Sepp Herberger: The father of modern German football

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 12, 2018
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Sepp Herberger did not give much thought to theory. To him, football was a simple game. “The ball is round,” he famously said. “The game lasts ninety minutes. Everything else is just theory.”

He was a simple man with a complex history. Herberger, though he tried to distance himself from it, could not escape the suffocating grasp of the Second World War. Like thousands of others in Europe, he was caught up in it, shaped by it.

He was a member of the Nazi Party, and that, without context, is deplorable. But he was not a political man; he did join the party out of choice, but out of necessity. For him, all that mattered was coaching Germany – and to do that required the consent of the DFB, Germany’s football federation, then supported by the Nazis. “Soccer is my life,” said Herberger, and he truly meant it.

“Herberger joined the party very early, long before men in his position simply had to, but as far as we know there has never been a single incident where he displayed fascist leanings or spread party ideology,” Uli Hesse, author of Tor!, tells Tifo. “Pretty much in contrast to his mentor and predecessor Otto Nerz, who was an anti-Semite and probably a Nazi. We have to assume that Nerz urged Herberger to join the party in order to further his career. By all accounts, Herberger himself was un-political to a frightening degree. He seems to have been totally single-minded: there was nothing but football.”

There was nothing but football from an early age. Herberger, the youngest of six children born to a working class family in Mannheim, could not see beyond the parameters of the pitch. He worked as a manual labourer in his teenage years, joining a metalworking factory at the age of 14.

By 17, though, he had decided his path lay in football. He made his debut for local club Waldhof Mannheim and went on to play at international level for Germany. In 1930, after four years with Tennis Borussia Berlin, Herberger retired.

He had, during the latter stages of his playing career, studied for a coaching diploma in Berlin. He titled his thesis: ‘Towards peak performance in the sport of football’. It was instructive of what was to come.

Herberger, throughout a coaching career that spanned 34 years, was meticulous and rigorous in his approach. He was a disciplinarian, assertive towards his players, but equally capable of earning their respect, their loyalty. And that loyalty was reciprocated.

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Herberger cared little for the political manoeuvrings of the Nazis. When war broke out, by which time he was coach of the national team, he actively attempted to keep his best players at a safe distance. He was so enamoured of forward Fritz Walter that he made it his priority to ensure the footballer was not deployed to the front lines.

“Herberger feinted, wooed and plotted to guarantee some sort of shelter for the protection and nurturing of the football genius amid the increasingly menacing turmoil of war,” wrote Jürgen Leinemann, his biographer.

For all his efforts, though, Herberger could not prevent the significant disruption caused by the war. He had been appointed as Germany coach in 1936 – shortly after the Berlin Olympics – and already the political tumult of the time was impeding his work. At the 1938 World Cup in France, Germany were expected to do well. But Herberger was forced to field players from annexed Austria, and found his influence limited. His side were knocked out in the first round.

It was a time of frustration for Herberger. The war meant international competition was suspended. Germany played only a series of meaningless friendlies against opposition more noticeably weakened than themselves. Patience was required.

So too was persistence. Herberger had seen his efforts to build a great team repeatedly scuppered. And in 1942 his role as coach of the national team had ended. Until 1950 – aside from a brief spell at Eintracht Frankfurt – he occupied himself with teaching. He educated the next generation of German coaches, all of whom considered him a mentor.

Herberger had not put his own career out of mind, though. He still had aspirations of international glory. He had kept in touch with his former players and closely monitored the country’s best young prospects. He fully intended to continue the work he had started.

In 1950, he was appointed coach of West Germany. It had been a long process, but this time there would be no disruptions. Herberger was ready. And so were his players.

At the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, a team built around Fritz Walter stunned the world. No one had expected them to succeed. The feeling of pessimism was heightened when West Germany were beaten 8-3 by the favourites, the Magical Magyars of Hungary.

They progressed from their group, however, and reached the final. That, in itself, was considered an achievement. But few gave them a chance in the final against an imperious Hungary, whose forwards appeared to have an insatiable appetite for goals. West Germany were 2-0 down inside ten minutes; another rout was anticipated. But they fought back. In the rain, a late Helmut Rahn goal made it 3-2. They had won. Herberger and his players, the unlikely victors, had produced the ‘Miracle of Berne’.

Herberger did not see it as a miracle. For him, it was the culmination of years of hard work. And he did not stop there. He continued to set foundations, to build for the future. When he retired in 1964, German football had changed.

“Herberger is still the single most important figure in the history of the German game,” says Hesse. “You could argue that nothing that happened after the war, and that includes institutions like the Bundesliga, would have been possible without the groundwork he laid. His legacy has lived on as personified by most of our national managers that have followed him. Joachim Löw, for instance, has always followed the classic Herberger model: don’t pick the best players, pick the best team and show unwavering loyalty towards the players you trust the most.”

When he died in 1977, aged 80, German football stood still. No one could match Herberger’s dedication to football in the country. And no one could replace it. The sport was his life. He maintained that philosophy until his death: a few hours before breathing his final breath, he watched West Germany play Northern Ireland on television. They won 5-0.

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