Football book review: Tor! by Uli Hesse

Currently there is a six-week gap for fans of German football still mourning what could have been at the 2012 Euros and the kickoff of the much anticipated 2012/2013 Bundesliga season on August 24 (the 2. Bundesliga season kicks off August 3).  This interval provides a great opportunity to learn the history of German football by reading the comprehensive Tor!, written by Uli-Hesse,  first published in 2002; a comprehensive text on the rise of football and eventually the Bundesliga in Germany.

As a relative newcomer to Bundesliga fandom, and a foreigner to boot, I didn’t have as solid a background in German football history as a lot of the people I interacted with on twitter, and I wanted to rectify that. One book that kept coming up was Tor! by Uli Hesse, so I looked for it on Amazon.

Tor! has never been printed in the US, but used and import copies periodically show up on Amazon, and now there’s even a Kindle version. I put it on my wishlist, and my in-laws bought it for me for my birthday. I was excited and dove right in.

After a brief introduction, the book opens one morning in Switzerland, with a man disappointed in the bright, sunny skies. When his friend tells him, at noon, that it’s raining, he says, “Now nothing can go wrong.” Hesse writes,

It is July 4, 1954. The man’s name is Fritz Walter. In two and a half hours’ time, he will be playing a game of football against what is indisputably the best team in the world. In little more than four hours’ time, he and his companions will be living legends.

He is, of course, referring to the Miracle of Bern. I’d learned enough via osmosis to know that Bern, 1954, and Fritz Walter were really important things, so reading that paragraph sent a little shiver down my spine.

Chapter two is a discussion of club names and what the abbreviations stand for, as well as explaining how a football club could have existed before football was even invented (like TSV 1860 Munich). Simply enough, because they were a gymnastics club in 1860, which later incorporated football.

Football had a rocky start in Germany, because the Prussian ideal, which was the dominant (ruling, even) culture at the time, was for individual prowess in endurance and fitness, to be a better warrior. Football was too unpredictable, too unruly, too … English. But it caught on in the Ruhrgebiet, where some of the oldest rivalries in the Bundesliga still raise their heads, and also in southern Germany.

As advertised, this is the story of German football, starting with the first local and regional leagues, moving through the development and growth of the national team and into the birth of the Bundesliga in 1963, and taking a brief detour into the GDR. Some of the oddest statements, like a German League match between Leipzig and Prague in 1903, reminded me that Germany as we know it today isn’t very old, and its borders were quite different 100 years ago.

Hesse devotes five chapters to the first half of the 20th century, deftly weaving football into the greater politics, from clubs losing many, even all, of their players in the trenches in the Great War, to Hitler’s extreme distaste for football because of its unpredictability. Chapter seven, entitled “Gravestones for Terraces,” looks at rebuilding the league, along with the entire nation, after the Second World War.

The debate over professionalism and whether players could earn salaries looms large, as it affected both the Bundesliga and the national team. Players who went off to Italy or England to play for filthy lucre were not welcome to play for their country in international tournaments, even into the 1950s. The first major scandal in the Bundesliga, shortly after its 1963 creation, was over player salaries.

Hesse details the fall of the NT from its peak in the early 1990s, and its rebuilding through that decade. A running theme was luck: the Germans had a lucky break, they hit bad luck. Their first World Cup victory was called a “Miracle,” after all, and the next two were the result of at least as much luck as talent. The final chapter, “A Ray of Hope,” leads up to the 2002 World Cup, when the prospects of a renewed prominence of the German NT began looking brighter.

The book opened with Fritz Walter’s Wunder (and his Wetter), and it closes with his death, during the 2002 World Cup. Over on the other side of the world, a young man who had spent many afternoons at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion watching 1. FCK play, then many more playing on its pitch, mourned the loss of his friend and mentor in his typical understated way. “The news hit me very hard. A legend and role model has left us,” said Miroslav Klose.

Everything written in Tor has a contextual backdrop of the politics and society of Germany at the time.  Hesse includes not only the initial reluctance of many gymnastic clubs to sponsor or align with nascent football clubs, the long-standing philosophical feud between proponents of amateurism versus those advocating wages being paid to players, but also the ugliness of Nazi bureaucrats removing Jewish administrators and players from football and the forced and uneasy relationship between Austrian and German players to make a super German National team  following the Anschluss.  This isn’t just a text on football but it serves as a great look into the politics and culture of a country with with one of the most tumultuous histories of the 20th Century.

Just as importantly, Hesse tells the story of the individuals who created and nurtured the game in Germany, from English teachers of football such as William Townley prior to World War I at Karlsruhe and SpVgg Greuther Fürth to the famed Franz Beckenbauer, who changed footballing history in Germany as a youth by joining Bayern München instead of the 1860 München club that he supported as a youngster in working-class Giesing.

I learned much about German football that I hadn’t picked up from blogs or twitter (or wikipedia). This book belongs in the library of every German football fan and certainly in the pantheon of other great footballing texts written in the last decade, among which include Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski, Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World and The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt.

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Conni is a writer, football fan, and beer nerd. Her latest short story "Something There Is" is available in the anthology Substitution Cipher. You can follow her on twitter at @strafraum (football) or @exaggerated (writing and general life).

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