For the 2017-2018 Bundesliga season, there are 277 foreign players, according to Transfermarkt.co.uk. This makes up nearly 52% of the league, good for 8th most of all UEFA leagues. But before we could get those talented players like Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski, we had to have those pioneering players who took a chance to come. Way back in 1963-1964, there were seven intrepid footballers who played in the inaugural Bundesliga season. These players came from four different countries and only two of them played at the same club.
Wilhelm Huberts (Austria)
Willi as he became known was an Austrian who arrived at Eintracht Frankfurt after stints in his homeland, the United States, and Italy. Willi spent his early career with Grazer AK. While on a tour of the United States, he joined a side called the New York Hungarians, where he and the club won what would later be known as the US Open Cup. He stayed for a single season before returning to Europe with AS Roma. He then made the move to the Bundesliga in its first season, signing with the Eagles. In that first season with Eintracht, Huberts scored 18 goals, good enough for a tie for fourth place for the Torjägerkanone.
Huberts stayed in Frankfurt for the rest of the 1960s and made 213 appearances for the club, scoring 67 goals. Huberts is currently sixth in club history for goals in the Bundesliga
Jacobus Prins (Netherlands)
Jacobus, who would be known simply as “Co”, joined FC Kaiserslautern from Dutch giants Ajax. In that inaugural season the Red Devils finished in 12th place with Prins scoring six league goals that season and adding another in the DFB Pokal. The next season Prins added three more goals, seeing the club finish in 13th place, even on points with Hertha Berlin, who were relegated due to financial irregularities. The following season, Prins moved back to Ajax for a season before heading to the United States to play for the Pittsburgh Phantoms and the New York Generals. During his career, He would make ten appearances for the Dutch National Team, scoring three times.
He would finish his career in 1972 with Vitesse Arnhem, making a solitary start. Prins passed away on the 26th of September 1987 from a heart attack.
Petar Radenkovic (Yugoslavia)
Petar was born in Belgrade and arrived in Germany in 1961 when he spent a season as goalkeeper playing for Wormatia Worms. He had previously spent time at Yugoslav sides Red Star Belgrade and OFK Belgrade. Following a single season with Worms Radenkovic moved to TSV Munich 1860. During that first season in Bavaria the club won the Oberliga Süd, scoring 72 goals and conceded 38, the second fewest in the league.
It was with die Löwen that he made a name for himself in German Football. Radenkovic helped turn 1860 into a dominant force for the early years of the league. In just his 2nd year with die Löwen, the club won the DFB Pokal, for the second and last time in club history. Their 2-0 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1964 DFB Pokal guaranteed that they would participate in the next year’s European Cup Winners’ Cup where they were the first German side to reach the final, losing 2-0 to West Ham United at Wembley Stadium in London. That season saw the club reach the pinnacle of the Bundesliga, losing only 4 matches and finishing three points ahead of Borussia Dortmund and rivals Bayern Munich.
After this season, however a decline at the club ensued and in the 1969-1970 season, Radenkovic’s final one, the side were relegated from the Bundesliga. Radenkovic’s record for his club included keeping 76 clean sheets in all competitions and making 215 Bundesliga appearances.
Aykut Ünyazici (Turkey)
Ünyazici arrived in Germany but not initially for sporting reasons. He arrived in Braunschweig to study engineering at the Technische Hochschule Braunschweig prior to the 1958 season and eventually he began playing local club for Eintracht Braunschweig. In the 1962-63 Oberliga Nord Season, the right back made 27 appearances in 34 matches, helping the team finish in third place. Despite finishing 12 points off of League winners Hamburger SV, Braunschweig qualified for the first Bundesliga season.
In that following season Ünyazici made 8 appearances as Braunschweig finished in 11th. The following season saw Braunschweig go in a different direction with their lineup. As a result, Aykut made just one appearance that season, a 3-0 loss to Meiderricher SV. This would be his last match in Germany, as the next summer he moved to Ankaragücü back in his native Turkey.
Heinz Versteeg (Netherlands)
The Dutch Striker Versteeg spent his entire career in Germany. He came up through the youth ranks at Meidericher SV, which is known as MSV Duisburg today. He made his first appearance for the first team in 1958 while the club was still playing in the Oberliga West. He made a total of 125 appearances for the club in the Oberliga and scored 45 times. In the 1962-63 season Versteeg went on a scoring streak most would envy. In 12 consecutive matches the then 22 year scored 13 times. To cap off this impressive streak, and just eight days after turning 23, he netted four goals in a 5-1 win over SV Sodingen. Despite this success Meidericher only finished 5th that season. The next season went even better, finishing fourth and qualified for the first Bundesliga season. Versteeg scored seven goals that season including a brace in the final match against Preussen Münster.
The clubs’ first Bundesliga season was memorable, as the club finished in third place in the 1963-64 season, losing just 4 matches all season. The only reason they weren’t a closer challenge to League winners Köln is because they had a league high 13 draws that season. Versteeg scored 10 goals that season and had six assists while playing in all 30 matches that season. The next season saw Versteeg no longer be as integral to the club. He scored twice and assisted twice as Meiderricher finished in seventh place. Versteeg played just one more season with the club after that, making 11 appearances, scoring twice and adding three assists. Meiderricher finished in eighth that season, but not necessarily because of Versteeg. Of the 11 matches Versteeg participated in, the club only won once, drew twice and lost the remaining eight matches. In his time at Meiderricher, Heinz scored 67 goals and assisted 11 others in 195 appearances. He still ranks fifth in Duisburg’s history books for most goals. He passed away on 15th of October 2009 at the age of 70.
Stevan Bena (Yugoslavia)
Stevan Bena had made a respectable career in his native Yugoslavia, spending a decade playing for his hometown Dinamo Pancevo and FK Vojvodina. In 1962 Bena was part of the Vojvodina side that reached the Quarterfinals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a forerunner to the modern-day Europa League.
In January of 1964, halfway through the first Bundesliga season, Bena made the move to TSV 1860 Munich as a 29-year-old. His season and a half in Bavaria wasn’t very successful, as he made only nine appearances with one assist. That following season Bena moved to Hannover 96 and was able to make a bigger impact. The midfielder was able to score three goals that season and helped the side finish in 12th place. Bena continued on with the club in the 1966/1967, making 28 appearances and helped Hannover finish in ninth place.
Eventually Bena would later play in the United States for the Oakland Stompers and the Dallas Tornado of the North American Soccer League. He was with the Tornado when the team won the 1971 NASL Final. From 1959-1961, Stevan also made seven appearances for the Yugoslav national team. Following his playing career Bena stayed close to the sport managing three clubs. In 1989 Bena was a the manager of Selangor FA, and guided the club to its second Malayisan Super League title. Bena died in 2012 at the age of 76.
Dragan Ilic (Yugoslavia)
The last member of this list is another Yugoslav and likely has the oddest back story of them all. Dragomir, or Dragan as he was called was initially found by Werder Bremen at a Displaced Persons camp in Ostholstein following World War II. According to transfermarkt.co.uk he signed with Die Grün-Weißen in 1949. Ilic made more than 300 appearances at Goalkeeper while the club was in the Oberliga in the 1950s. This decade saw the Werder regularly finish in the top half of the Oberliga, and were three times runners-up behind Hamburger SV in the 1958/59, 1959/60, and 1960/61 seasons. It was following that last season the Ilic chose to retire.
However, extenuating circumstances saw Ilic fill in for Bremen in the first Bundesliga season. After seeing an incredible six goalkeepers get injured, Ilic was called into duty for his side. The first match back for the then 39-year-old was on matchday six against FC Köln, who were already top of the league with 11 out of a possible 12 points. The Billy Goats scored four goals in the second half and dealt a cruel welcome back to Ilic as they prevailed 4-3.
He played in three more matches that season for Bremen, all of them wins and each time Ilic conceded just once, beating Preussen Münster 3-1, 1860 Munich 4-1, and 1. FC Nürnberg 2-1. With the injury bug behind them, Ilic would not make another appearance in the Bundesliga. But those six points the club collected with Ilic between the posts would be crucial, with the club finishing in tenth place on 28 points, just five ahead of the relegation zone.
The impression these players must have been a positive one as the next season saw the number of foreign players jump to 15. Enough can’t be said about the challenges both on and off the pitch these players faced. But without these seven footballers, it is hard to imagine that the Bundesliga would be like it is today, with footballers from 61 other nations at clubs in the German top flight.