Now definitively part of Germany, for a while the Saar's status was in flux. And, for a fleeting moment in history, the region was also an unlikely centre of footballing attention, explains Paul Joyce
The golden age of football in the Saar – today a region of Germany that borders Luxembourg and France – was a by-product of the tug-of-war over its political status.
The region had been incorporated into France during the revolutionary wars, but became independent after the fall of Napoleon, then part of united Germany in 1870. However, in the wake of the First World War it was administered by the League of Nations until a 1935 plebiscite restored it to Berlin’s authority. War again led to a change in its status: in 1947, the Saar became a French protectorate, with its own government and constitution, and its high commissioner, Gilbert Grandval, encouraged the integration of Saar sports into French associations as a means of diminishing German influence.
1.FC Saarbrücken, who had reached the final of the German championship in 1943, were invited to join the French Second Division for the 1948-49 season as an hors concours guest, after AS Angoulême had been persuaded to withdraw. Had their results counted, “FC Sarrebruck” would have won the division by a mile, dispatching Rouen 10-1 and Valenciennes 9-0 on their way.
Saarbrücken then applied to join the French Football Federation at the instigation of Jules Rimet, president of both the FFF and FIFA. But French clubs voted unanimously against the move, arguing that “the Saar people will never be French”. Particularly hostile were teams from Alsace and Lorraine, who had been forced to play in the German Gauliga during the war. Rimet, head of the FFF since 1919, resigned.
With their assimilation policy in tatters, the French instead sought to emphasise the Saar’s autonomy by internationalising its sport. As the newly created Saar Ehrenliga was deemed too weak for FCS (as 1.FC are known), the Internationaler Saarlandpokal, a forerunner of the European Cup, was established, with 15 European (but not German) clubs plus Santiago de Chile competing for prize money of two million francs. In June 1950, FCS beat Stade Rennais 4-0 to win the inaugural trophy.
Friendly results were even more impressive. Centre-forward Herbert Binkert, who described FCS as “Saarland’s best foreign minister”, scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win against Liverpool in May 1950. A Catalonia side comprising Barcelona and Espanyol players were beaten, then Real Madrid suffered a 4-0 home defeat in February 1951.
The second Internationaler Saarlandpokal was never completed, as Saar teams were allowed into the German leagues from 1951-52. No one expected a ring-rusty Saarbrücken to win the regional Oberliga Südwest then reach the final of the German championship, but they did. To the relief of German and Saar politicians alike, FCS lost 3-2 to VfB Stuttgart. With no substitutions allowed, FCS had to play the last 25 minutes with defender Theo Puff in goal after an injury to keeper Erwin Strempel. Two other outfield players were virtually immobile.
Worldwide competitions were also used to underline the Saar’s autonomy. Nothing emphasised the protectorate’s separate status more starkly than the opening ceremony of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where Finnish alphabetical order meant the Saar team marched out directly in front of Germany’s. Having joined FIFA in 1950, Saarland’s decision to participate in the 1954 World Cup qualifiers was made with an awareness that the regionalisation of the draw could well lead to their national side facing West Germany – and it did.
Saarland’s first qualifying match, in June 1953, was a 3-2 win in Norway. Despite a broken fibula, Theo Puff played on to help his team overcome an initial 2-0 deficit. After West Germany could only draw 1-1 in Norway, this meant that the table was led by a territory with just 977,000 inhabitants.
The away match in West Germany in October was a diplomatic minefield for the hosts. As displaying the Saarland flag could have been construed as an official recognition of autonomy, only the Dutch flag of the match officials was flown in Stuttgart. A flattering 3-0 home victory meant that the return leg in March 1954 would decide who reached that summer’s finals.
There were 53,000 fans in Saarbrücken’s Ludwigsparkstadion to see the early exchanges dominated by a Saarland side playing in red, white and blue and containing ten FCS players. Striker Herbert Martin had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside and a handball by German defender Werner Kohlmeyer in his own penalty area went unpunished. To make matters worse, West Germany’s final goal in their 3-1 win resulted from a foul on the Saar goalkeeper.
If the aim of the qualifiers had been to drive a wedge between the Saar and Germany, it backfired spectacularly. “I still remember today that I wasn’t really unhappy after both defeats,” Saarland wing-half Kurt Clemens would recall. “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.” The Saarland team were invited to the Wankdorf stadium in Berne to watch West Germany win the 1954 World Cup final and then celebrated with the victors in their hotel. Saarland manager Helmut Schön went on to coach West Germany to their next World Cup success, in 1974.
Public euphoria at the German victory contributed to a rejection in October 1955 of the “Saar statute”, which would have made the region an independent territory. As a consequence, the Saar instead became part of West Germany on January 1, 1957.
The Europeanisation of Saar football ended on a high. Although they had only finished third in the Oberliga Südwest, 1.FC Saarbrücken were chosen to represent the Saar in the first European Cup in 1955. Few gave FCS a chance when they were drawn in the first round against an AC Milan team containing Liedholm, Nordahl and Schiaffino. But Saarbrücken recovered from 3-1 down in Italy to win 4-3, meaning that avoiding a two-goal defeat in the home leg would send them through. Yet having held Milan at 1-1 for 75 minutes, an own goal by Puff triggered an agonising 4-1 defeat.
FCS have not returned to the European stage. They finished bottom of the inaugural Bundesliga in 1963-64 and, although players such as Andreas Brehme and Anthony Yeboah have passed through their ranks, Saarbrücken have spent only a further four seasons in the top flight, most recently in 1992-93. Currently in the fourth division after two successive relegations, they need to finish in the top four this season to avoid dropping another level in a restructuring of the league pyramid.
The same fate awaits Saar clubs Borussia Neunkirchen, who spent three seasons in the Bundesliga in the Sixties, and FC Homburg, whose top-flight stay is best remembered for their sponsorship by a condom manufacturer. The sharp decline in Saar football is due in part to the collapse of the region’s industrial base. Röchling Völklingen, who twice played in the Bundesliga promotion play-offs, lost their works sponsorship as a result of the 1977 steel crisis and are now in the fifth tier.
Despite recent calls for a merger of the region’s top clubs to form an all-conquering “FC Saar”, local rivalries mean that a collective Saar identity may prove as elusive in 2008 as it was in the 1950s.
From WSC 255 May 2008
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