To help mark UEFA's Jubilee, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Germany chose Fritz Walter as their Golden Player.
He played for only one club, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, making his first-team debut at the age of 17. He scored a hat-trick on his international debut two years later. And on 4 July 1954, he captained West Germany to their first FIFA World Cup triumph, as they beat Hungary 3-2 in Berne. Indeed, had his national-team career not been interrupted for eight years between 1942 and 1950, Fritz Walter would likely have become the first player to win 100 caps for his country.
Walter was a hugely gifted footballer. His brilliant ball control meant he was always two steps ahead of his opponent. His ability to read the game, combined with his natural agility, allowed him to act immediately and decisively upon a situation.
Soon 'Friedrich', as his team-mates called him, developed from mere goal-getter to playmaker as his authority grew. He was no orator, yet his word carried great weight – and not just on the field of play. Long-serving national coach Sepp Herberger considered him his "right-hand man" on the pitch. In discussions that sometimes went on for hours, they worked out tactics. And if the opposition produced an unforeseen response, it required minimal eye contact between the captain on the park and the coach on the bench for the necessary adjustments to be made.
Prisoner of war
Walter was also proof of the game's universal appeal. Towards the end of the Second World War, he was taken prisoner by the Russians and held in a camp on the Romanian-Russian border, where both prisoners and guards played football. When the soldiers saw Walter play, they told their commanders and the next day he was in the guards' team against another Russian team.
The general in charge of the camp turned out to be an ardent football fan, and when the camp was dismantled, with the prisoners due to be transported into the Soviet interior, the general decided that Fritz could go home: "Fritz comes from Kaiserslautern and that's in the French-occupied zone, so he's French and can go home." Home he went, to rebuild his club. He served Kaiserslautern as coach, player, executive committee, groundsman, cashier and general help. It was at this time that he also met his future wife, an interpreter for the French occupying force.
Carry on Walter
Walter missed West Germany's first match after readmission to FIFA in 1950 due to injury, and two years later chose to retire from the international stage aged 32. The decision was prompted by headlines like "What's this old man doing in the team?" following a 3-1 defeat in Paris. However, Herberger coaxed him into a re-think and Walter agreed to carry on.
And carry on he did, leading the side to the World Cup final against Hungary. The Hungarians had beaten West Germany 8-3 earlier in the tournament and were runaway favourites. Another walkover looked likely when the Magyars took an early 2-0 lead. But Max Morlock narrowed the gap, Helmut Rahn equalised, and six minutes from time, Rahn made it 3-2. West Germany were world champions and the victory gave the country renewed self-confidence nine years after the end of the war.
End of the road
Walter retired twice in the years that followed, but was back for the 1958 FIFA World Cup. However, a serious injury suffered in the semi-final against hosts Sweden ended his international career after 61 caps and 33 goals. In 1959, he also played his last game for Kaiserslautern, with whom he had won national championships in 1951 and 1953.
Walter's popularity never waned. He worked tirelessly for the Sepp Herberger Foundation, visited young prisoners in jail and, until his death in June 2002, was a devoted father to his family as well as to the family of the 1954 world champions.
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