Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Focus On : Helmut Schon

  Given a choice, the intelligent coach seeking a new job would always prefer to take over a team which narrowly avoided relegation rather than one which was current holders of the championship. But for Helmut Schon there was no choice in June, 1964, when Sepp Herberger retired. Herberger, then 67 years old had been selector-manager-coach of the German national team for 28 years; that in itself representing a World record, and the man who engineered West Germany's World Cup win in 1954, and steered them to the semi finals in Sweden four years later. To work in the shadow of 'Uncle Sepp' was problem enough, but Schon had been Herberger's chief assistant for six years and was an almost automatic choice. Herberger himself recommended that the Deutscher Fussball Bund should appoint Schon and that was enough for the DFB. Within four months of his appointment Schon's future was in jeopardy. Unbeaten in any World Cup qualifying match, the Germans came perilously close to defeat when they were held to a 1-1 draw by Sweden in Berlin. With Cyprus completing the West Germany-Sweden group it was clear to the critical press and the doubting public that the Swedes could not be expected to drop any silly points to Cyprus. Schon would have to earn Germany a place in the 1966 World Cup finals by beating Sweden in Stockholm. Fortunately, Schon had time on his side for the Stockholm test was almost a year away, but in that year Schon did little to re-assure the doubters. In that period the Germans were held to another home draw by Italy (1-1) and followed that by losing three of their next four games. All this time, Uwe Seeler, centre forward of Hamburg and when fit, captain of West Germany, had been out of action. An injury to an achilles tendon threatened to put an end to his career and only three weeks before the date in Stockholm, Seeler began to train again after almost a year of inactivity. A fortnight before the trip to Stockholm, Seeler turned out for Hamburg but limped off in pain before half time. Schon's national team had missed Seeler badly. As the spearhead of the German attack Seeler was irreplaceable; his courage and will to win were an inspiration to all his colleagues, but he was obviously unfit and short of match practice.

Herberger advised Schon to play Seeler, but still in doubt Schon included him in the party that flew to Sweden without having made a decision either way. For Schon, this was the big test. Win in Stockholm and the passage to England was assured together with Schon's future. Lose, and he would almost certainly be sacked. The decision was taken the day before the match. Seeler begged to be allowed to play. Schon, knowing that at best he was only half fit, was doubtful. Seeler insisted and Schon, finally agreed —undoubtedly the biggest gamble of his life. In the event Seeler contributed very little in the 90 minutes. By any standards he had a 'stinker'. With a minute to go before the break, Jonsson put Sweden ahead only for Kramer to equalise almost straight from the re-start. The second half was all Sweden's save for a few seconds in the 55th minute when Seeler snatched what proved to be the winning goal. Seeler didn't play again for several weeks, but Schon had gambled and won. From this moment on the critics were silenced; Schon was indeed 'DerChef ... the chief. Schon's successes in the final stages of the 1966 World Cup are common knowledge culminating with the final at Wembley where England took the World Cup for the first time by four goals to two in extra time. Even so Schon's background remains almost unknown. Born in Dresden in 1915 which is now part of East Germany, Helmut Schon played for the Dresdner Sport Club. An inside forward, he was at one time coached by the famous Scottish coach Jimmy Hogan who successfully sold the old Scottish short-passing game throughout Eastern and Central Europe. With Dresdner SC Schon played a major role in winning two championship titles and was twice on the winning side in the German FA Cup Final. Capped 16 times he scored 17 goals for Germany in international matches and his active career came to an end during the war through a knee injury.

After the war Schon took up a teaching position at the famous Sportschule in Koln (Cologne) which is the administrative and technical football coaching centre of the DFB. Later he took over as chief coach in the Saar an area bigger than Yorkshire and then in 1958 Herberger invited him to become his assistant, working exclusively with the national team. At 54, Schon is not yet accepted universally as another Herberger, but if he is not yet recognised as a 'wily old fox' he is certainly on his way. Before the critical World Cup qualifying match with Scotland in Hamburg where Schon clinched his claim to a place in Mexico, he announced his team. Three days before the game the German team was known but hours before the kick-off Schon had second thoughts when it became clear that Celtic left back Gemmell was to play for Scotland. Knowing that Gemmell loves to move upfield frequently, he omitted right winger Bernd Dorfel and replaced him with Reinhardt Libuda who is a lazier, but quick winger of the old school. With the score at 2-2 a quick break by the Germans found Libuda on his own with Gemmell nowhere in sight and off went the winger to close in on goal and hit what proved to be the clincher in a 3-2 win.

Schon still has his critics but little by little he is winning them all over. During the 1966 World Cup he certainly overestimated the value of left winger Lothar Emmerich whose 31 goals in the 1965-66 Bundesliga gave him top place amongst the league scorers. In four World Cup games in England (including the final) Emmerich chipped in with only one goal and significantly he has never been capped since and is now playing in Belgium. At the same time it was generally agreed that one of the West German's biggest assets was the skilful distribution of Franz Beckenbauer at right half. Until the final Beckenbauer was given a free role in midfield, but for the final Schon 'shackled' his major midfield schemer by giving him the job of shadowing England's Bobby Charlton. Looking back with hindsight the expert opinion on the continent regards this as a key factor in the Germans' defeat. Emmerich should have been omitted to make room for another defender whose job would have been to 'take care' of Charlton while Beckenbauer would then have been left free to do the job he does best. Interviewed after he had seen his team beat Scotland 3-2 and book their place in Mexico, Schon remains very cagey and refuses to be drawn on whom he regards as leading contenders for the World crown. "I have," he said, "followed the results of the teams that have qualified and seen as many as possible myself. Other games I have seen on television and also studied films of key games that I could not get to." It is clear, however, that England are regarded by Schon as a strong contender.

"The last time we met England was in Hanover at the end of the 1967-68 season. Frankly I was disappointed by the England performance but, remember, this was only a friendly match." The Germans won that game 1-0 but what Schon did not mention was the psychological importance of that victory. Until then England had never lost to Germany and having broken the 'spell' this could prove to be of great value if the two sides clash in Mexico. Tactically Herr Schon refuses to be drawn. He has made plans, he admits, but they are only sketchy, and firm decisions will not be taken until the opposition is known and the 'enemy' have named their team. On one point, however, Schon is quite firm. He took his likely World Cup squad to Mexico before Christmas, 1968, and drew 0-0 with Mexico at the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City. "All the European teams," says Schon, "will find it difficult to play at the altitude of Mexico City and at the very least they will require three to four weeks to acclimatise." If anything it seems likely that the German squad for Mexico will be even stronger than that which took part in the 1966 series. Six of the eleven who played in the 1966 final are still members of the current squad — Schulz, Hottges, Beckenbauer, Overath, Haller and Seeler all played against Scotland in Hamburg, while a seventh star, left back Karl Heinz Schnellinger, played in the drawn game at Hampden Park, Glasgow but was in Argentina with his club AC Milan the day Scotland visited Hamburg. Schnellinger will certainly be available for Mexico, giving Schon seven of the '66 XI and though Schulz and Seeler are both 31, neither is really too old and the average age of the present team is only 26. In addition to all this, Schon has two real aces in Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller who have matured enormously in the last four years. These two respectively do for West Germany what Peters and Hurst did for England in 1966 —with Muller widely recognised as one of Europe's most formidable strikers.

Though Schon himself will not be drawn on such points, German critics who know him personally are sure that he regards England and West Germany as the leading European contenders. Standards of play in the Bundesliga are very similar to those in the English First Division and the players have a very similar attitude towards physical contact and strong but fair tackling. Whether or not Schon will include a winger in his Mexico team —or even two wingers —depends very largely on the choice open to him. As in England there is at the moment a very real lack of top class wingers in the Bundesliga, and a majority of the leading clubs play with either only one winger or none at all. But right at the heart of the big question is the attitude of German players towards playing for their country. They, almost alone in the World today, are still not paid 'appearance money' or 'win-bonuses' for international matches. Asked about this in 1966, the players voted unanimously against being paid. For them it is clear the honour of playing for Deutschland is reward enough and in the Nationalmannschaft (their national team) they play their hearts out... The Manschaft did a great tournament, kicked out only in the semi finals by a great Italian Team, and final won the World Cup in 1974 with still Helmut Schon...

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