Sunday 15 November 2020

The German State That Once Had Its Own National Team and Even Faced Germany Itself For a Place at the World Cup

The border that separates France and Germany has a somewhat complicated history. Strasbourg, nowadays a firmly French city was once upon a time under German control whilst the German state of Saarland has at times been governed by France. Even today the popular French greeting of 'Salut' is still commonplace in this German speaking area, albeit having been Germanised to become 'Salü'. But although, its very earliest years apart, in footballing terms Strasbourg has always been strictly French the story of soccer in Saarland is far less straightforward. Saarland's tale is one that includes not just its own national team but also an ultimately failed World Cup qualifying campaign that hinged on a final match showdown against none other than their German neighbours to the East.

"I feel German I didn't want to stop them getting to the World Cup," said player Kurt Clemens after Saarland lost to West Germany in their final qualifying match for the 1954 World Cup. Clemens' feelings towards West Germany after the game do nothing but highlight the complicated situation in Saarland at the time. Many Saarland residents felt German and did not want to be a semi-autonomous state that was part of France as they at that time were. Luckily for them, Saarland would soon be reunited with West Germany, at the beginning of 1957 in fact, and to this day remains part of what is now a unified Germany. But Saarland's history prior to 1957, even in just the first half of the twentieth century alone, saw the people of this small state change nationality several times and, of course, even have their own national football team.

Over the centuries Saarland, which currently has a population of just over 990,000, has changed hands several times but after World War I and the treaty of Versailles it was governed by Britain and France. A referendum in 1935, however, saw the residents vote to be ruled by Germany as it had been previously and this lasted until the end of World War II. After the Germans were defeated in another world war the French wanted to get their hands on Saarland again due to its large coal deposits and that is exactly what happened. Saarland would actually have its own flag and even its own constitution but it was, despite some forms of autonomy, essentially under French supervision. This was something that, as mentioned, the people of the Saar never really enjoyed. Possibly because of this dissatisfaction at French interference, in 1954 those in the state were offered the chance of complete independence via a referendum. The public of the Saar voted against independence, however, as they wanted a return to Germany. Because of this a return to German rule was, of course, granted just three years later to see Saarland leave France and rejoin its German neighbours to the east once and for all.

Although officially becoming part of France shortly after the war ended in 1945, maybe because of the degree of autonomy it was given, Saarland soon established its own football association and never joined the French Football Federation (FFF). Having said that, despite the fact that they had formed their own association, local club 1. FC Saarbrücken joined France's Ligue 2 as a guest team for the 1948-49 season. Unfortunately, things did not end well for them. Despite winning the league comfortably, a proposal from president Jules Rimet for them to officially join the FFF was rejected by the majority of French clubs and resulted in Rimet's resignation and Saarbrücken quitting the league.

After leaving French football, Saarbrücken went on to create a short-lived invitational tournament considered a forerunner to the European Cup and when the European Cup was created soon after became Saarland's sole representatives despite having by this time actually rejoined the German league system. Saarbrücken were able to play in the European Cup because the Saarland football association had by then successfully applied to join FIFA, for which they became a member in 1950, and Saarland was therefore recognised as an independent nation for footballing purposes. Saarland remained FIFA members until the state rejoined Germany in 1957 and during this period Saarland at one point, as we know, came close to qualifying for the World Cup at what would have been West Germany's expense.

Saarland's national football team played their first match in 1950 and their last just six years later, a total on 19 matches. Most of the matches Saarland played in were international friendlies but they did partake in a three man European qualifying group for the 1954 World Cup where they faced Germany and Norway both home and away. This would be the second real dose of competitive international sport for the state having taken 36 athletes to the 1952 Olympic games in Helsinki, although this did not include a football team. Saarland's football side were coached by a young man named Helmut Schön who would later lead West Germany to European Championship success in 1972 and World Cup glory on home soil two years later but this time around he would be watching them from the opposing dugout. 

Having opened with a 3-2 win away in Norway the home match against the Norwegians was a 0-0 draw with a 3-0 defeat away in West Germany sandwiched inbetween before that final showdown between the pair. A win or a draw for West Germany would see them finish top of the group and qualify for the World Cup whilst a win for hosts Saarland would see them draw level on points with the West Germans. Despite the West Germans having a superior goal difference, finishing level on points with Saarland would mean, as per the rules in those days, a play-off match to decide qualification and if that finished level then a coin toss. 

The 'Biggest football festival on the Saar' as the matchday programme called it took place in Saarbrücken at the end of March 1954 but did anyone in Saarland actually want their team to win? Having claimed after the match he was relieved that the Saar lost, an ageing Clemens speaking to German newspaper Volksfreund in 2018 remembered an uncomfortable incident in a local sports shop a few days beforehand and said: "Suddenly the owner's daughter was standing in front of me and roared: 'Insolence that you dare to play against Germany - I hope they'll beat you ten.'"

A full house of more than 53,000 locals attended the match to supposedly cheer on West Germany but over 40,000 spectators had also attended the home match against Norway so maybe there was actually some support for the Saar after all. Not only that but, despite a narrative that everyone firmly wanted the hosts to lose, Saarland forward Herbert Binkert, also speaking to Volksfreund, said: "We weren't interested in politics we just wanted to play football," suggesting that some of the Saarland players would have been happy to win the game. 

Play football is exactly what they did as well almost taking the lead early on only for the Dutch referee to declare a Saarland goal offside. It was, of course, West Germany who won the match though and when Saarland did finally score on 67 minutes the West Germans had already found the net twice thanks to goals from Max Morlock who these days has a stadium named after him in Nuremberg. Saarland's goal came from the penalty spot but was followed 16 minutes later by another West German goal, this time from Hans Schäfer, that saw the visitors win 3-1 and qualify for the World Cup and we all know what happened next...

"We would certainly not have become world champions with Saarland," Clemens said after West Germany won the 1954 World Cup final in what became known as 'The miracle of Bern'. Although the story of West Germany winning that World Cup after defeating Puskas' Hungary is one well known throughout the footballing world Saarland's story post that qualification failure is not. To be fair, however, there is not much of a tale to tell. That match with Germany was not quite the end for Saarland but they would play only nine more times before they were disbanded. All of those games were friendly matches of which only one was won. Then, before you know it they were gone for good. Mind with the world champions on their doorstep did anyone really miss the Saar team? 

Most within the Saar supported West Germany in that 1954 final and with Saarland's Telesaar tv channel not showing the match some went to great lengths to watch it. Many close to the West German border could pick up the broadcasts from West German channel ARD whilst others could pick up broadcasts from France, but for some this was not possible. Those who could not pick up a signal with their usual aerials had to get creative and often with difficulty build larger tv antennas to get the match. Of course, many people could not afford a television though and had to listen on the radio rendering those signal problems moot. For the players of the Saarland national team, however, watching the game was certainly not a problem. The whole squad was invited to Bern where they cheered on from the stands the team that earlier in the year had beat them.

Perhaps West Germany winning that World Cup was the beginning of the end for Saarland, after all, mass support for the West German team from the Saarland population showed that most of them were German at heart even if their passports said otherwise. As we know it took less than three years after that day in Bern for Saarland to rejoin West Germany and with it bring to an end the shortlived adventure that was Saarland's national football team. After a lone qualifying campaign and a few friendlies, they had very quickly disappeared never to return. The state of Saarland lives on but firmly as part of a now unified Germany. There are, nowadays, only limited hints in Saarland of its former Frenchness, that phrase Salü being a major one, whilst anything even remotely close to independence of any kind, in football or elsewhere, is completely non existent.

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