‘TheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. Today we take a look at a national team which doesn’t exist any more. All that is left is a football club to carry its legacy forward. A German football club which has won the French domestic league.
Wiesbaden is a historical city located in southwest of Germany. It is a place known for its hot springs and staunch rivalry with Mainz. It is also perhaps one of the few German cities which lack any substantial footballing history.
SV Wehen Wiesbaden is the local club of this region and despite being established in 1926, its biggest achievement has been to play in the second division of German football in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons.
Very few notable footballers have been born in Wiesbaden, if any, but ironically, one of the most celebrated managers in football history took his last breath in this town.
Helmut Schoen spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home at Wiesbaden. He was an Alzheimer patient. Incidentally, Liverpool legend Bob Paisley and Schoen were diagnosed with this disease during the same period. During his time at the nursing home, Schoen was only accessible by wife and his son and in the early morning of 23rd February, 1996, Schoen deceased with only his family by his side.
For a man, who had so much to remember and so many achievements to cherish, Alzheimers seemed like a cruel prank by fate. By the time he was 80 years old, he perhaps didn’t remember how he started playing football in the streets of Seevorstadt, a suburb in Dresden. It would have been hard to recollect how the legendary Jimmy Hogan influenced his footballing thoughts during his time at SC Dresden. But perhaps the memories of the World Cup triumph with Germany just six years ago (in 1974) wouldn’t have faded away. The picture of Gerd Müller scoring the winner against Netherlands in the final and the unmistakable figure of Franz Beckenbauer lifting the coveted Jules Rimet trophy would emerged in his, then fallible, mind time and again. There are some things even disease or death can’t take away.
Among those unforgettable memories, lied an imagery of him managing a national team that took on West Germany in a crucial World Cup qualification match in 1954. It was a must win match for his side, but that West German team, who would eventually win the World Cup beating Hungary in the final, was too strong for them. It was the first and the last time ‘that’ nation, managed by Schoen, participated in World Cup qualification. In fact that nation soon lost its independent political identity.
Most of the football fans remember two German national teams, East Germany and West Germany, participating in the international stage before the wall of Berlin was brought down. But there was another German team which existed, the team Helmut Schoen managed before he took charge of the West German national team in 1964. Saarland was the third German side which was accredited by FIFA as a separate footballing nation.
In modern Germany, Saarland is a small federal state along the border of France and Luxembourg. But in the past the political identity of this state has been the cause of big tug-of-war between France and Germany.
After World War II, Saarland came under the administration and jurisdiction of France as the Saar Protectorate. Its highly valuable coal industry was one of the reasons why the French government showed great interest in Saarland. During this period, Saarland had its independent political identity, its own constitution and was a member of the European Union.
Football off course wasn’t immune to the above political reforms. Saarland’s biggest club was FV Saarbrücken. The team was a dominant force in the Gauliga Südwest regional division (one of the 16 regional divisions in German football during that period). As Saarland was separated from Germany after the World War II, FV Saarbrücken had to abscise its tie with German football.
This political change coincided with the advent of the golden period in Saarland football. The FV Saarbrücken team during that period had some great players in their squad. The likes of Herbert Binkert, Herbert Martin and Gerhard Siedl were the stars of that side. In fact Karl Schirra, Sieldl and Binkert formed one of the most deadly striking partnerships in Europe during that period. And this was during a period when the Hungary national side took all the lime light. FV Saarbrücken’s squad was far too strong to participate in the local leagues of Saarland. So they turned their attention towards France.
Gilbert Grandval, the French high commissioner for the Saar Protectorate, encouraged sporting association between Saarland and France in order to lessen the German influence. FC Saarbrücken (the name changed from FV Saarbrücken after the club was reformed) was invited to join the French second division in the 1948-49 season (AS Angoulême was asked to withdraw from the league in order to accommodate Saarbrücken). Saarbrücken joined the league with the name of FC Sarrebruck.
The Saarbrücken team was too strong for the French second division teams and they won most of their matches by big margins (They defeated Rouen 10-1 and Valenciennes 9-0 during that season). They won the French 2nd division comfortably ahead of second placed Bordeaux. But this is where the drama started.
The French federation refused to hand over the 2nd division trophy to Saarbrücken. Saarbrücken’s victory meant the French president would have to hand over the trophy and winners medal to a German club and German players – it was inconceivable. Saarbrücken were never officially handed over the trophy.
Jules Rimet, who was the president of FFF and FIFA during that time, urged Saarbrücken to join the French Football Federation. But all the French clubs voted against this decision in a high profile conference, they would never accept a German club into their league. Jules Rimet resigned from his post of the President immediately after this incident and FC Saarbrücken were left in no man’s land.
Playing against the weak local teams in Saarland seemed immaterial. This led to the establishment of the international Saarland Cup in 1949. The Saarland Cup is often considered the predecessor of the present European club competitions. A total of 16 teams participated in the tournament (including Saarbrücken), where there were 15 European clubs while Santiago de Chile was the only South American club.
Saarbrücken first competed in this tournament while their reserve team participated in the domestic league in Saarland. Saarbrücken won the inaugural Saarland cup beating Stade Rennais UC in the final and won the prize money of two million francs Saar (Saarland currency).
The club also arranged a lot of friendly matches and this fine team defeated a lot of big clubs during that period. Saarbrücken defeated Liverpool away from home in 1950 with Binkert scoring a wonderful hattrick. It was the start of a fantastic run of results. Saarbrücken travelled to Spain after this and defeated a strong Catalonia side (made of Barcelona and Espanyol players) and followed that up with a thrashing 4-0 victory over Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu!
Saarland joined FIFA in 1950 and Helmut Schoen, who was coaching SV Wiesbaden back then, took over the managerial role of the Saarland national team in 1952. In the national team nearly 10 out of 11 players were from FC Saarbrücken (at times 11 out of 11). Schoen’s first big challenge was the 1954 world cup qualification round.
Expectedly West Germany and Saarland fell in the same qualification group along with Norway. Despite being new to the international arena, Saarland showed their quality in their first match against Norway. Norway raced to a 2-0 lead within the first 15 minutes of the match, Saarland turned it around and won 3-2 with goals from Binkert, Otto and Siedl.
West Germany and Saar faced each other for the first time in the 2nd game of the qualification in group 1. The match took place in Stuttgart in front of a packed house – it was the birth of a new rivalry. The atmosphere in the stadium was nothing less than what one experiences during a derby match.
West Germany were too strong for Saar and they won the match 3-0. Saar drew at home against Norway in their next match, which left them in second position in the group. They were just one point behind West Germany and the next game at Saarland between these two nations would prove to be decisive.
But once again West Germany proved their class and defeated Saar with ease. The 3-1 scoreline meant West Germany qualified through to the next stage, while Saar finished in 2nd spot ahead of Norway. It was an impressive debut considering how good that West German side were and how new Saar were to international football. Helmut Schoen’s side failed to qualify but they did leave their mark on the big stage.
For Saarland’s players there was mixed emotions after the loss to West Germany. While some were disappointed, most of them were happy to see West Germany qualify for the World Cup, a team they had dreamed of representing in the international stage.
“I still remember today that I wasn’t really unhappy after both defeats. I felt that I was German and didn’t want to prevent the team that I’d always wanted to play for as a boy from getting to Switzerland. We wouldn’t have had a chance at the World Cup anyway.” – Kurt Clemens, Saarland’s wing-half.
Later in 1954, France and West Germany decided to liberate Saarland of their protectorate status and establish an independent nation. But in a plebiscite, 67% of Saar’s population voted against the formation of an independent nation. The mass unanimously wanted Saarland to join Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).
FC Saarbrucken was meanwhile chosen to represent Saar in the inaugural European Cup in 1955. They were drawn against a strong AC Milan side in the opening round and even the most optimistic supporter of Saarbrücken wouldn’t have given his team any chance of progression. But they stunned everyone with a fantastic display in San Siro as they won the first leg of the tie 4-3 (after being 3-1 down). This provided the platform for a big upset, but Milan defeated them 4-1 in the return leg to win the tie.
In 1957, Saarland was reunited with West Germany and this dissolved their status of a separate footballing nation in FIFA. FC Saarbrücken joined the German league once again and won back the Oberliga title. But despite the victory and the fact that they retained most their key players, the decline was imminent.
Saarbrücken were one of the sixteen club selected to the play in the first ever Bundesliga in 1963. But a string of poor performances saw them finish at the bottom of the table in the inaugural season. By 1981, they had slipped down to the third tier of German football and they have remained a yo-yo club ever since.
Saarbrücken’s last promotion to the Bundesliga came in 1993, but were relegated immediately. The club has also undergone big financial trouble in the recent past and their licence was put on hold in 1995. The journey of FC Saarbrücken reached the full circle at that point as they were demoted to the lowest tier of German football. This was the same club which ran shivers through whole of France with their performances in their domestic league; a club which defeated the likes of Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid away from home; a club which formed the backbone of a national side which took on the strong West German team.
Politically merging with Germany might have been the right move, but it took away the footballing identity of this region. Although in recent times, Saarbrücken has shown sign of recovery, they are unlikely to reach the dizzy heights of their past.
FC Saarbrücken is currently plying their trade in the third division of German football. They lie in the 12th spot in the league and 15 points behind the promotion playoffs spot. But perhaps most importantly, this is their third consecutive season in this tier. Their financial conditions have improved lately and there are plans regarding a new stadium which will provide a hike in their yearly revenue.
Fans across Europe would hardly know the name of FC Saarbrücken. In fact very few even know that a third German team existed. While Saarbrucken might yet make it back to the Bundesliga, the Saarland national team is lost in the pages of history.