The 2010 World Cup put Germany’s new generation of talent on the map and alerted all big clubs outside Germany. The excellent performance of Joachim Löw’s men in South Africa paved the way for players like Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira to pack their bags for Madrid. However, that wasn’t the first time that Real Madrid, or any Spanish team for that matter, had sought out the services of talented German players. In fact, German footballers have plied their trade in Spain’s top flight as early as the 1920’s. Here are some of the most outstanding German footballers to have played in La Liga.
Emil Walter Buckhard (UE Figueres 1921-1923, FC Barcelona 1923-1933)
Emil Walter was the first German player to play in a Spanish team. He started his career at Germania Brötzingen in his teens but moved to Spain to find work, since the 20s in Germany were hard times for the country’s economy and jobseekers. He landed in the northern Catalan town of Figueres and was soon called to play in a friendly match for the local team, UE Figueres, in 1921, at the ripe age of 21. In this match he showed one of the most powerful shots that had been seen in Spain and they soon called him up for the first team.
Two years later, he caught the attention of Catalan giants FC Barcelona and duly signed for them. Emilio, as he was known affectionately, remained in Barcelona for ten years and amassed a total of 242 matches for the club until he retired with an injury that left him limping for the remainder of his life. He then returned to Germany and managed RSV Hückeswagen and eventually became chairman of his local club Germania Brötzingen. While he was largely unknown in Germany, Walter was a prominent figure in Barcelona and their football history and was invited to the club’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1949. However, three years later, Walter died at the premature age of 52. He was gone but not forgotten, the first in a long line of German footballers playing the beautiful game in Spain.
Günter Netzer (Real Madrid, 1973-1976)
The rebel child of German 1970s football joined Real Madrid ahead of the 1973 season. His former club manager, Hennes Weisweiler, had experienced one too many rows with his star player and Netzer decided to leave Borussia M’Gladbach to sign for the merengues. After his excellent display for the German national team in their 1972 European Championship victory, Netzer caught the eye of a Madrid side that had just seen their bitter rivals FC Barcelona sign Johan Cruyff. Having dropped in performances in recent years and needing a quick response, they signed Netzer in 1973. However, the long blonde haired playmaker did not have the desired impact right away and was somewhat of a let-down in his first season, Madrid completing a disastrous season and finishing 8th in the league. That disappointing season triggered the sacking of legendary manager Miguel Muñoz despite winning the Spanish Cup against Barcelona 4-0, in which Netzer played no part.
However, the manager the season after, the Yugoslav, Miljan Miljanić, was much more successful and rediscovered Madrid’s winning ways. Madrid started rebuilding following that season and bought Paul Breitner from Bayern München for 3m DM. The result was winning the league and cup double. With a revitalized team and a new concept, Netzer’s performances also improved considerably and began showing the talents he was initially brought in for. Nevertheless, Netzer was famous in Madrid more for his hair, his abnormally large sized boots (size 12) and for his resemblance to Spanish singer El Fary than for his football. Madrid and Netzer repeated the league success the following year but that was to be his last one for the Spanish capital’s club and he left for Grasshopper Zürich at the end of the 75-76 season.
Uli Stielike (Real Madrid, 1977-1985)
As you can see, Real Madrid are no strangers to signing German players, and Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira are just the latest on a long list of Germans to put on the white of Real. Uli Stielike was, like Günter Netzer, another player that played for Borussia M’Gladbach in the 70s and a key member of the triple Bundesliga winning side of ‘75, ‘76 and ’77. That summer, Stielike got a call from Netzer at Real Madrid telling him that Real Madrid were interested in him and that they were coming to scout him. What he didn’t know was that the Real Madrid chairman had come as well to watch him play against Dynamo Kiev. After the match, Stielike met Bernabéu at his hotel and was informed of Madrid’s interest, a transfer that went through that same summer. It turns out that after 10 minutes of the match, Bernabéu told the scout “we have to sign that guy with the moustache”. And so, that was how Stielike’s successful eight years with the merengues started.
Upon arriving at Madrid, he quickly became a hit amongst the fans thanks to his consistent and passionate displays in midfield. He won three consecutive leagues and a Spanish Cup in his first three years there but, after that, it was the end of a cycle and the beginning of another transition. Stielike was caught in the middle of the exciting yet budding Quinta del Buitre, the great Madrid team of Emilio Butragueño, Míchel and Martín Vázquez among others. In 1985, after eight years at the club, he was offered a pitiful contract by the chairman Ramón Mendoza, vritually forcing him out of the club, so Stielike decided to leave for Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Notoriously, Real Madrid and Neuchâtel played a pre-season friendly in which Madrid’s emblematic player Juanito spat in Stielike’s face. How quickly things can turn. Stielike played three seasons in Switzerland before retiring at the age of 34.
Bernd Schuster (Player: FC Barcelona 1980-1988, Real Madrid 1988-1990, Atlético Madrid 1990-1993; Manager: Xerez 2001-2003, Levante 2004-2005, Getafe 2005-2007, Real Madrid 2007-2008).
Der Blonde Engel landed in Barcelona in the summer of 1980, after being part of the European Championship winning German side. He’d only played just over 60 matches for 1.FC Köln but was snapped up by FC Barcelona for 3.6m DM after starring for Germany at the EUROs. Few knew what a controversial character he would turn out to be, a trait that was parallel to his immense talent. Schuster definitely made an impression at Barça and he was the focus of attention during matches due to his long blond hair and his thick moustache. At the age of 23 he refused to play for Germany again after only 21 caps, a considerable loss considering the talent that he had. In 1982 he was seriously injured by Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea, aptly nicknamed The Butcher of Bilbao, who incidentally also broke Diego Maradona’s ankle a year later.
Schuster the footballer was a classic example of a love-hate figure with the Barça fans. They loved him for gestures like his famous bras d’honneur towards Real Madrid players after the winning goal by Marcos in the 1983 Copa del Rey final in Zaragoza, or refusal to applaud the title-winning Madrid side as they took to the field in 1988 against Barça. He was also in hot water off the field, spending a year without playing due to problems with the Barcelona chairman Josep Lluís Núñez. He was also an active part of the famous mutiny of Barça players in 1988, demanding the resignation of the chairman due to contractual disputes on the subject of tax payments that the players had to pay. However, the most controversial moment by Schuster may have been his last, which was signing for their archrivals Real Madrid after 170 appearances and 63 goals for the Catalan club in eight years in which he won a league title, three Spanish Cups and a Cup Winner’s Cup. At Madrid, he was slightly less controversial, being the playmaker in the famous Quinta del Buitre, collecting 62 appearances and 13 goals. He won two league titles and a Spanish cup in two seasons, being a significant part of the goal scoring record team that amassed a total of 107 goals in the league, a record that has stood until this season. He then moved across the city to Atlético, another arch rival of his current club, where he gave a bit of flair to their squad for three years and winning two Spanish cups in 1991 and 1992 before leaving to go and play back in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen at the age of 34. He reamins the most successful German footballer to play in Spain.
As a manager, he nearly took lowly Xerez to the First Division in Spain between the in 2001 but was sacked after a run of poor results in 2003. After a bad experience at Shakhtar Donetsk he came back to Spain to manage Levante in 2003 during mid-season, but didn’t improve the team’s fortunes so he was sacked before the end of the season. In 2005 he was appointed Getafe manager and took them to 9th place in the league and, more importantly, the season after that he took them to the Spanish Cup final after beating Barça 6-5 on aggregate in the semifinals, after losing the first leg 5-2 at the Camp Nou. Getafe finished 9th again in the league and, in the summer of 2007, he was appointed Real Madrid manager, succeeding Fabio Capello, all while still being a FC Barcelona member. In his first season he comfortably won the league with Madrid, beating Barcelona 0-1 at Camp Nou and 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu with a previous pasillo, the guard of honour from the Barcelona players, considered a huge humiliation when Barcelona do it for Madrid and viceversa. The season after that, the results weren’t as good and Real Madrid were knocked out of the Spanish Cup by 3rd division Real Irún. He was sacked a few days before the Barcelona-Real Madrid match for publicly stating that it was “impossible” for his team to beat Barcelona in the upcoming match. A controversial end for a controversial but equally talented man.