Stuttgart, the city at the heart of Swabia and the capital of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, is perhaps best known for two things: the cars it exports, and the five-time champions of Germany, VfB Stuttgart.
Six of the 23 players in Germany’s squad for the World Cup have spent time in VfB’s colours – as has the teamchief Joachim Löw, who has both played for and coached the team. It is renowned as one of the most historic clubs in the country and one of the best places for young talent to make their name.
It is no surprise then that Stuttgart can claim some famous names as part of their rich history – players such as Guido Buchwald, Krasimir Balakov, Karlheinz Förster, Thomas Berthold and Jürgen Klinsmann. However, the name that the fans in the Cannstatter Kurve hold most dear is a name unheralded outside of Germany, and maybe even outside of the city walls.
One could say that Robert Schlienz was always destined to be a footballer. Born in 1924, his father was a footballer for the local team FV Zuffenhausen, in the northern part of Stuttgart, and the junior Schlienz joined the club at the tender age of 6. Schlienz made his debut for Zuffenhausen’s first team as a 16-year-old, also winning a Württemberg youth championship with the club.
However, like many others of his generation, Schlienz was also destined for the front lines. Schlienz was just one of 13 millions of Germans who fought in the Second World War, seeing action on the Eastern Front. He almost didn’t make it back. A piece of shrapnel wounded his jaw, and gave him a scar that he would carry for the rest of his life. He was lucky to survive; five of his terminates in the Zuffenhausen team that won the youth championship lost their life in the war.
The injury meant that Schlienz could return to Germany, but the landscape was vastly different. With Germany in a state of ‘total war’, Zuffenhausen were without many of their players, as was nearly every other team in the nation. Some clubs were so deeply affected by the war that they had to merge with others in order to field a full contingent of players, while others took on ‘guest players’. That was how Schlienz first played at the Adolf-Hitler-Kampfbahn that Stuttgart called their home.
Stuttgart had been the winners of the local Gauliga Württemberg (one of 16 top flight regional leagues) in 1943, adding to 4 previous triumphs, but were still the city’s second club behind their bitter rivals Stuttgarter Kickers. Schlienz first played for VfB in the 1944/45 season, but the season would be cut short when the Allied Powers descended on Germany to bring an end to the war and the Third Reich.
VfB Stuttgart had not been a team of particular nationwide significance before the war, but with the country dramatically changing under occupation from France, Britain, the USA and the USSR, there was a golden opportunity for the Swabians to reinvent themselves. Club officials scoured the Southern zone to find what remained of the great prewar clubs, but Schlienz would prove to be amongst the best new additions. In the new Oberliga Süd, the forward bagged 46 goals in just 30 games (over half of Stuttgart’s goals), helping his side to a first-placed finish over the great 1. FC Nürnberg, although with no national championship held that year, they did not have the chance to find out if they were the best in the country.
Stuttgart failed to challenge for the Oberliga Süd title in either of the next three seasons, failing to even qualify for the nationwide championship playoffs. And tragedy struck Schlienz in 1948. On the 13th of August, Schlienz’s mother passed away, on the eve of a cup match against VfR Aalen. Understandably preoccupied, he did not arrive on time with the team to travel Aalen, so was forced to make his own way to the game, borrowing an old Volkswagen from a friend. On his way, he lost control of his car and careered into a ditch, his vehicle overturning. His left arm had been hanging out the window of his car, and his elbow was crushed on impact.
Schlienz did not make it to Aalen to play the game; indeed, he feared he would never play any top-level match again. Hours after his car accident, his arm was amputated from just above the elbow. But Schlienz had defied the odds before, and would do so again. Encouraged by his coach, Georg Wurzer, he did not give up. Wurzer and Schlienz devised a strategy to get the star back on the pitch as soon as possible. They spent time in training working on details such as how Schlienz should roll after falling to avoid damaging what remained of his arm.
Most importantly of all, Wurzer decided that Schlienz ought to move away from his usual centre forward position, to avoid the physical contact that came with the role. Transformed into a libero, he returned to the Stuttgart side just weeks after losing his arm. While many had suspected his career would be over once deprived of the use of his left arm, in actuality, the best was yet to come. The Swabians finished 2nd in the 1949/50 Oberliga Süd, progressing to the playoffs for the German Championships.
In the quarter final, Schlienz even chipped in with a goal, helping them see off the highly fancied 1. FC Kaiserslautern, champions of the Oberliga Südwest. They then beat the famous SpVgg Fürth, who had beaten them to the Oberliga Süd title, to qualify for the final in Berlin’s Olympiastadion. It was there on the 25th of June 1950 that VfB Stuttgart would become the champions of Germany for the first time, with a 2-1 win over Kickers Offenbach. At the end of the game, the revered Stuttgart captain was hoisted onto the shoulders of the team’s trainer Wurzer. He would then collect the Meisterschale – the same trophy lifted by the Bundesliga champions today – and raise it aloft with his right hand.
Schlienz played an even bigger role when they repeated the triumph 2 years later. A sweetly struck effort into the top left corner drew Stuttgart level after 1. FC Saarbrücken had taken the lead in the final, and he took control of the game all over the pitch to help his side to a 3-2 win over the team from the Saar. As one magazine wrote afterwards, “without Schlienz, VfB wouldn’t have become German champions”.
Disappointingly, Stuttgart would not win the championship again during Schlienz’s career. They lost the final in 1953 to Kaiserslautern, but would never again reach the playoffs for the German championship. Instead, they found success in the new DFB-Pokal, which had been borne out of the ashes of the Nazi-era Tschammerpokal. Stuttgart were the 2nd winners of the reformed cup, winning in 1954 against 1. FC Köln.
That same year, West Germany shocked the world with the ‘Miracle of Bern’, where they toppled the great Hungarian team and delivered their first ever World Cup success. No Stuttgart players featured in the famous team, not even the legendary Schlienz. Why was Schlienz not included? Some say that he was unavailable for selection due to injury. It is unlikely that he would have been chosen anyway; he had never played for Germany’s national side, because coach Sepp Herberger – ever the gentleman – felt that opponents would not give their all in a battle against a one-armed player.
Herberger only gave the Stuttgart star three international caps, debuting against Ireland in 1955 and also turning out against England and the Netherlands in 1956. But there was one other game that he played against international opposition – not with the German national team, but with Stuttgart. This one-off exhibition match had little significance, but it left an impression on the great Alfredo Di Stefano. “He was the best man on the pitch”, an incredulous Di Stefano reported. “I never thought it possible that anyone could do what I saw him do, until now.”
Despite the admiration of Di Stefano, Stuttgart’s leader and captain was no longer at his prime. He was 34 years old when he won the last major honour of his career, a second DFB-Pokal title, in 1958. The team that beat Fortuna Düsseldorf 4-3 in the final was unrecognisable from the side that had won the national championship 8 years beforehand. Schlienz, the attacker Rolf Blessing, and the coach Georg Wurzer were the only 3 men involved in each of the four trophies that VfB won in the 1950’s. Schlienz would only play for one more year at the top level, before falling out with Wurzer on a summer trip to Czechoslovakia.
Wurzer left in 1960, but Schlienz would remain on the sidelines until 1961 when he finally decided to hang up his boots, having played 391 Oberliga games for Stuttgart and having notched 143 goals. Cruelly, the club that had frozen him out did not acknowledge his achievements or reward his efforts with a farewell match, and allowed Schlienz to fade from the memory.
Still puzzled and slightly embittered at his harsh treatment, Schlienz was not often found at Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion after his retirement. However, he would gradually begin to attend games more and more regularly, and in 1969 became a member of the club’s board for a brief time. When he died in 1995, aged 71, the club renamed their reserve team’s stadium in honour of the one-armed icon. Hundreds attended his funeral in Dettenhausen to pay tribute to the man who had entertained them for over a decade. As the great sports journalist Hans Blickendörfer concluded, “We will never see another Robert Schlienz.”
No matter how many top class players pass through the Mercedes-Benz Arena in future, Blickendörfer will remain correct. Not a single one will have the same mixture of courage, determination, talent and genius as the late, great Robert Schlienz.
Louis is a Londoner, who's been interested in German football ever since visiting Dortmund during the 2006 World Cup. These days, follows the Bundesliga very closely. Aside from football, Louis has a keen interest in motorsport of all kinds. And he still misses Juan Arango.