April 23, 2017

Der Mann mit der Mütze: A Tribute to Helmut Schön

September 15th 2015 marked the hundredth anniversary of the birth one of Germany’s finest coaches of the post-war era. Sitting calmly on the sidelines in his neatly tailored tracksuit and trademark cloth cap, the tall and almost ghost-like Helmut Schön was one of those personalities who immediately created an impression, a coach who was respected and admired by colleagues and opponents alike.

While the DFB marked the day with the laying of a wreath by former Secretary General Horst R. Schmidt and former players Jürgen Grabowski and Bernd Hölzenbein, here at the Fanatic we present our own tribute to the man popularly known as Der Mann mit der Mütze – “the man with the hat”.

The son of an art dealer and the youngest of three children, Schön was born in the city of Dresden in the then German Reich. While his background may not have been that of a typical footballer at the time, it was clear from an early age that he was a very special talent. The young Helmut may not have followed his football-sceptic father into the art world, but he would make his name as an artist on the football pitch. He also turned on his back on the opportunity to study to become a surgeon to pursue his footballing dream.

Schön initially made his mark at youth level for SV Dresdensia, before become a prolific and free-scoring centre-forward for the more well-known Dresdner FC. Before long the national team coach had his eye on the young striker, who was first selected for the Nationalmannschaft in 1937.

In different circumstances, Schön could have been one of the greatest of all time. He made his debut at the time of the much-fêted Breslau-Elf and more than played his part in the qualification campaign for the 1938 FIFA World Cup, but just as he looked set to make his name on football’s biggest stage injury struck. Unable to recover in time after surgery on a damaged meniscus – his second such injury in two years – Schön was forced to sit out the tournament as Germany suffered an embarrassing first-round replay exit at the hands of Switzerland.

The Nazi government’s decision to put a stop to all international fixtures in 1941 brought Schön’s career for the Nationalmannschaft to an abrupt halt, but domestically things carried on as usual. With the local authorities doing their best to prevent players being sent to the front, Schön was able to help Dresdner SC claim two national titles in 1943 and 1944. Meanwhile in 1942, Schön married his fiancée Annelies.

In his short international career, Schön had only managed to play sixteen games – scoring seventeen goals. It is fair to say that in other circumstances, he could have gone on to score many more.

Having moved west in the early 1950s Schön followed closely in the footsteps of his mentor Sepp Herberger in becoming coach of the Saarland in 1952, and when the region was reincorporated into the then Federal Republic of Germany in 1956 he was appointed as assistant to the Nationaltrainer – a role in which he remained until Herberger’s retirement in 1964.

The only Nationaltrainer to win more than one major international title, Schön coached the national side in a record seven major tournament finals during his fourteen year spell in charge – making the last four on five occasions. Given the relatively short career spans of modern coaches, these are records that are unlikely to be beaten.

Schön’s first successful international campaign came in his very first tournament in charge, the 1966 FIFA World Cup held in England. Despite only being in the job for two years and having witnessed the dramatic changes in German football with the onset of professionalism, the team progressed serenely to the final, losing out only in extra time to the hosts. One of the stars of the campaign was a young Franz Beckenbauer, a man who would be central to much of the team’s success for much of the following decade.

The achievements at 1966 were offset slightly by the Mannschaft’s failure to qualify for the 1968 European Championship finals, but by 1970 in Mexico the squad was truly starting to take shape. Having coming from behind to beat the defending champions in the quarter-final they lost by the odd goal in seven to Italy in a classic semi-final encounter before beating Uruguay to secure a second successive podium finish.

By 1972 all of the final pieces had fallen into place, and Schön’s second crack at the European Championships proved to be far more successful than the first. After progressing unbeaten through their qualifying group, Germany met England at Wembley in a game that would forever go down as one of the finest performances by a German team in the modern era: the hosts were given a footballing lesson as they were dispatched 3-1, and from there on there were no doubts as to the destination of the trophy. An equally dominant performance saw the Soviet Union beaten 3-0 in the final in Brussels, and Schön’s first trophy was safely in the cabinet.

Lauded by those who played for him during what was German football’s finest era, Schön was able to find that fine balance between tactical excellence and allowing players to not only develop as individuals. It was in this atmosphere that the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, Paul Breitner and Günter Netzer flourished. While it is true to say that Schön was incredibly lucky to have this highly talented group of players at his disposal, he also made them better. While the “Ramba Zamba” Euro 1972 final is still incredible to watch – Germany could have won by six or more if they really wanted to – the match at Wembley was a benchmark in the development of the beautiful game, and Schön’s real legacy.

The World Cup held on home soil two years later saw the Nationaltrainer overcome a host of problems, both on the pitch and behind the scenes. The threat of a revolt by senior players over bonus payments had threatened to derail the home side’s campaign before it had even started, and when things did get under way a series of insipid performances in the opening phase, capped by a humiliating single-goal defeat at the hands of the GDR, cast serious doubt on the team’s hopes of winning a second world crown. Many coaches might have crumbled under the pressure or simply walked away, but Schön held firm.

From somewhere the team gathered momentum, and from the second phase on they never looked back. An excellent second phase took them to the final against neighbours and rivals the Netherlands, and even a first-minute penalty for the talented and much-fêted Dutch wasn’t enough to put the Germans out of their stride. A Breitner penalty levelled the scores, and two minutes from half-time the unstoppable Müller scored what would turn out to be the winner.

Overshadowed by the media haze surrounding the “total football” of the great Dutch side of the 1970s, the style and grace of Schön’s team has largely been overlooked. The German side of the 1970s has by default been thought of as dull and boring in comparison to Cruyff et al, but simply watching them play suggests anything but. While the Dutch squad that reached the final of the 1974 World Cup have been somewhat mythologized, the fact remains that they were beaten by a German side that was just as skillful and as exciting to watch. That oft-repeated famous Cruyff turn didn’t win any World Cups; it didn’t even result in a goal. The sharp turn and shot by Gerd Müller however did.

In guiding the Mannschaft to the European and World titles in 1972 and 1974, Helmut Schön would become the first coach from any country to hold both crowns at the same time – marking what was arguably the most glorious period in the history of German football. All things come to an end though, and the penalty shootout in the 1976 European Championship final would be a bridge too far. Germany had produced a typical fightback to recover from a two-goal deficit against a determined Czechoslovakia, only to be denied in a dramatic penalty shootout and Antonín Panenka’s legendary finish.

Schön had already given notice of his resignation prior to the FIFA World Cup finals in 1978, and planned to sign off by leading the Mannschaft in their quest to retain the world title. However, the coach’s long and glittering international career would meet an ignominious end in the second phase. Up against neighbours Austria – themselves already eliminated – Germany were handed a 3-2 defeat in a match that was dubbed Der Schmach von Córdoba or the “disgrace of Córdoba”.

Schön had served as Sepp Herberger’s assistant before taking the role of Nationaltrainer, and he too would carry on the tradition in handing the baton to his number two, Jupp Derwall.

Having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and spending his final days in a nursing home in the city of Wiesbaden, Germany’s most successful coach passed away in 1996 at the age of eighty. Today, he is buried next to his wife, who passed away five years after her husband.

Much loved by many, “the man with the hat” will always be fondly remembered. Not just for his prowess as a player or unmatched success as a coach, but as a man with good grace, humility and unique sense of humour.

International Career Record as Player (1937-1941)

Total matches: 16
Total goals: 17
Tournaments (Goals): n/a

International Career Record as Coach

Total matches: 139
Wins: 87 (62.6%)
Draws: 30 (21.6%)
Defeats: 22* (15.8%)

*matches listed as defeats include the penalty shootout loss against Czechoslovakia (UEFA European Championship Final, 1976)

International Tournament Record as Coach:

FIFA World Cup: Runners-up (1966), Third Place (1970), Champions (1974), Second Phase (1978)
UEFA European Championship: DNQ (1968), Champions (1972), Runners-up (1976)

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London-based but with his heart firmly in Fröttmaning, Rick Joshua's love of German football goes back more than thirty years and has witnessed everything from the pain of Spain '82 and the glory of Italia '90 to the sheer desolation of Euro 2000. This has all been encapsulated in the encyclopaedic Schwarz und Weiß website and blog, which at some three hundred or so pages is still not complete. Should you wish to disturb him, you can get in touch with Rick on Twitter @fussballchef. This carries a double meaning, as he can prepare a mean Obazda too.