Aidan Smith: Bundesliga wasn’t always brilliant

Thomas Muller uses a megaphone to address Bayern Munich's jubilant fans after their 'goalgasmic' 6-1 Champions League win over Porto. Picture: Getty
Thomas Muller uses a megaphone to address Bayern Munich's jubilant fans after their 'goalgasmic' 6-1 Champions League win over Porto. Picture: Getty
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ON 7 September, Germany come to Hampden. Bloody, not to put too fine a point on it, hell. Given Poland and the Republic of Ireland’s results against the world champs – a win and a draw, respectively – we will probably have to beat them, though maybe it’s too much to hope that Thomas Müller or Bastian Schweinsteiger will forget his passport.

Something like this happened in 1959. Heinz Höher had been picked for what was then the West German squad, only to fail to gain entry to Scotland. Back in Düsseldorf he had a couple of drinks and fell in with a dozen models – “He had a pretty good evening after all,” writes Ronald Reng in his new book Matchdays. The Scottish team didn’t have a bad night either. In front of the standard-for-the-time four walls of humanity – attendance: 103,415 – John White scored after just 18 seconds and the team went on to win 3-2.

‘We concluded Scotland simply had to become more German’

I have no idea if Höher, described as the “great white hope of German football”, would have fulfilled his promise in that game or on a future occasion and neither does anyone else because for him there weren’t any. He wasn’t picked for the national side again. Höher – not to be confused with Helmut Haller, who scored one of the legitimate goals in the 1966 World Cup final – continued to play and then coached, but after that he became a failed children’s author, an alcoholic and a forgotten footnote in the story of the Bundesliga, the world’s most envied league. Forgotten, that is, until he turned up uninvited at Reng’s house in Barcelona and blurted: “There’s something I have to tell you.”

You never know in football, that’s why we love it so. Last Monday, as part of Glasgow’s literary clamjamfrie, Aye Write!, your correspondent took part in a debate on the future of Scottish football. Also on the panel were Ron Ferguson, the author of that great book about the Blue Brazil, and Alan Bissett, the bluenose polymath who’s just written a play about Graeme Souness. The questions from the floor were lively and many times we reached the same conclusion: Scotland simply had to become more German.

Germany had got it right on pricing, on being family-friendly, on encouraging fan ownership, on dramatic stadia, on allowing supporters to stand, on permitting them to drink (though not so much they can no longer stand) and of course they’d got it World Cup-winningly right with player development. What wasn’t there to like about any of that?

Ah, but football is gloriously unpredictable. The following evening the celebrated Bundesliga was being ever so slightly doubted. With Jürgen Klopp’s hairy, toothy star having waned and Borussia Dortmund seemingly headed for an obscure spell mid-table, the mighty Bayern Munich were in serious danger of exiting the Champions League. Maybe the Bundesliga wasn’t quite the centre of excellence the brochures claimed, wondered other leagues – well, England’s Premier League, which was nevertheless more than keen to rehabilitate the “loser” coaches, Klopp and Pep Guardiola. But Bayern thrashed Porto, almost getting to 7-1, German football’s new iconic scoreline. “GOALGASM!” shrieked Bild newspaper. “Pep so excited he bursts his trousers.” Manchester City, it seems, will have to wait a little longer to witness such touchline antics.

Still, Bayern are not invincible and maybe come September the national team will display flaws you might have to call un-Vorsprung. Once upon a four-decade spell – up until 1969 when Tommy Gemmell booted the selfsame Helmut Haller up the backside and got sent off – Scotland never lost to Germany, East or West. And Matchdays (Simon & Schuster), which is sub-titled The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga, describes how the fussball didn’t roll off the assembly-line all sleek and super-efficient, the perfect model.

For long enough, Germany wasn’t sure it wanted a national league. Naysayers, known as “the men from the age of the goalposts”, warned that introducing the profit motive into the noble sport would lead to decadence. And because of Nazi guilt, according to Reng, there was a “national desire to just not risk any more bad moral moves”.

When the Bundesliga finally started in 1963, Bayern didn’t get in. Höher, our hero, played for Bayer Leverkusen, Meiderich SV and VfL Bochum, a mercurial winger with a mazy dribble, although shortly after the passport mishap there was a skiing mishap and he lost some of his speed. Höher was a journeyman but Reng’s idea of telling the story of the league through his subject’s travails really works. It humanises a brand of football we’ve often thought to be machine-like.

Höher witnessed a lot of the league’s early craziness involving bungs, bribes and beer (at times the book is lager-drenched). In 1971, his friends and team-mates were at the heart of the match-fixing scandal involving half the Bundesliga which engulfed German football. He heard pistols fired at training grounds. He was interviewed by Carmen Thomas, the first female presenter of Germany’s Match of the Day, who sparked outrage by misnaming Schalke 04 as Schalke 05. (Shades of our own deeply unmissed Sarah O, or as we should maybe call her now, Sarah 05).

When he moved into coaching Höher contributed to the craziness. At Duisburg, he didn’t speak to his players for weeks on end (a failure to communicate was a recurring flaw). At Bochum, he poured water on the goalmouths to freeze them so a crunch game could be moved to a bigger ground for increased takings. At Nuremberg, his 7am training sessions sparked a mutiny among half the team, but he can’t have been all mad because the chairman sacked the rebels.

Hoher, now 76, has suffered for his football but he’s still with us. The book covers hooliganism in the Bundesliga and a smug, self-congratulatory period before the watershed of Euro 2000 when Germany woke up to the fact there was no young talent coming through. It reminds you that the league wasn’t always brilliant, that Munich wasn’t built in a day.

Even now, watching the Monday night telly highlights from a hugely successful global brand, I look at the coaches and think: “That one with the heavy-metal hair looks like he might be mental and so does that one – two more and they’ll be able to run off and form a band together.”

It’s this sort of thing which gives me hope for 7 September.