Whenever I go to New York, or meet elsewhere Americans interested in soccer, I am regaled with stories of West German soccer, and the pleasure it gives them on the television. How much better it is to watch it, they tell me, how immensely more skillful and inventive, than the English game.
By Comparisons with the Bundesliga, the English (or British) game seems pedestrian and dull. All this I have tended to suffer in silence, but now, with the end of the World Cup, the disintergration of Borussia Munchengladbach, the passing of Bayern Munich, I am tempted to reply.
These American soccer buffs, and others like them, are suffering from the equivalent of what Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian expatriate writer, called "French Flu." He was referring to a condition among the English intellectuals of the day that led them to praise any literature that was French, at the expense of anything being written in English. The habit has long since disappeared, and that of enthusing about West German football may also soon be obsolete. For the Bundesliga is not quite all it seems.
There were, goodness knows, indications of this well before the New York cosmos pulled the plug out of West German football by filching Franz Beckenbauer. But first, let us look at the myth, be it said, that gained considerable currency in England and was subscribed to even by Ron. Greenwood, the current coach of England's international team.
According to this myth, the West Germans had evolved a system immensely superior to England's. In the first place, they had a settled style. Every team in the Bundesliga played with a libero, or sweeper, a la Beckenbauer, playing behind a defense that guarded man to man. The emphasis was on attacking play, interchange between defenders and forwards, exhilarating runs by the sweeper from behind his own rear guard into offensive positions.
By contrast, the football league of England was all anarchy, each team playing a different system. Thus, when it was necessary to choose or make changes in the national team, the West Germans were at a colossal advantage. Their players were produced as though by some inspired conveyor belt. Let one drop out, and another was dropped neatly into his place, knowing exactly what to do and when to do it. If a Beckenbuer, a Wolfgang Overath, a Gerd Muller, should fall by the wayside, another player would simply take over.
As to style, the West Germans, under the benign influence of the national team coach, Helmut Schoen, had achieved the best of both worlds. To the traditional style of muscle, pace, physical commitment and stamina, Schoen had grafted on a new artistry, encouraging the like of Beckenbauer, Gunter Netzer, Overath and Uli Hoeness. The game was open to talent: Beckenbauer, rather than the squat, powerful, explosive center-forward, Uwe Seeler, became the ideal of the West German game.
Moreover, while England left coaching and coaches virtually to chance, and allowed former players to take over leading clubs as soon as their active careers were over, the West Germans would have none of that. Their system was thorough, intelligent and comprehensive. Any aspiring club coach - or manager, as we call it in Britain - had to attend special courses over a period of years, and have experience with a minor team before he could take over a major one.
Then surprising things started to happen. Bayern Munich, deprived of Beckenbauer, turned into a rather ordinary team, and lost its grip on the major European trophy, the European Cup, which it had won for three years in a row. Instead, the trophy was won by none other than England's supposedly prosaic Liverpool, which completely outplayed Borussia Munchengladbach, a team much praised for its sophisticated methods, in the 1977 final in Rome. The following year, just before the World Cup was due, Liverpool won the cup again, beating Bruges of Belgium in the final, although not before defeating Borussia Munchengladbach again, en route.
Meanwhile, what of the World Cup, which the Germans held? They had had an excellent 1977, even without Beckenbauer, seeming to lend some credence to the idea that their conveyor belt could endlessly supply replacements. They beat Argentina, on tour, in Buenos Aires. They played brilliantly in Berlin against Italy, varying their system cleverly to use two wingers, lying wide, with a center-forward on his own in the middle.
Early in 1978, however, things began to go wrong. The team stuttered. Manny Kaltz of Hamburg no longer looked the ideal replacement for Beckenbauer. The withdrawal from international soccer of such as Gerd Muller and Jurgen Grabowski and the retirement of Wolfgang Overath left gaps that could not be filled. Poor performances against England, Russia and Sweden cast a chill over West German hopes. But of course, everything would be all right on the night, wouldn't it, as it had always been in the past?
Alas, it would not. West German's performance in Argentina was an awful anticlimax. The Germans not only lost the World Cup, they played, on the whole, dismally negative football. "The West Germans," said France Causio of Italy, after a horribly defensive performance by Schoen's team in Buenos Aires, "built the Berlin Wall in Argentina." The ultimate humilisation was a defeat by West German's old rival, Austria. Poor Helmut Schoen retired from his post in despair, blaming his defense for its lackadaisical atitude in his last game.
The moral is plain enough. It is players who make teams; not tactics, not coaches, not administration. And great players emerge almost by chance; you cannot budget for them. I remain an admirer of West German football and the way it is run, but let us not pretend it has a monopoly of virtues, any more than the Hungarians had in the 1950s or the Brazilians in the 1960s and early 1970s. Soccer is a house of many rooms.