The Origins of Football in Germany

As Phillip Lahm raises the 2014 World Cup triumphantly above his ahead in the Maracanã Stadium on July 13th, a nation relishes and digests one undeniable fact: Germany are champions of the world. Nobody will forget Andre Schurrle’s left-wing cross into the Argentinian penalty box, and the perfect chest control of Mario Götze. Then, for that split second, as every football fan held their breath, Götze fired a left footed shot into the bottom right hand corner.

It doesn’t get much better than an extra-time winning goal in a World Cup Final. It is the stuff of dreams.

But where did it all start? How did Germany get to this point? Everyone is aware of Germany’s efforts in the last decade to reinvent their style of football, through such initiatives as centres of excellence. But few know the actual origins of football in the country, and this story is what I hope to explain in this article. For it is impossible to understand the present, without understanding the past.

Many German clubs did not originate as a football association. Many started out as multi-sport organisations with gymnastics being the most prominent sport.

For example, take TSV München 1860. In the club’s name, the T stands for Turen (gymnastics), which was the club’s main sport in 1860. Moreover, the club’s football division was not actually created until 1899. In fact, the first ball to be kicked by Germans in Germany was allegedly in Braunschweig in 1874.

So what’s all this about gymnastics and football? The rise of gymnastics in Germany in the 19th century owes its success to two terrible defeats at the hands of the French. In 1806, Napoleon’s troops destroyed the Prussian Army on the battlefields of Jena and Auerstedt.

Napoleon reviewing the captured Prussian standards after the battle of Jena-Auerstadt.
Napoleon reviewing the captured Prussian standards after the battle of Jena-Auerstadt.

After these defeats, the Prussian Army was reformed with a particular emphasis placed on physical education. In 1811, the first gymnastic events were organised by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who was strangely arrested in 1819. The reason? The authorities thought his views on physical education were too revolutionary in nature.

According to Jahn, gymnastics and sport were completely different with the latter being associated with the immoral society of the English. On the other hand, Gymnastics was seen as promoting unity, while also preparing young men for the “battle” of life and, of course for war.

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn: founder of the Prussian gymnastics movement, and indirect founder of German Fussball (!). (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Friedrich Ludwig Jahn: founder of the Prussian gymnastics movement, and indirect founder of German Fussball (!). (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Football reached Germany relatively early. So early in fact, that the English had not yet defined the various codes of football. The German Football Club of Hannover, founded in 1878, is often accredited with the title of being the first football club in Germany. However, what they played in Hannover was rugby. Even as late as 1900, the men who founded FC Nürnberg began playing with an oval ball. Confusion over the actual rules of football was widespread in Germany.

When studying sports history, it is important to consider how games spread. How then, did football arrive and eventually thrive in Germany?

Most games originated within the school system. In Germany, there were English schools in almost every city, which facilitated the spread of the sport. At the time, the future president of the English rugby union remarked:”‘The youth of Stuttgart, derive great pleasure from the ballgames.” A true statement indeed.

Although the oval ball was first seen in Germany in 1870, it was not until 1874 in Braunschweig that a round ball was actually used. The students had no idea what to do with it. August Hermann and fellow teacher Konrad Koch had ordered a football from England, just to try out something new. He simply threw it into a group of boys and observed as chaos ensued.

August Hermann: school master turned fussball originator, thanks to his ordered ball from England.
August Hermann: school teacher turned fussball originator, thanks to his ordered ball from England.

This was the moment when German football was born. How did the game develop from there?

Koch’s school began to play other schools at this new-found game. The town of Hamburg then set up its own football club. Eventually, the game spread outside the confines of the education system, as students began to graduate. Many clubs began to emerge in the 1880’s, such as the Football Club of Bremen, Fussballverein Hannovera, and Viktoria Berlin. However, the only club still in existence today from the early days is FC Germania Berlin, which was founded in April 1888.

The dapper gentlemen of FC Germania Berlin 1888.
The dapper gentlemen of FC Germania Berlin 1888.

How did Germans react to this new game of English origin? In general, not very well.

In the early days, footballers had to overcome many problems, such as finding boots and footballs. However, the biggest challenge was finding a place to play.

Most sports fields and public parks were controlled by gymnasts, and they refused to share them with footballers – whom they considered ‘kicking traitors to the Fatherland’. In fact, those who played football were scorned and harassed by the German public, which is hard to believe based on how football is perceived in the country today! In the end, military parade grounds, which were spacious and unused on Sundays, are where the earliest football games were played.

But other somewhat strange places also played host to games. Werder Bremen, formed in 1899, played in a cow pasture (alongside the cattle!). More bizarrely, an open area near a cemetery played host to MSV Duisburg, and many a game had to be halted to allow coffins to be carried across the field.

Werder Bremen, circa 1899, in its then pastoral confines. (Courtesy of Werder.de)
Werder Bremen, circa 1899, in its then pastoral confines. (Courtesy of Werder.de)

And then there were sheep. Not in a metaphorical sense, but actually physical animals. In 1895 in Stuttgart, a game of football terrified the sheep so much, that authorities threatened to punish the players. There were also problems in Mannheim, as sheep could no longer graze the land due to the damage caused to the grass by playing football.

Damn sheep…

Anyway, Preussen Berlin FC became the first club in Germany to have its own ground in 1899, consisting of wooden fences and a wooden stand. Elsewhere, football clubs had to be content with removable goalposts, which they carried from place to place for training or games.

Equipment was also a huge problem for these early German clubs. One humorous example is that a lack of air pumps to inflate the ball meant that ‘those with powerful lungs had to attend to the inflation of the football’. Instead of footballs, many clubs played with bicycle tubes, and ran about barefoot due to the scarcity of football boots.

I have already mentioned how football was frowned upon in the early days. Commonly referred to as the “English disease,” the game was banned in many schools, as it was deemed “absurd,” “ugly,” and “perverted.” These words are in stark contrast to what was to later become known as the “beautiful game.”

Despite opposition to the game, leagues began to spring up around the country, most notably in Berlin. Regardless, the English influence proved to be the main reason for football’s development, and solidification. For example in 1896, a team from Duisburg went to England to play four games, which, due to the large number of goals conceded, was somewhat of a disaster. While in 1899, a squad of English professional players toured Germany, beating every team emphatically in the process.

28 January 1900 is a significant date in the history of German football. On this winter’s day, 86 clubs came together in Leipzig to form the Deutscher Fussball Bund (DFB). Oddly, one of the rules set down in the early days of the DFB was that “no player is allowed to lie down to rest” during a game!

The DFB is born: a Leipzig scene in 1900.
The DFB is born: a Leipzig scene in 1900.

The DFB had one specific objective: to make football a respectable sport in Germany. In 1901, a combined team of Berlin footballers went to England and played professional clubs. Although they lost 5-1 to Southampton and 6-2 to Aston Villa, the trip was seen as a success. Football was progressing.

Then, in 1903, the DFB decided that the first games of the national championship of Germany would be played. After years of moving goalposts around the countryside and playing on sheep fields, football was finally beginning to establish itself as a respectable, orderly, and coordinated organisation.

Football in Germany was here to stay.

There you have it, the origins of football in Germany. It has come a long way, don’t you think? From playing with bicycle tubes in a sheep field in the late 1800’s, to winning the 2014 World Cup in the Maracanã Stadium in Brazil. By knowing the history of something, I believe it helps you understand the present in a clearer light.

Football wasn’t always a big money game, with extravagant wages and outrageous television deals. It started as something raw, bare, and uncontaminated, which I think is a nice way to see the game every once in a while.

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Aidan is a history student and blogger based in Ireland. Check out his blog www.aidancurran.com or follow him on Twitter @AidanCurran_

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