"The city of Kaiserslautern was founded by Fritz Walter," a schoolboy's essay once claimed. The assertion was, of course, incorrect as the Rhineland-Palatinate town traces its origins back to early medieval times, but the young lad's mistake was an understandable one. The player has become something of a mythic figure not only in footballing terms, but also as a symbol of rebirth and vindication for post-war Germany.
A sporting ambassador for Germany's re-emergence into the world community, Walter was team captain and on-field lieutenant for legendary coach Sepp Herberger in building the 1954 'Miracle of Berne' side that brought home the FIFA World Cup™ to Germany for the first time.
Born in the shadow of the first 'Great War' in Kaiserslautern, he was christened Friedrich Walter, though even as a small boy he was 'Fritz' to all and the name stuck for good. Walter began by kicking a ball in the narrow streets of the city and joined up with 1. FC Kaiserslautern at the tender age of eight. The club recognised the rare talent it had on its hands and young Fritz made his senior debut for their first team at just 17 years of age.
Debut hat-trick and rebuilding Germany
The player soon began attracting the attention of Germany coach Herberger and won his first cap as a 19-year-old prodigy on 14 July 1940. He announced his arrival on the world scene with a ferocious bang, claiming a remarkable hat-trick in a 9-3 reverse of Romania.
However, as was the case with many fine young footballers of the era, Walter's hugely promising start at both club and international level was halted in its tracks by the outbreak of World War II. Between 1943 and 1950, during what should have been his best years, the playmaker made no international appearances. Conscripted in 1942, he was sent to the Eastern front where he was taken prisoner by the Russians, but unlike many others, Walter was fortunate enough to return home and to his football in 1945.
Out of the ashes of war, Herberger set to the work of crafting a new Germany side, one which was re-admitted to international competition in 1950. After a seven-year absence, Walter ran out as captain of his country again on 15 April 1951 for a clash with Switzerland in Zurich. That same year he went on to win the German championship with Kaiserslautern, a feat the Palatinate outfit were to repeat with Walter as skipper two years later. The side became known as 'Walter's 11' in recognition of its most outstanding player.
Herberger had built a formidable squad around the Kaiserslautern skipper, which included four of his club-mates, including brother Ottmar. Walter was more than a mere captain and key player though, he was the undisputed stand-in for the determined Herberger, who the player always called 'Chief'.
The international scene was dominated at the time by the apparently invincible Hungarians, who arrived at Switzerland 54 as runaway favourites after a four-year undefeated spell. A wager on the 'Magical Magyars' and their mystical captain Ferenc Puskas looked like a safe one for the first FIFA World Cup in Europe since the end of the war.
Germany opened with a win over Turkey, but Herberger sent out a second-string line-up for the next first round match against Hungary. The side collapsed to a predictably heavy 8-3 defeat against Puskas and co., provoking a barrage of calls for the coach's head. Many now believe that the boss had deeper motives concerning the way the tournament would play out that made defeat at that stage not only acceptable, but perhaps even necessary.
The same was not true against Turkey in the final group match to earn a place in the next round. Walter shone in the 7-2 rout, and again as the Germans beat a strong Yugoslavian side 2-0. The captain buried two penalties in the 6-1 semi-final victory over Austria to set the stage for a re-match with the mighty Hungarians in Berne's Wankdorf Stadium.
'Your weather, Fritz'
After a sunny start to the day, it bucketed down on this 4 July in Berne, creating conditions in which battling Fritz Walter could excel. "Your weather, Fritz," Herberger said to his captain on the journey to the stadium. To which the player confidently replied, "I have nothing against it, Chief."
Despite 'Walter's weather,' Hungary raced to a 2-0 lead in the final, with the 'Galloping Major' Puskas opening the scoring after only six minutes and Zoltan Czibor doubling the advantage two minutes later. But Germany, who had been swept aside so convincingly in the group phase, kept their composure and pulled one back through Max Morlock, before Walter swung over a corner for Helmut Rahn to level at 2-2. Hungary continued to enjoy the bulk of possession, but the 'Miracle' only arrived with six minutes remaining as Helmut 'The Boss' Rahn fired Germany into a winning 3-2 lead, and Walter became the first German captain to lift the Jules Rimet Cup.
It was an unlikely and inspiring upset, one that had ramifications far beyond the world of sport. It marked the beginning of a new Germany, restoring national self-belief after the horrors of conflict and inspiring a new determination the length and breadth of the land. Walter came to embody the triumph, and the approachable midfielder was showered with honours afterwards. He became the first footballer ever to earn the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the highest honour in a long list of decorations. He was named Honorary Germany captain and in 1995 was awarded the coveted FIFA Order of Merit.
A footballing grandmaster
Walter was a gifted technician, an artist with the ball and a footballing grandmaster of the highest order. He rates as one of the best footballers the world has ever seen, a goal hungry playmaker whose talents were honed by a stupendous work rate and burning ambition. He appeared 379 times for Kaiserslautern, scoring an astonishing 306 goals from midfield, the finest of which came against Wismut Aue as he famously performed a reverse overhead back-heel from a corner.
He consistently found the target at international level too, scoring 33 times in 61 games for Germany. His international career came to an end at the age of 37 in the 1958 FIFA World Cup semi-final against hosts Sweden when he was forced off injured, never to appear again.
Walter remained a beloved figure in Germany, largely thanks to his modesty and down-to-earth personality. He was also notoriously loyal to his hometown club and was never tempted by the many lucrative offers from FC Nancy of France and then Spanish giants Atletico Madrid, for example. He stayed in the Palatinate, turning out for Kaiserslautern in a career that spanned from 1928 to 1959.
In 1985, still in the player's lifetime, the Betzenberg Stadium was renamed after him. The totally renovated Fritz Walter stadium was a 2006 FIFA World Cup venue, and it was the old captain himself who was symbolic leader of the city's bid.
Unfortunately, this true football icon did not witness Germany 2006 at the stadium which bears his name - Fritz Walter died at the age of 81 in the summer of 2002.
"His outstanding footballing ability and his commitment to
the team were a decisive contribution to the 'Miracle of
Bern', which filled countless Germans with passion and