Despite their dominance of European football in the post-war era it took Germany quite some time to impose themselves on the international stage. Less than a year after Germany played their first international (a 5-3 loss to Switzerland in Basel) the national team took on England’s amateurs, at the time Olympic champions, and were soundly thrashed 9-0. Brief highlights followed, such as the 16-0 victory over Russia at the Stockholm Olympics, but by and large the Germans trailed the best of the continent until well into the 1930s.
While neighbours Austria wowed spectators with their unique brand of passing football most of Germany lagged behind in terms of development. The one place where football to match the best of Europe was being played was in Gelsenkirchen. For at Schalke 04 a special team was being built that would change the status of German football forever.
Gelsenkirchen was a city at the heart of Germany’s industrial and mining industries, providing the coal to fuel Germany’s re-emergence from the Great Depression. The city and the club were founded on the area’s working classes, with the team drawing their players from the mining and industrial communities. Yet Schalke (named after an area of the city) played the football of aristocrats, with their stylish passing game and individual excellence.
Schalke’s team was founded on the brilliance of Fritz Szepan. An inside-forward possessing tremendous technical ability, Szepan made his debut for Schalke at just 17 and would continue with the club until the start of WWII. As a playmaker Szepan was unrivalled in Germany at the time, given the breadth of his passing and the imagination to spot passes that others simply missed.
|Ernst Kuzorra and Fritz Szepan|
Szepan’s chief support in the stellar Schalke side was his brother-in-law, Ernst Kuzorra, himself an outstanding forward and German international. Together Szepan and Kuzorra led a team which came to dominate Germany football in the 1930s, winning four domestic championships and a multitude of regional trophies. The basis of their success was the key to almost all outstanding teams: movement.
The pass and move philosophy, which has won success at the top level since the beginnings of football, left Schalke’s opponents in tatters. Such was the speed of movement shown by the Schalke team that opponents were left dizzy as they tried to follow the ball. No wonder therefore that the style of play became known as the “Spinning Top”.
Schalke’s intricate passing game won them many admirers (and almost as many trophies!) but German coach Otto Nerz was not among them. Nerz, as with so many on the Continent at the time, looked upon English football as being the pinnacle of the game. For Nerz the physicality, pace and organisation of English teams, most notably Arsenal, was the route to success in football.
Rather than mimicking Schalke’s glorious style Nerz opted to use Arsenal’s WM formation for the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Most shocking was his choice of centre-back. For where Arsenal had deployed Andy Neil (a technically limited player) at centre-back, Nerz chose to use his most talented creator, Szepan. In fairness to Nerz the system proved far more effective than might have been anticipated as the team reached the semi-finals before losing to Czechoslovakia. Szepan’s doubts about the system had, for the time being at least, proved unfounded.
It was a markedly different story at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. An ignominious defeat at the hands of Norway in the competition’s second round was a calamitous blow to Germany’s footballing prestige, as well as to the pride of the watching Adolf Hitler. Despite their complete dominance of the game, the Germans were unable to breach the Norwegian defences and so hopes of a home victory quickly evaporated.
Out of such a painful defeat there was though some salvation. With the humiliation still fresh, Nerz began the slow process of handing control of the national team to his previous assistant Sepp Herberger. By the time Germany lined up to play Denmark in May 1937, Herberger was nearing complete control.
Looking back it appears obvious, but this was a remarkably balanced German side. For Herberger had taken the team built by Nerz and improved. The addition of Adolf Urban and Rudi Gellesch of Schalke to the team alongside Szepan provided more dynamism, interplay and understanding than any of Nerz’s sides had possessed. At full-back Paul Janes was easily among the finest players in Europe, Kupfer and Katzinger were outstanding wing-halves, while Otto Stiffling of Mannheim was a prolific striker.
Following the debacle of their Olympic failure Germany had strung together a number of good results. Defeats in Scotland and Ireland apart, the Germans had drawn with Italy and Holland, and then beat France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland in succession prior to facing Denmark. All the time the team was improving as the core of player grew to understand each others’ style of play.
The match with Denmark itself was, on paper, far from a formality. The Danes had beaten Sweden, Poland and Finland, as well as drawing with Norway in their last four games. In reality though the teams were utterly mismatched. Ernst Lehner opened the scoring with a volley after just seven minutes before Otto Stiffling imposed himself on the game. His five goals in rapid succession ripped the Danes apart, before Urban and Szepan rounded off the rout.
While the match did not herald a new age of German footballing dominance, it established Germany as one of the games leading forces and illustrated the merits of Herberger’s approach. Following the Anschluss with Austria of 1938 the unified Germany would suffer a disappointing first round exit at the hands of Switzerland. Yet their failure could now be perceived as an aberration, rather than the norm. With Herberger in place, Germany would soon take up their place as footballing masters of Europe.