Interview of the Week – Horst Eckel on the Miracle of Bern, Fritz Walter and Modern Football

Horst Eckel was just 22 years old when he participated in arguably the most significant match in German football history and one of the most remarkable moments in the history of the game.  West Germany’s comeback and upset against heavy favorites Hungary in the 1954 World Cup was appropriately named, “Das Wunder von Bern”, or, the Miracle of Bern.  Eckel became known as the “Windhund” (Sighthound) for his undying spirit, speed and work rate. Having turned 80 this week, Eckel is one of the last remaining survivors of that legendary team and still embodies the spirit of that their incredible accomplishment. sat down with the man to recount that magical July day in 1954, how much the game has changed since his time and the venerable Fritz Walter and the effect he had on his life and career.

You can find the original interview here. (in German) Herr Eckel, is everything completely different in football nowadays?

Horst Eckel: Yes, everything has changed, the football of the past cannot be compared to that of today, both on the pitch and off it. The game and the environment are completely different. To me it starts with the team spirit.  That feeling of camaraderie is something that I find important to this day. The team sang “Hoch auf dem gelben Wagen” (a popular German folk song) on the bus ride to the World Cup final.  It was a different time for sure.  Is 1954 also the endpoint before the transition into modern football?

Eckel: At that time with the National Team, we had things like underwater massages, something that most people probably don’t know today. To loosen up we played football tennis and basketball.  Sepp Herberger’s knowledge of the opponent was incredible.  He taught us the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent.  We never found out where the “the chef” got his information.  Things like sports channels, databases or the internet were unimaginable in those days.  And on the pitch we did not rely on our will alone.  Our positioning, the early attacks of our opponents, etc. These were all considered and developed tactically. How important was the cohesion of the team in winning the title?

Eckel: It was decisive.  But great team spirit alone does not make you a World or European champion.  We were also a group of 22 players who all wanted to play and win.

Sepp Herberger was a key figure in the life of Eckel but also Germany's football success. What was Sepp Herberg’s biggest strength as a coach?

Eckel: Preparation. He knew absolutely everything about the upcoming opponent, the Turks, the Austrians, the Hungarians, etc. And he had an inexhaustible knowledge about football in general.  I wouldn’t call him strict but we all knew if he said something we all had to do it.  Herberger also always found the right tone and approach with every individual player. How modern was Herberger’s football?

Eckel: We used several different tactical systems in 1954 and were also able to switch during a game.  Goalkeeper, two defenders, three runners and five strikers, that was our WM-System.  Normally I would have been up against Ferenc Puskas in the final but Herberger switched my role ahead of the game and made me mark Hidegkuti.  My usual role was as an attacking wide player, right behind Fritz (Walter), strong conditioing with striking qualities.  But in the final I was played deeper in midfield because Hidegkuti normally played behind the strikers and himself played in that area of the pitch.  No other coach in the world understood the Hungarian system, much less found a way to beat it, except for one.  That was our Sepp Herberger.  Werner Liebrich marked Puskas, and I the “head” of this wonder team, Nandor Hidegkuti. “I want Hidegkuti to dream about you”, was Herberger’s direction to you.

Eckel: And decades later Hidegkuti told me that he really did have dreams about me following the match. With how much confidence did you wake up on the morning of July 4, 1954?

Eckel's job in the final was to keep his eye on Hungarian playmaker Hidegkuti

Eckel: We went to Switzerland as the clear underdogs. No one was expecting anything from us, but we knew our strengths; team spirit and conditioning.  And even footballing wise, we had nothing to hide. But even we had our doubts whether we would have any chance against strong teams like Yugoslavia or the Hungarians.  But then we improved from game to game until we made it to the last four.  And when we beat the Austrians 6-1 we no longer wanted to be second best. It was then that we first started talking about wanting to become world champions. Herberger’s trust in us and the trust in each other was also crucial. There was a photo taken prior to the match at Wankdorfstadion.  Pictured were you, Toni Turek and Fritz Walter next to the Jules Rimet trophy and you were all laughing casually a couple of minutes before the kickoff.

Eckel: When Fritz laughed before a match, you knew he was truly confident. Today this would be unimaginable. Your World Cup final started seven minutes from the normal kickoff time, namely 16:53.

Eckel: I still don’t know what happened.  We were ready.  We could have started even earlier. But after just eight minutes it was 2-0 for the Hungarians.

Eckel: And we thought, “it’s only eight minutes.” We knew that we had plenty of time left and after 18 minutes the game was level at 2-2. How close were you to being taken off at half time?

Eckel: Shortly before half time, a Hungarian player had torn my thigh but no one was going to pull me out of that game.  On the way to the locker room I told our physio Erich Deußer, “Do something, anything, but I am staying on the pitch no matter what.” A bandage was wrapped around it and on it went.  Becuase we wore long pants back then no one was able to see. Even if Herberger would have told me, “Come out of the game”, I would not have left the pitch, not in that game, not even with a flesh wound. You became World Champion at 22 and German champion at 20.  Did you ever feel overwhelmed?

Eckel: No, not at all. Maybe because I lacked perspective at that time. I started with the youth team at Kaiserslautern.  Half a year later I was allowed to train with the first team. Suddenly I was standing next to Fritz Walter.  I gave my absolute best in every training session.  Walter helped me a lot, at Kaiserslautern and with the National Team. How was your first encounter with Fritz Walter?

Eckel: Before training, the whole team stood together in a circle and it was the same in my first session and I just happened to stand right next to him. I was nervous and thought, “This will be very difficult.” But then I started playing, gave what I could, nothing more, nothing less.  At the end we had a training game where Fritz always picked teams and after the third or fourth training session he always picked me at the beginning. We never had to talk much, he knew what I was all about on the pitch and I knew where he would send his passes. And even off the pitch we had a good understanding.  It was a “Father-Son relationship” of which I am still proud to this day.  Technically speaking, Walter was an extraordinary footballer.  I had the strength and speed and he had the football brain. In your book, “The 84th Minute”, you wrote,  “I was always one who was willing, who marched on to the end, who gave absolutely everything.”

Eckel: That is right. I was always running and rarely ever exhausted.  There were games where after the final whistle I gladly would have played another 90 minutes. Where that came from, I have no idea. In 1954, you and Fritz Walter were the only players to have played all matches, six games in 17 days.

Eckel: Herberger needed Fritz in every game. But it also speaks of our understanding as players that Herberger thought, when Fritz plays, Eckel must be also be there with him. Today every step is recorded, distance covered in a game usually lies between eleven and twelve kilometers in a single match.  How much do you think you ran?

Eckel never stopped running. Here he is chasing down Hungary striker Sandor Koscis

Eckel: I don’t know since that was never recorded in my time.  But on the pitch, no matter what game, I always gave my absolute all and never stopped running. That was my biggest strength.  Eventually they called me the “Windhund”. Do you think you would fit in and do well as a player in the Bundesliga or the National Team today?

Eckel: When I was allowed to play football, I always felt well and that would be no different today. If I was still that age today I would bring the same level of performance to the Bundesliga. How close do you follow 1. FC Kaiserslautern?

Eckel: Still very closely and wholeheartedly.  I don’t miss a single home game and I still get nervous on Saturday mornings.  And when we lose I still get upset.  I am still 100% a FCKler. What about the possibility of relegation?

Eckel: It will be very very difficult but I trust the team and Marco Kurz to keep us in the Bundesliga. How well do you remember the days in the summer of 1954?

Eckel: I can still describe it to a tee. When my wife sends me downstairs to the basement to bring something up I can barely remember what to get by the time I get downstairs but when someone asks me about that tournament or the final then everything is crystal clear. I can still see clearly how we conceded both opening goals in the 6th and 8th minute and obviously the match winner, 3-2, in the 84th minute. Then please recount it for us one more time.

Eckel: A high cross came in, a Hungarian took the ball outside of his box.  I immediately starrted running back to look for Hidegkuti.  Then I saw how Helmut Rahn suddenly had the ball and ran with it.  It was clear that he was going to just try and shoot.  Suddenly I saw how he took his shot and placed it near the right post.  We went mad. Then I looked over to the bench.  Next to Herberger stood Adi Dassler who raised both hands high and pointed six fingers up.  Six minutes were left in the match.

The eleven players that would make history in 90 minutes. Almost sixty years have passed since, yet the memory is still fresh not only for you.  Does it amaze you how important the World Cup title in 1954 is to this day?

Eckel: The entire country was devastated at the time.  Many German soldiers were still in captivity. In many ways, Germany hit rock bottom. Our title win helped the entire nation get back on their feet, economically as well.  We gave the people confidence and courage again.  Everyone said to themselves, “If they can succeed in Bern, then we can do it here ourselves also.” What else from 1954, aside from the memories, remains today?

Eckel: Everything has changed, very little is still the same today. Everyone knows the moment after the match when Fritz immediately went to Herberger with the trophy.  I said to myself the following morning, “Horst, never forget where you came from and keep both feet firmly grounded.”  Today’s generation grew up differently. The economic influences of today cannot be compared to those of my time.  With the money earned nowadays, the same level of camaraderie and team spirit cannot exist.  I think it is more difficult today as a young player to deal with all the pressures.  In that sense we had it easier. When you signed with Kaiserslautern, how much did you earn?

Eckel: 320 Mark, that was the monthly salary at 1. FC Kaiserslautern.  We trained twice a week and at the beginning I had to pay many of the expenses.  Professionally I worked as a mechanic.  A couple of days after the World Cup win I returned to the factory.  That was how it was back then.  To us the money was not important. After your playing career in the late sixties, you studied art and sports and then worked as a teacher for two decades.

Eckel: That was the most important stage of my life.  Of course, the studying came difficult for me. I was nearly forty years old, had played football all my life, and suddenly I was back in the class room alongside students much younger than me.  Without my wife, Hannelore, whom I have been with for 55 years now, I would have never gotten through that period.

Eckel supports his club as vehemently now as he did in his early days and works in youth outreach. You have also been working with the Sepp Herberger foundation for many years now.  You regularly visit prisons for young people and football is supposed to play a part in rehabilitation. Do you think it is effective?

Eckel: I have over a hundred prison visits behind me.  And it often included very emotional reactions.  All those kids want is a chance to turn their lives around. That was very moving for me to see.  Fritz Walter asked me at that time to get involved and help with this project.  Everyone deserves a second chance and when you make an effort to help and deal with them honestly I know that it can make a difference. You were a consultant on the set of “Wunder von Bern”.  Were you satisfied with how the movie turned out?

Eckel: I did not know what to expect at the time.  To work with the young footballers was a lot of fun for me and I remain friends with many of them to this day. I would say that 90% of the film is accurate but whether Sepp Herberger really told the cleaning women in our hotel that the “ball is round”, I doubt it. Last question. How do you like the reigning European and World Champions?

Eckel: The Spanish have had a very strong team. I don’t know whether they are still the strongest team in the world though Because…?

Eckel: Because that might well be us at the moment.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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