Germans jubilated in Ulsan when an unanswered Michael Ballack goal gave them victory over USA in their 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ quarter-final.
But while Rudi Voller and his players made the short 200-odd mile journey to Seoul the following day, to prepare for a semi-final against the South Koreans, a crop of the most important figures in German football, including then DFB president Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder and the iconic Franz Beckenbauer, were beginning the gruelling 5,400-mile trip to Kaiserslautern.
There, they would stay less than 24 hours before flying back out to Korea Republic. Yet while it may sound illogical that Mayer-Vorfelder and Beckenbauer waved goodbye to the German camp for such a short space of time and a solitary event, they would never have missed the opportunity to say a last goodbye to a man described by the latter as “without doubt the most important German footballer in history”.
His name was Fritz Walter. It was one synonymous with FC Kaiserslautern, the Germany national team and the Final of Switzerland 1954. The club was the only one the attacking midfielder represented during a magnificent career.
The country is the one to whom he went down as its UEFA Golden Player ahead of the likes of Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Lothar Matthaus. The match was the one in which he inspired one of the biggest upsets in the history of the FIFA World Cup: West Germany’s 3-2 win over an extraordinary Hungary side they had lost to 8-3 in the group stage.
Fittingly, Walter’s funeral took place at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion, which Kaiserslautern had renamed in his honour in 1985. There, Mayer-Vorfelder and Beckenbauer were among over 8,000 attendees. It was a crowd fit for a football match and was testament to the fact that German football had lost one of its all-time greatest icons, with Walter having died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 81, six days earlier.
This Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of Walter’s passing, but he is still fondly remembered by countless figures in the footballing world. Among them is FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, who paid the following tribute to the man who was renowned for performing brilliantly in bad weather: “Fritz Walter was the captain of the German team that won the FIFA World Cup in 1954.
“It was my pleasure and honour to meet him in my functions as FIFA Technical Director and FIFA Secretary General in his home town, Kaiserslautern. He impressed me a lot. Fritz Walter is a legend not only in German football, but in world football for captaining West Germany to glory in 1954.”