Tradition in Trouble Part 2: Rot-Weiss Essen Is Lost Without Helmut Rahn

The most famous moment in German sports broadcasting history goes like this:

Kopfball! Abgewehrt! Aus dem Hintergrund müsste Rahn schiessen. Rahn schießt…TOR! TOR! TOR! TOR!

That translates to: Header! Cleared! From the background Rahn has to shoot. Rahn shoots…GOAL! GOAL! GOAL! GOAL!

Herbert Zimmerman, the West German radio announcer, just described the unthinkable. The man who ripped the shot from the background was Helmut Rahn. His strike that beat Gyula Grosics in the sloppy weather in the Swiss Alps turned the football world on its head. 3-2 West Germany over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup Final. Just a few harrowing minutes later, the Germans won their first World Cup, less than 10 years after committing some of the worst atrocities known to man.

Der Boss, as Rahn is more commonly known, delivered the final most important piece of the puzzle. And he was Der Boss back in his hometown, Essen. With his hair slicked back, you could see in his eyes he was ready to defend his home.

Rahn was born in Essen. He played nearly a decade for the Rot-Weiss, helping them to the DFB Pokal win in 1953 and the German Championship in 1955. And though he played in Cologne, Duisburg and a club in the Netherlands later on, he went right back to Essen after hanging up the boots. He worked as a car salesman in Essen, died in Essen and is buried in Essen. It’s hard to find a man more Essen than him.

But after Rahn left Rot-Weiss Essen, his team fell off the top and crashed down the pyramid. They weren’t selected for the Bundesliga’s first season in 1963, and only appeared in the top division seven times since the new league’s creation. The last time they were in the top division was nearly 40 years ago, and only managed an amateur football championship and DFB Pokal Final appearance in the early 90s. Now they’re bouncing around the Regionalliga West in a two-year old stadium that was a slightly larger, modern, yet uninspiring rehash of the old ground.

All that’s left of Rahn’s presence around the stadium is a small statue outside that’s climbed over by kids and what’s left of him in the gift shop.

With nothing to show for today and in the foreseeable future, they’re letting their history down. And that has seeped into one of the most unlikely places of all: the ultras.

My friend Tim and I grabbed a spot above the main ultra section last Saturday. We got in for seven Euros and took in the stadium filling up, trading stories of our travels around German football.

That call kept ringing out, “Tor! Tor! Tor! Tor!” reminding everyone of a giant who once lurked here and fought for his town over 200 times in the same kit.


And then the match started with much of the stadium not too filled or thrilled. One Rot-Weiss against another (this one from Ahlen). And the singing started, and died down. Then started again, then died down. The two leading the cheers kept raising their arms and shouting “COME ON!” In English. But outside the hundred or so in direct earshot, not too many were inspired to join in.

“The loudest person here is a Yankee!” My friend said, referring to the (presumably) lone American in the home curve (me).

He was right. I came here to cheer on a team. I’m in an ultras section, so I’d better sing and cheer for my team. But the ones around us who have been here far longer were not interested in listening to the man with the megaphone. They were more into sipping their beer and chatting amongst themselves.

I grant these supporters the fact that the match was not watchable in the first half. It was definitely fourth tier quality, if that. Just sighs from the other sections in the first 45′. Just not a great day at the ground.

At the 60th minute, it just stopped. The thuds of boots hitting the balls was all that was heard. The leaders of the ultras gave up. There was no singing. Nothing. From the 5,000 fans there was nothing.

For the first time in three seasons of traveling around Germany the ultras fell silent. Not for five minutes either. One of the ultras leaders broke out the cigarettes. They didn’t make any noise until the first goal fifteen minutes after quiet descended upon Stadion Essen.

Even during the goal celebration he couldn’t put his cigarette down. See the man looking at the field on the right.
Even during the goal celebration he couldn’t put his cigarette down. See the man looking at the field on the right.

Though the fans got loud during the goals, they were definitely missing the rest of the game. Goals are the final product of a process. The goal doesn’t just happen. The team needs to work together to get the goal and get the result. And fans should be there the whole way through. Sure they’re there in person, but their voices are subdued by the weight of history crushing the meek existence of the present and future of the club.

Der Boss’ shoes have yet to be filled and his spirit yet to be reborn in Essen. When will that day come? I just do not know. No one does.

Until then, Essen is doomed to wander the purgatory of the Regionalligas or worse in front of ever depleting, muffled crowds. Those who show up should try to get behind their side, but in this textbook existential display, what’s the point?

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