Wednesday 12 May 2021

1. FC Saarbrücken: A Season in French Football and a Foray Into the European Cup

Winning promotion from Germany's fourth tier Regionalliga Südwest is a far cry from defeating AC Milan in the San Siro or putting four without reply past Real Madrid. But a period of close to a decade shortly after the Second World War saw 1. FC Saarbrücken go from top of the French second division to runners up in the German Championship whilst on the European stage representing a footballing nation that no longer exists. 

A while back I wrote about the German state of Saarland, its forgotten national team, and their, ultimately failed, qualifying campaign for the 1954 World Cup. Sat on the border with France, over the centuries Saarland has had a complicated history in terms of who has ruled it. For a period after World War II it was, not for the first time, governed by France, albeit it this time with a heavy dose of autonomy - hence its own national team. That national team was, of course, short-lived as the state rejoined what was now West Germany in 1957 having been under German rule for much of the previous century. But whilst the story of the Saarland national team is very much an interesting one, I would not have written about it otherwise, the story of local club side 1. FC Saarbrücken during this period is also fascinating too. Particularly of note, amongst other things, are one season played out in the French Second Division and a European Cup tie with AC Milan.

1. FC Saarbrücken represented Saarland in the very first European Cup in 1955-56 despite having not been able to become champions of their own country as such. Although Saarland did briefly have its own national football league it only lasted until 1951 and Saarbrücken considered themselves too good for such a league so never joined. Instead, Saarbrücken created their own invitational competition where they would face off against varying sides from Europe and even a few from further afield. However, by the time they played in Europe's new club competition Saarbrücken had joined the West German league system having been part of German football before/during the war and even having reached the final of the German Championship in 1943. Things could have been very different for Saarbrücken on the domestic front, however, as initially after the war they had spent a season playing in France when new customs borders at first made travel to Germany difficult and if other clubs had not vetoed the idea they would have happily made the transition permanent. 

The club had joined French football for the start of the 1948-49 season as a guest side with Gilbert Grandval, French high commissioner for the Saar Protectorate, having supposedly been very keen on the idea. Although Saarbrücken had been given a place in France's second tier Ligue 2 it had been agreed that as a guest side their results would not count in terms of points. Nonetheless, Saarbrücken, who over the course of the season travelled some 23,000km across France to their away games, made the most of their opportunity and had their results have counted would have finished the season top of the division. 

Even though as a guest side Saarbrücken's results counted for nothing the newspapers usually printed a complete, albeit unofficial, table in which the Saarlanders were always sat at the top. Saarbrücken, or FC Sarrebruck as French called them, were very much a high scoring team that season, not just winning but usually winning by large margins. Their results that campaign included a 10-1 win, a 9-0 victory, several triumphs of 7-1, one 7-4 win, and numerous scorelines of 6-0, 6-1, and 5-1 all in their favour. Top scorer in the league that season was Herbert Binkert who, unsurprisingly, played for Saarbrücken, and the forward managed 41 goals across the whole campaign. 

Sat in first place, Saarbrücken would have finished the season on 59 points had their results counted but since they did not it was Racing Club de Lens on 53 points who would be listed as the official champions. Regardless, in any normal season Saarbrücken would have been champions of the French second tier and to emphasise their dominance at the end of the season they faced Coupe de France winners Racing Club de Paris and defeated them 4-1.

Saarbrücken's foray into French football was short lived, however, and did not last beyond that first season. A proposal from Jules Rimet, then president of both the French Football Federation (FFF) and FIFA, for Saarbrücken to officially join the French league system was rejected at the end of the campaign. 299 delegates voted in favour but 609 were against with teams from the border regions of Alsace and Lorraine, who had been forced to participate in the German leagues during Nazi occupation, particularly hostile. The vote resulted in Rimet, who had been president since 1919, resigning from his position within the FFF which sent shockwaves throughout French football.

Without a league to call home, over the next few years Saarbrücken would face varying sides from all over Europe and beyond in both that aforementioned competition they set up, known as the Internationaler Saarland Pokal, and the numerous other friendly matches they played. In the inaugural Pokal tournament, Saarbrücken defeated Stade Rennais in the final with a reported two million francs in prize money given to them as winners. A second tournament was played the following year and Saarbrücken lost 2-0 Brazillian side Atlético Mineiro in the final in what was a rare defeat for the club. Other notable matches during this period included defeating a Catalan XI comprised of mostly FC Barcelona players 2-1, a 4-1 victory over that year's FA Cup runners-up Liverpool, and 4-0 away victories over Spanish sides Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid. In front of over 50,000 spectators, the victory over a Madrid side who had not lost at home for 12 years, and who would go on to win each of the first five European Cup finals, was described as well deserved by many in the Spanish press. Saarbrücken midfielder Werner Otto, meanwhile, called that Madrid victory "a sensation" whilst after the win, Jules Rimet referred to Saarbrücken as "the most interesting football team in Europe".

Saarbrücken's exile from domestic football did not last too long, however, as they along with the rest of Saarland's clubs were back playing in the German leagues by the 1951-52 season. Saarbrücken really made the most of this return too by winning the Oberliga Südwest in their first season back and then making it all the way to the final of the pre-Bundesliga German Championship. In the final, they, unfortunately, lost 3-2 to VfB Stuttgart in front of around 85,000 spectators at the Südweststadion in Ludwigshafen. Yet although they may have lost, more than 100,000 people lined the streets for their return home and such a strong showing across the season showed that earlier results against the likes of Real Madrid were anything but flukes. Having said that the club's form would dip in the coming years.

Saarland's status as an independent nation, in football terms at least, meant that Saarbrücken despite being back in the German fold could still represent Saarland on the international stage and they officially did so by participating in the inaugural European Cup in the 1955-56 season. By this point, however, Saarbrücken had found themselves playing second fiddle to 1. FC Kaiserslautern and others in the Oberliga Südwest. Because of this decline on the pitch, they were by most people considered underdogs when drawn against a formidable AC Milan side in the first round of that fledgling European competition. The cause of Saarbrücken's decline is unclear but it must be pointed out that a few of their star names from the beginning of the decade were in the twilight of their careers by the time they faced Milan.

"They had this fantastic Swedish attack with Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm. The best attack in Europe," recalled Herbert Binkert. Both Nordahl and Liedholm had won gold medals with a very strong Sweden side at the 1948 Olympics when it was still strictly amateur before later turning professional and moving to Italy.

Nordahl, it turned out, would not play in the first leg of the tie which took place on 1 November 1955 at Milan's San Siro stadium, and neither would Binkert either. Despite taking the lead through forward Peter Krieger after just five minutes, Saarbrücken soon found themselves 3-1 down and facing a mammoth task. Waldemar Philippi who had 18 Saarland caps to his name, missing only one of their 19 official internationals, pulled one back before the break, however, and the visitors, perhaps, started to believe. That belief clearly paid off as strikes two minutes apart saw Saarbrücken in front just after the halfway point of the second-half. Karl Schirra and Herbert Martin were the men on the scoresheet, the latter himself had 17 caps for the national side. 

"Maybe [Milan] underestimated us a little," Otto recalled, and when Saarbrücken held on for a 4-3 win it was considered by many a shock result.

Saarbrücken's then coach Hans Tauchert would a few years later take over at, then German champions, Borussia Dortmund and reach the European Cup quarter finals only to be knocked out by none other than AC Milan. Their home match was the first leg on that occasion and Dortmund managed a 1-1 draw, a result that would see Saarbrücken through to the next round. But could they actually pull off a similar result or would the Italians be out for revenge after the San Siro defeat?

Although Otto felt Milan may have underestimated Saarbrücken in the first leg, Binkert, who as with Nordahl would actually play in the second three weeks later, felt they hadn't made the same mistake twice, recalling: "The Milanese no longer made the mistake of underestimating us, " before adding "Milan were simply stronger in their play in the second leg."

The city was at fever pitch for that second leg but sadly for Saarbrücken, it wasn't to be. Although the match was tied at the break with the hosts having come from one down to draw level through Binkert the second-half would be dominated by the visitors. Three further goals saw Milan win the match 4-1 with the first of those three being an own goal from Theodor Puff. After that own goal, Saarbrücken seemingly collapsed and despite all the hard work in the first leg they had sadly lost the tie 7-5.

With Saarland losing its footballing independence shortly afterwards due to the state, of course, becoming under full West German control, and Saarbrücken unfortunately never managing to become West German champions, the club never got the opportunity to play in the European Cup again. Saarbrücken joined the Bundesliga for its inaugural season in 1963-64 but finished rock bottom of the division. They did also manage a couple of seasons back in the Bundesliga in the late 1970s and were promoted back to the top flight again for one lone campaign in 1992. The club have spent most of their recent history in the lower reaches of German football but promotion from the Regionalliga Südwest in 2019-20 means they now play in the 3. Liga just two divisions below the top table. They also came to prominence in that 2019-20 campaign by reaching the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal where they sadly lost 3-0 to Bayer Leverkusen.

The odd cup run aside the modern day club may not seem much, but in those early years after the war it's fair to say 1. FC Saarbrücken had a very interesting time of it and hence can claim to have a rather unique history that most other clubs of their stature could only dream of!

Sunday 9 May 2021


I am currently working on my next article/feature and it is another fascinating foray into the past. But in the meantime whilst you wait for me to post my latest piece, feel free to watch this episode of the former cult Channel 4 show Gazzetta Football Italia from 2 June 2001.