30 of all times is no mean feat. ‘Lutte’ was one of the best center-halves of his time. Goldbrunner played against top center forwards like George Camsel, Raymond Braine, Silvio Piola, Isidro Langara, Fernando Peyroteo et al; only Camsel was able to score against him.
Albin Kitzinger (Schweinfurt 05) – Kupfer’s club-mate created a World class midfield trio with Goldbrunner and Kupfer. The left-half back represented Western Europe against Central Europe in ’37 and was included in the World XI that played against England a year later.
Ernst Lehner (Augsburg) – One of the best outside rights of his time had the uncanny reputation of scoring directly from corner kicks (scored two such goals against Estonia in the 1938 WC qualifier). He was also hailed as “The best non-professional player in Europe.”
Rudolf Gellesch (Schalke 04) – Szepan’s teammate played as an inside-right in the team. Whenever Szepan was forced deep in a center-half’s role, utilitarian Gellesch served as his erstwhile doppelganger up front.
Otto Siffling (Waldhof Mannheim) – The German center-forward, who played as a false number nine on the red-letter day, scored 17 goals for the national team in 31 games. In the words of former German captain Helmut Schön,
“As a center forward he was not a tank but a playing center forward who still was enormously dangerous in front of the goal.”
Friedrich Szepan (Schalke 04) – An inductee of Schalke’s team of the century, Szepan led Germany on 30 occasions which included the Breslau game as well. The versatile virtuoso represented Germany as inside-right, inside-left as well as a center-half. His commanding presence had earned him the title ‘Beckenbauer before the war.’
Adolf Urban (Schalke 04) – A Schalke legend, Urban netted 11 times for Germany in 21 appearances. The forward was the only Breslau Elf member who died on the battlefield in the eastern front.
But German football’s acclivity was too good to last. In 1938’s World Cup, both Germany and Austria qualified. Both sides were contenders for the Championship. But following the Anschluss aka annexation of Austria with the Reich, the Austrian team, which was scheduled to play Sweden in the first round, was dissolved. Soon Herberger was diktated by then DFB President Felix Linnemann to field a team comprised of the best of Germany and Austria,
“A visible expression of our solidarity with the Austrians who have come back to the Reich has to be presented. The Führer demands a 6:5 or 5:6 ratio. History expects this of us!”
On pen and paper a synecdoche of an improved Breslau Elf with Wunderteam yielded a Galactico. But Germany and Austria were sempiternal rivals in this game. The memories of the third-place clash in World Cup 1934 still lurked in the oblivion, not to mention the Albert Weber controversy in 1912’s Summer Olympics in Sweden. More so, because of the rising political tension, the growing distaste between players from both the countries turned the dressing room into an emotional incest devoid of any chemistry. And this synechthry became the hamartia of a side destined for glory.
By then, iconic Austrian forward Josef Bican had started representing Czechoslovakia and mesmeric Matthias Sindelar, the paper man, had his druthers to not to represent the pan Germanic team citing fitness and injury as reasons despite Herberger’s efforts to persuade him. The coach later reflected,
“I almost had the impression it was down to feelings of uneasiness and rejection to do with the political developments that weighed on his mind and caused his refusal.”
And by the time the World Cup started nothing but embers were left of the Breslau Elf and the Wunderteam. Herberger fielded 5 Austrians players in the first round game against Karl Rappan’s Swiss team, led by Austrian Hans Mock. Thanks to German Jupp Gauchel’s effort, they held on to a draw. In the replay, Herberger made seven changes to the side, but kept 5 Austrians on the team-sheet again and fielded foes Szepan and Josef Stroh together. Szepan replaced Mock as the skipper.
Though, Germany went up by two goals (thanks to Austrian Wilhelm Hahnemann’s strike and a Swiss own-goal) even before the half-hour mark, their oppositions pulled one back late in the first half. The Swiss bolt struck three more times in the second half. A politically riddled German team was left with no cathexis to fight back. Journalist Christian Eichler later remarked, “Germans and Austrians prefer to play against each other even when they’re in the same team.”
Thus, the mythopoeic zeppelin of Breslau Elf crashed even before taking its most anticipated flight. To this day, ‘38’s World Cup performance remains as Germany’s worst in the tournament. But Breslau Elf’s oneiric existence remained in the German conscience forever as preterit honeyed cud of yesteryear.