Germany is a country in love with football and with an impressive list of honours to boot. With three FIFA World Cup™ titles and three European Championships to their name, Germany may now be one of the most decorated football nations in the world, but it would be fair to say that they did not exactly take the game to their hearts straight away, as Der ganz grosse Traum (The Great Dream) shows in quite humorous fashion. The game was first introduced at the height of the German Empire, and it needed the strong personalities of a select group of pioneers who were enthralled by a game that was originally labelled as an “English disease” and used all of their nous to change German society’s way of thinking and acting.
“Anyone who watches the film will get a sense of how football first came to Germany. We wanted to pay tribute to those football pioneers, but at the same time we wanted to try and explain why the game is so popular,” says Raoul Reinert, the producer and brains behind the movie, in an interview with FIFA World.
“Where exactly do these emotions come from, these emotions that many people cannot explain? Where does this sense of community come from, this feeling of belonging? What kind of emotions does football create? We have tried to look at this deep-seated feeling, to try and explain football’s beating heart, if you like.”
And what better way to do that than to tell the story of the man who took the game to Germany in the first place? The main character in the film is a teacher by the name of Konrad Koch, who lived in England for a while before joining a school in Braunschweig in 1874, bringing with him not only some new ideas and a touch of British humour, but also a leather ball that he gave to a group of sceptical boys during a PE class.
“Try it. Kick it as hard as you like!” Koch (played by renowned German actor Daniel Brühl) tells the kids in the film. Just as in the movie, the school children’s initial scepticism soon turned into a sense of enthusiasm that could not be stopped once it had taken root, despite the resistance that this “raw, English” game first encountered in Germany towards the end of the 19th century.
For dramatic reasons, the movie condenses the first 20 years of German football history into one sole school year, and even the depiction of Koch and his family is not exactly true to life. Koch’s father, for example, is killed in action during the film, whereas in reality he was actually still teaching. Football historian Malte Oberschelp also points out that The Great Dream paints a picture of Koch that makes him appear to be more ahead of his time then he actually was.
“In the film, he is a modern, almost anti-authoritarian English teacher who wants to change the old-fashioned German school methods. He is also a pacifist in a German Empire dominated by the military, but in actual fact, Koch was a conservative and patriotic man who taught Latin and Greek and whose desire for reform stretched only as far as football and cricket.”
The Great Dream is more of a drama than a documentary, however, which is hardly surprising as virtually all of the documents detailing Koch, his travels and his work as a teacher were destroyed when his school’s archives went up in flames in the early 20th century.
What is undisputed, however, is that football initially met with some strong resistance in Germany. The late 19th century was a time when certain countries began to step up their pursuit of colonies for their empires, which in turn led to an evermore critical German attitude towards England and of “the English game”. The German associations of gymnasts and sports teachers were particularly critical of football, calling it “messing about with your feet” or “the English disease”.
“Students and teachers were banned from playing football, and Bavaria did not allow football until 1927,” explains Reinert. “Critics claimed that football would make children rebellious and unsuitable for future call-ups to the army. Today, it’s virtually the exact opposite, as parents now enrol their children in football clubs so that they can build up their self-confidence and learn about team spirit.”
Koch did not want to replace gymnastics with football, however. Quite the opposite in fact, as Koch thought that football would just be a welcome addition to the rather monotonous work on gymnastic equipment.
“Koch never intended to make a professional sport out of football or break from society’s norms. He merely saw football as a ‘game’ and a welcome alternative to sitting around doing nothing or the youngsters’ many trips to local bars,” says Oberschelp.
German “Laws of the Game"
Twelve months after introducing his school to the game, Koch produced the first “Laws of the Game” in German. Koch’s document was actually based on Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s principles of gymnastics being a fun pursuit, suggesting that Koch saw football as part of gymnastics and not as an alternative.
In contrast to the story told in the film, Koch actually started with a rugby ball and only allowed a mixed form of association football to be played during the winter, which explains why his regulations allowed players to “receive the ball” with their hands in certain situations. It was only later that Koch adapted his “laws” to those of English association football so that players were stopped from picking the ball up. The referee’s whistle and penalty kicks were also only introduced at a later stage.
Criticism of the game’s English origins from Germans merely strengthened Koch’s determination to translate football-specific terms into German as part of his efforts to make sure football took root in Germany. In doing so, he used a lot of German military vocabulary (such as Stürmer for striker) and his terms are still in use today.
To try and keep the protests from German nationals as quiet as possible, Koch even went a step further by expressly banning all footballers – including children – from using the English terms. In 1901, Koch wrote: “Every spectator who feels German will be tempted to grab hold of a boy who talks about ‘goals’ and ‘kicking’ to impress upon him just how unsuitable that actually is for a German boy.”
Mind the wind
There is an interesting parallel to all of this in the medical work now being carried out by the FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-MARC), in that one of Koch’s contemporaries, Dr Friedrich Reck, also looked into the medical aspects of football right from the very start, even though most of his findings would hold little weight today. One of his guidelines, for example, was that “When setting up the pitch for a game, it should be ensured that no student has to run into an easterly wind. Furthermore, no student may take off his jacket without permission. This permission will only be given to those who wear a woollen shirt.”
Koch’s own “laws” also contained stipulations about line-ups, as back then teams played an incredible brand of attacking football with five attackers in a 2-3-5 formation.
But no matter which rules were used, those early football pioneers had no doubt that football was a unifying force. Whether the players were rich, poor, clever or not so clever, they knew that everyone played together in a team and that only together would they be able to achieve their goals. In Der ganz grosse Traum, for example, there is a working-class boy who is an outsider in his school class before he is accepted by the middle-class boys thanks to his skills on the football pitch, the perfect example of just what football can do.
“Being successful together. Team spirit, or, as Konrad Koch would have described it, camaraderie. That may just be the secret behind the incredible success of football,” suggests Reinert.
The first clubs
Koch’s name is also inextricably linked to the history of football clubs in Germany, as he formed the first club for students in Braunschweig in 1875. Three years later, new clubs were formed in Hannover and Bremen, although they were also open to non-students and rugby was played as well as football. In 1888, the first football-only club was founded in Berlin (BFC Germania), and in 1895, the first adults-only club was formed in Braunschweig.
Koch, however, believed that football was a sport for gymnasts, even though the vast majority of them wanted little to do with the game. Instead, football went from strength to strength in sports clubs.
“As paradoxical as it may now sound, Koch actually rejected the sport when it came to confrontations with the world of gymnastics,” insists Oberschelp. “There were some major clashes between followers of the two sports around then, and Koch mostly sided with the gymnasts. He also frowned upon the colourful, English-style shirts that footballers wore at sports clubs, and he was not in favour of playing against foreign teams, training, big crowds and especially professionalism.”
Koch was not the only man who paved the way for the development and commercial success of the game, however, as Reinert explains: “Koch was the man who introduced football in schools and he also formed the first student team. He was also the first person to translate the English laws, but another key man in the history of German football was Walter Bensemann, who, unlike Koch, quickly saw the unifying power and the commercial potential of football because of international matches and the increasing global popularity of the game.”
Bensemann was one of the men who founded the German Football Association (DFB) in 1900 before going on to launch Kicker, a respected German football magazine that is still going strong today. The Great Dream, however, tells the story of Konrad Koch, a man whose pioneering spirit laid the foundations for football to gain strength in Germany.
A story worth telling
The Great Dream has already been in cinemas in Germany and Austria for a few weeks, and has also been seen by the current German team. As the film’s star, Brühl, who describes the movie as a cross between The Miracle of Berne and Dead Poets Society, even got to meet the team at a special screening in February.
“For me, it is much more exciting to meet the national team than German Chancellor Angela Merkel or a Hollywood star, for instance. This is the kind of thing you dream about as a young boy,” said a visibly delighted Brühl before revealing in an interview with the German Football Association that his first “encounter” with Konrad Koch was “very embarrassing”.
“I’d always thought that I was a football fan with an incredible knowledge of the game, but when I realised that I knew nothing about Konrad Koch, the man who brought the game to Germany, I felt like a candidate on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? who gets the €500 question wrong!” There was, however, a small measure of consolation for Brühl when he found out that his football-crazy friends had not heard of Koch either.
“I find it incredible that there hasn’t been a film about this man before. His life is definitely a story worth telling,” said Brühl after completing the movie. German film critics would seem to agree, with the movie having already picked up three nominations for the 2011 German Film Awards, including for Best Picture. The Great Dream is also set to receive international attention this month when it is due to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival.