On the phone with writer Ronald Reng, Heinz Höher is insistent: “Please, just give me a couple hours of your time. I want to tell you something. I have to tell you something.”
What Höher insists on telling his interlocutor takes the form of Reng’s latest book, Matchdays: the Hidden Story of the Bundesliga (translated by James Hawes, Simon and Schuster, 434 pages). But perhaps it’s Höher’s insistence and his eccentric personality, more than his actual story that comprises the heart of Reng’s narrative. That is, Matchdays, despite its intentions cannot escape from the biographical clutches of its main source, Herr Höher. Fortunately, Höher, and his journey through the Bundesliga’s founding to the present day, is a mostly compelling study.
As the book’s dust jacket explains, Reng’s conceit resembles that of film-makers the Coen Brothers, who “try to tell history through ordinary people.” In this case, Reng’s “ordinary person” is Heinz Höher, former Bundesliga players and coach. Through Höher’s long footballing career as player and coach, Reng traces the history of Germany’s Bundesliga from its 1963 founding season to the present day. Höher is there every step of the way, as his career arc serves as Reng’s synecdoche for telling the broader story of the Bundesliga’s rise. Heinz Höher is Reng’s narrative device. Like me, I bet most readers had never heard of him until Reng’s book was published. And this is Reng’s point; without Höher has our “ordinary” Virgil, Matchdays probably loses its ability to reveal a Bundesliga that is fortune-strewn, contingent, mundane, unforgiving, yet addictive for everybody. Höher’s unsung status and itinerant experiences open narrative horizons likely invisible to more famous and more eligible interlocutors for Reng.
Who is this Heinz Höher?
Well, he’s a footballer, a coach, a son, a husband, a father, and a mystery. For instance, we learn that a young Höher would drive from his Leverkusen home to quietly and methodically sit in a Köln cafe, instead of attending his universities courses, all for the sake of keeping up appearances for his worried mom. Then there’s Höher’s peroxided locks, kept long in the Beatles-style – “a bottle blondfringe, down over his forehead,” the first of its kind among German footballers, as Reng claims. Or his queerly quiet ways and quiet drinking. Or the wonderfully touching anecdotes of Höher writing to a “Mr. Wizlinger” in his private diaries. (One excerpt: “Now you just listen, Winzlinger, tomorrow it’s the final exam for my manager’s course. If I’m going to pass, I’ve got to put something original into a game of five against two.”) Or his self-published children’s book, Tomo the hero who went to school in Lübeck. Or finally his obsessive mentoring and development of footballer, Juri Judt. From these details a mottled composite of Höher emerges. Endearing? Yes. But also puzzling.
Höher’s career arc forms Matchdays‘s chronology. The Leverkusen born-and-bred (into Nazi Germany) winger is on the cusp of playing football “professionally” for the newly formed Bundesliga. However, it won’t be for Leverkusen, who didn’t make the cut for the first Bundesliga season.
Instead, Höher, former World Cup winner Helmut Rahn, dashing keeper Manfred Manglitz, global citizen and coach Rudi Gutendorf, and others find themselves playing for village club SV Meiderich (MSV Duisburg today), who miraculously qualified for the inaugural Bundesliga season.
And at this moment, Höher’s career rumbles into motion as he eventually travels a mazy Autobahn-like road through German (and European) towns and cities on an itinerant circuit. Throughout Höher’s travels, we learn about the transient and horrifyingly contingent existence of “ordinary” footballers in the early dawn of professionalized football in Germany, as injuries, personality conflicts, or playing style mismatches smite down many a skilled player, Höher included. Each stop on the road, Höher’s wife, Doris, and the kids follow. Their life comprises a strange mingling of pitched excitement and confounding drabness.
From Meiderich, Höher’s playing days take him to Twente in the Netherlands, then to VfL Bochum in what was then the Regionalliga West. A brief detour in Sepp Herberger’s die Nationalmannschaft‘s training camp (1959) once punctuated Höher’s playing career. And then it’s all over.
Reng’s narrative covers its most interesting ground as Höher transitions into his coaching career, starting with his avant-garde ideas and methods as a student at the Sports University in Köln, taught by then-Gladbach coach Hennes Weisweiler. Although the details are not clear (he’s an originator of zonal marking?), Höher conceptualized his “modern” coaching techniques that would later both baffle and inspire his players.
The book’s climax is the documented player strike that Höher victoriously weathered during his four year stint as Nürnberg (1984-88). This episode is recounted in blow-by-blow fashion with the players’ complaint letter and all. From this episode, Höher emerges with new-found validity in own “odd” (mostly silent!) coaching methods, as Nürnberg president Gerd Schmelzer – for whatever reasons – bravely keeps the faith in his avant-garde coach.
Reng uses Höher’s coaching days – in Germany at VfL Bochum, Schwarz-Weiß Essen, MSV Duisburg, Fortuna Düsseldorf, 1.FC Nürnberg, and VfB Lübeck – as a vehicle for Matchdays‘s forays into broader German football and sporting culture; for example, the meteoric rise of TV show Das Aktuelle Sportstudio or the rise of women in German sport discourse, like Carmen Thomas (and her cruelly mocked Schalke gaffe). Of course, the infamous 1970-71 Bundesliga match-fixing scandal gets the full treatment, as do the wider problems related to suppressed player wages during the Bundesliga’s first decade. Additionally, another theme Reng traces is the increasingly commodification of German football, a sport emerging from its sham amateurism days in the early 60s into a televised and corporate-sponsored spectacle, like football in Europe’s other major countries.
Thanks to Höher’s insider account, Reng’s narrative gathers strength from the accumulated details, anecdotes, worries, and reflections comprising Höher’s own experience of living through these decades, as his own story flits in and out of the wider cultural picture Reng pieces together. For example, more than anything, the Bundesliga of the 1960s-70s seems to be a league of card players drinking schnapps to stave off the terrifying boredom of life outside the practice pitch and matchdays. Descriptions of card games litter Reng’s book. Höher himself typically stars in these scenes, as his own drinking leads to a severe crisis. From these bits of stories between Bundesliga matchdays, Reng assembles a sensitively-handled human portrait of the sporting life.
However, I’m of two minds about Matchdays. On one hand, the book is successful. As a subject, Höher certainly deserves his own biography – I agree with the dust jacket’s praise of the book’s “Coen Brothers” device – given the ground Höher’s life spans, as well as his opaque personality and habits. (Surely, the film version of Höher’s life story would be lovely.)
On the other hand, the book is muddled between trying to be Höher’s biography and a cultural history of the Bundesliga. It wants to do both, and it probably could do both; but in its current form, it doesn’t. Höher’s story is the book’s center of gravity, pulling us away from the broader – and certainly more substantive – cultural history that Uli Hesse’s Tor! or even Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot covers.
Perhaps Matchdays simply suffers from a case of false advertising. As pitched, the book promises cultural history of the Bundesliga, especially as signified by the title itself: Matchdays. Yes, cultural history is there, but in a scatter-shot manner that I found to be unsatisfying and slightly disappointing. Höher’s story kept getting in the way. My reading expectations kept getting crossed up. Yet I wouldn’t have minded reading simply a Höher biography, celebrating the unsung in a uniquely Höheresque way, if the book had originally been pitched this way. Instead, I was left with the disappointed expectation that a writer of Reng’s caliber was going to cover comprehensive ground in laying out the cultural history of my favorite football league.
Moreover, Reng’s German is translated into English that feels, well, odd. The book is a sometimes uncomfortable read, prose-wise. I don’t know how much (or little) the translator, James Hawes, is to blame for this flaw. First, Hawes’ translate could have used with more line editing, as small typos littered the book. Second, Reng’s writing voice sounded something like a translated parody of a stylized genre-voice that would be recognizable in the book’s original German form. I’m eager to see the original German text to get a better feel for Reng’s native writing voice. As is, Matchdays is a slightly jarring read in English.
Nonetheless, the book is essential reading for German fußball aficionados, because of the accumulated layers of story bits, detritus, scraps, and the odd vividly descriptive detail. Taken together, these story bits do enrich my own knowledge of Bundesliga history and culture, but only has the forms of bits. However, sometimes the real / the true is a conveyor belt of bits, and it’s the risky business of hindsight narrative-casting that robs us of something. This notion helps me somewhat to reconcile myself to Reng’s book. Besides, Höher the man suddenly becomes much less interesting when hindsight curves and flattens his experience into a coherent narrative. Perhaps I need also to accept this truth about Bundesliga history itself. Perhaps I should have a chat with “Mr. Winzler”?
Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga by Ronald Reng (translated by James Hawes) out now in hardcover and ebook, published by Simon & Schuster.
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