1954: It could have been so very different……..

On the 4th of July, 1954, the so-called ‘miracle of Bern’ took place, as a largely unheralded West German side – dominated and captained by the indomitable Fritz Walter – overcame Ferenc Puskás and Hungary to lift the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time. The 3-2 victory has subsequently been well-chronologed; to the extent of being the subject of a full-length feature film of the same title (‘Das Wunder von Bern’), ensuring the football annuls are replete with the legend of West Germany’s first post-war outings.

However, behind that storied, heady summer lies another far less well-known tale. One that could have changed the course of history…

Everybody is well aware of how the end of the Second World War divided the German state, East-to-West. However, always a far-less reported part was the disputed area of the Saar. Prior to the period immediately after World War Two, the Saarland territory was hotly disputed. Yielding significant areas of coal, and a productive, fertile farming region courtesy of the route of the River Saar, its potential for exploitation appealed greatly to both France and the Prussian (and then German) Empire. At the end of the First World War, the region gained an air of autonomy, but was occupied by the Allied Nations. It was reabsorbed into Germany under the Nazis in 1935, before being handed to the French as a protectorate in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Ahead of the 1949-50 season, 1.FC Saarbrücken were strongly encouraged to apply to join the domestic French league, having competed for the previous campaign on an invitational basis. This encouragement came with strong backing from Jules Rimet himself (then head of FIFA the FFF), but was rejected by both the Saarländischer Fuβballbund and the other French clubs. Two years later, after a plethora of friendlies and one-off tournaments, 1.FC were permitted to enter the West German league system.

However interesting-a-tale this undoubtedly is, perhaps more of a story is that of the international equivalent. On a similar footing to the travails of 1.FC, it was felt that sport in general could play a significant role in the assertion of the true independence of the Saar area. Those efforts led to the creation of the Nationales Olympishces Komitee des Saarlandes (Saar National Olympic Committee), which gave formal, IOC recognition to the State’s self-governance, and culminated in participation at the 1952 Olympic Games. Alongside that, and as a result of rejecting the prospect of joining the French system, came a successful application for recognition from FIFA, and the formation of an international team.

On the 22nd of November, 1950, Saarland played their first ever international; contesting a 5-3 victory at home to a Swiss National ‘B’ Team, in front of a crowd of around 20,000 fans in Saarbrücken’s Ludwigparkstadion. Two goals a-piece from Borussia Neunkirchen’s Erich Leibenguth and FC 1912 Ernsdorf’s Herbert Martin – with a fifth from the boot of the host city’s Karl Berg – settled things. A little over six months later, and another win was secured – this time a 3-2 at home to Austria ‘B’ – before The Saar travelled abroad for the very first time, in a return encounter with Switzerland. Another triumph duly ensued (5-2), and emboldened the SFB sufficiently to submit an application to FIFA to enter qualification for the forthcoming World Cup, which was to also be held in Switzerland.

Packed to the rafters: The Ludwigsparkstadion, 22 November, 1950

At that time, FIFA employed a regionalised basis to their qualification set-up. So, and in the almost script-written inevitability that only sport seems able to induce, Saarland found themselves pitched into Group 1, alongside Norway and, yes, West Germany. And so, on the 24th of June, 1953, Saarland kicked-off what would prove to be their only run of competitive international fixtures; to the relatively imposing backdrop of the Ulevall Stadium in Oslo. Going two-down inside the opening 15 minutes, the minnows then rallied – inspired by defender Theo Puff, who played on to the 40th minute, despite suffering a broken fibula just moments into the game – to level the tie inside half an hour. Then, just seven minutes after the break, the 2-3-5 formation yielded a third for the away side, through Neunkirchen’s Gerhard Siedl (who would later go on to play for Bayern Munich and West Germany)! Somehow, the visitors subsequently managed to weather the ensuing pounding from their hosts, and when the Dutch referee blew for full-time, it was greeted with a mixture of surprise and incredulity from everyone. After Norway then held West Germany to a 1-all draw in the next game, Saarland found themselves top of the Group.

Then came a game that threatened to destabalise the political balance, as they journeyed the short trip to Stuttgart, to take on their former overlords. In a step taken to mitigate against any potential governmental ramifications, the Germans refused to fly the Saarland flag, and then went on to inflict a 3-0 defeat that history reflects as somewhat harsh on their visitors.

However, despite the loss, Saarland still went into the return fixture with the West Germans with a chance of making it to Switzerland, following a 0-0 against Norway (held in front of over 40,000 spectators, incidentally). In their tenth match, the hosts were buoyed by ten 1.FC Saarbrücken players, and the biggest crowd ever seen in the state, with upwards of 53,000 packed into the Ludwigsparkstadion to witness their heroes (a figure that was more than 1/20th of the entire population). Dominating the first quarter, Martin had a highly-debateable offside decision ruled against him to chalk off a goal, before a West German handball passed by without accord to further frustrations. Max Morlock (who would score the first for the Germans in the following year’s World Cup Final) then compounded matters by opening the scoring just before half-time. Six minutes after the break, that advantage was doubled, before a penalty from Martin restored an element of hope. Seven minutes from time, though, that final flicker was extinguished, as Hans Schäfer added a third.

The obvious disappointment notwithstanding, independence had failed to distil a certain sense of National pride in the majority of the squad, who still saw themselves as inherently German. Indeed, wing-half Kurt Clemens would later be quoted as saying: “I still remember today that I wasn’t really unhappy after both defeats [to West Germany]. 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”. Indeed, the squad would later celebrate alongside their former compatriots, in their hotel in Bern (information courtesy of http://www.wsc.co.uk/the-archive/923-Europe/4367-saarland-1950-1955).

In total, across a meagre six years of existence, Saarland contested 19 matches; winning six, with three draws and ten defeats. Three players would earn 19 caps for West Germany over the next five years (Heinz Vollmar – 12 caps, 3 goals; Gerhard Siegl – 6, 3; and Karl Ringel – 1, 0). The coach of the side during their qualification campaign – Helmut Schön – would go on to join the West German National set-up as Assistant Coach, before then taking over the reins and leading them to victory in both the 1972 European Championships and the following World Cup in 1974.

 

The team that once was: The Saarland National Side before their 1953 encounter with West Germany

Matchday reports and appearance/ goal statistics courtesy of http://www.saar-nostalgie.de/Nationalmannschaft1.htm and http://www.rsssf.com/miscellaneous/saar-recintlp.html

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