I am standing on the north bank, of the Ludwigparkstadion in Saarbrücken. There isn’t a game on and there won’t be one for quite a while. FC Saarbrücken, the tenants, have been thrown out and told to find temporary lodgings while the stadium is renovated.
Progress has been slow; the stadium is still very much in the destruction rather than the construction phase. The old is being torn out to make way for the new but I hope to God they don’t rip out too much.
It may be an ugly hulk of an arena but there is history embedded in the concrete. Believe it or not, where I am standing right now saw the birth of a one hundred percent bona fide miracle.
I say the birth of a miracle. The miracle itself actually occurred some distanced away in Switzerland. Oh, and because it happened in a football ground, the Catholic Church haven’t actually recognised it.
It is unlikely that the Miracle of Bern will ever obtain Papal acknowledgement and the protagonists are unlikely candidates for canonisation. It matters not. What is important is that the final of the 1954 World Cup final between Hungary and West Germany represented much more than just a football match.
Nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight even respected historians regard it as a pivotal point in modern German history. Back then it was just another game, and one where you would bet your house on the outcome.
It should have been a walkover. The “Magical Magyars” of Hungary, the greatest team in the world; unbeaten in five years and captained by Ferenc Puskas, the finest left foot the world had ever known; were hot favourites.
In contrast to their illustrious opponents, the Germans had no nickname. They had barely played a match together and supplemented their incomes with day jobs. This being only nine years since the end of the Second World War, it wasn’t as if they could even count the sympathy of the neutrals, that perennial privilege of the underdog.
The Germans needed a miracle and needless to say this is exactly what they got. Hungary took an early two-goal lead before the mercurial Helmut Rahn kicked into gear and played the game of his life, scoring two as the Germans fought back to a famous 3-2 victory.
Like most miracles, the Miracle of Bern can be explained scientifically. A number of factors played into the Germans’ hands: the bad weather, the motivational effect of coach Josef “Sepp” Herberger, (probably justified) allegations of doping, the fact that the Hungarians had not slept the night before; the minor miracle that the notoriously convivial Rahn had sobered up long enough to put a decent shift in — but they are all utterly irrelevant.
Germany were the world champions. A nation which had been shattered by war had cause to believe in itself once again.
Many people, including many Germans, will never be able to forgive the country for the horrors of World War Two but it is difficult to ignore just how much the Germans also suffered. In 1954 Germany was on its knees.
In Saarbrücken, where I am now, sixty percent of all housing was bombed out of existence. Starvation was avoided by the narrowest of margins. Millions of German speakers in Central and Eastern Europe were evicted from their homes overnight with only the possessions they could carry and told to head west.
The number of sexual assaults on German women at the hands of invading troops will never be truly known but is estimated to be in the millions. It took up a decade for German prisoners of war to return home from the Russian gulags.
The Miracle of Bern was no magic solution but it gave the country a spark of hope. Not the end, as Churchill would have said, not even the beginning of the end –but at least it was the end of the beginning. Germany’s people could believe in themselves once more — and dare to hope that better times were around the corner.
The Swiss miracle was actually made right here in Saarbrücken. In order to play in the tournament, Germany had to play a qualifying match. They did so here, in front of 53,000 cheering fans. What I can’t tell you is who they cheered for. The curiosity about that game is that although Saarbrücken is in Germany, the German team were not the hosts but the visitors.
Most of us can remember a time when there were two Germanys but between 1947 and 1956 there were actually three. West and East Germany are well-known (and even met on the field during West Germany’s next World Cup triumph) but as part of the peace settlement the Saarland was also cut off from Germany and established as an independent protectorate.
As with the west and the east, the Saarlanders established their own football team. They went into the hat for World Cup qualification and, as luck would have it, in 1953 the Saar Protectorate national football team was drawn against West Germany for a place in the competition.
My instinct tells me that the home crowd cheered for the local lads but I could be completely wrong: the feeling at the time was adamant that the Saarland should be German. Either way, the boys from the Saar done good, putting up a determined fight before West Germany won 3-1. Two years later, the region voted overwhelmingly for reunification.
Nobody watching that game would have guessed that the winners would go on to be world champions. Nor would they have known that another miracle was waiting behind the next corner. By the time Germany ‘s footballers won their next world title in 1974 West Germany was the richest and most powerful economy in Europe.
It would be an exaggeration to call the Miracle of Bern a turning point but it is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. Such is the impact that the victory had that some of coach Herberger’s more well-known bons mots have made it into mainstream German. Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel is the most famous: “after the last game is before the next”. Don’t rest on your laurels. The next struggle is just around the corner.
There’s another reason not to overplay either the Miracle of Bern or Germany’s subsequent economic miracle. In 1954 West Germany were champions, deserved champions even — but they were not popular champions. The global public saw them as upstarts who had robbed Hungary of its rightful crown. This was still very much the era of the bloody Kraut.
This perception had not changed twenty years later when Franz Beckenbauer captained West Germany to its second title. It was difficult to put memories of the war aside when they beat the all-singing, all-dancing Netherlands in the final.
The Dutch won the hearts of the neutrals with sexy football and poetic justice — but the bloody Germans spoiled the party. The team was like the nation: successful but unloved.
Beckenbauer had made the transition from player to coach by the next time the team lifted the cup but otherwise nothing had changed. Boring, soulless, morally suspect Germany edged past Argentina by one penalty to nil to secure a third triumph.
Away from the pitch, there was still the feeling that the team mirrored the country: ruthless, ambitious, not to be trusted.
Few who saw that game in 1990 could have predicted that West Germany would soon be no more. Just a few months later, the Berlin Wall came down and what was once three nations finally became one. The Queen Mother was reportedly not amused.
Football is modern Germany ‘s metaphor, a fact recognised by the government when it lent its support to the German Football Association’s bid to host they 2006 World Cup.
Ironically, it was failure on the pitch rather than success which helped Germany take the next step along the road to recovery. Though the team lost 2-0 to Italy in the semi-final, it did so with a passion and a flair that won over the hearts of sceptical onlookers. This was not the same Germany which had niggled and cheated its way to victory in tournaments past.
Off the pitch, the world was among friends. The reception the locals offered to hundreds of thousands of visitors won Germany a place in hearts around the globe.
I remember how many visiting fans were genuinely confused by how friendly, welcoming and accommodating to foreigners the Germans truly were — it didn’t stack up with the imported prejudices one little bit. For one golden summer the world partied together, ever mindful of its gracious hosts.
A new country was beginning to emerge. Football was not the instigator but nowhere is the change better reflected.
In 2014 the team picked up the World Cup trophy for the fourth time, a dynamic, multiracial band of brothers that played with its heart and thrilled you from first minute to last. The world approved wholeheartedly. At long last Germany’s champions were loved by all.
Two stories then: the story of a country and the story of a football team. And two morals to go with them (they are completely interchangeable).
Firstly, nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel — having come so far the challenge is to keep going. There is much to do in Germany before the 2014 metaphor becomes reality.
In a wider sense, Europe has finally (just about) managed to produce a generation whose lives have been untouched by war. Our next challenge is to repeat that achievement.
The second moral is that if you ever do find yourself out in the cold, it can take a long time before you’re allowed to come back in.
Full time in Saarbrücken. The train has arrived to take me over the border into France. It’s going to be a week of two halves.