When romantics look back at the great teams of the early post-war era, very few pick West Germany among their most memorable sides. In the historical narrative of football the West Germans of the period were most commonly cast as the villains of the piece. The 1954 World Cup is popularly remembered for the valiant loss of the Magical Magyars, Werner Liebrich’s tackle on Puskas in the group stage which took such a toll on the “Galloping Major” and the Battle of Berne which saw Brazil and Hungary slug out one of the most violent encounters of all time. Nobody recalls the victorious West Germany side of Helmut Rahn, Fritz Walter or Hans Schafer.
Equally, the team of the 1966 World Cup are defined merely as England’s defeated adversaries in the final, as also-rans, a necessary evil in the inevitable path to glory of Bobby Moore et al. The performances of Franz Beckenbauer, who scored four goals from midfield as a 20 year old, or Helmut Haller, whose six goals (including one in the final) was only bettered by Eusebio, have fallen by the wayside. Instead the memories are restricted solely to those of the Three Lions, the Black Panther, and an expelled Argentine captain.
If details of 1954 and 1966 are a little hazy, then the teams of 1958 and 1962 have been lost in the mists of time. Yet for any other nation these tournaments would have been vintage displays to be reminisced over for years to come (note the mythology which has built up around England’s only other participation in a World Cup semi-final in 1990). For the West Germans a semi-final and quarter-final were merely the bare minimum to be expected at an international competition.
Of all the great players in these teams (names such as Uwe Seeler, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger and “World Cup” Willi Schulz live on in the popular imagination) the player whose legacy least recognises his tremendous talent was Horst Szymaniak. On the face of it Szymaniak was eminently forgettable. A left-half from the Ruhr, Germany’s traditional mining and industrial region, Szymaniak was not blessed with the Hollywood looks or the maverick tendencies of a George Best. He did not win countless trophies for a host of rich and decorated clubs. Yet he made himself a reputation within Germany and beyond as one of the finest midfielders of his age.
Szymaniak began his career at local club SpVgg Erkenschwick. West Germany at the time still operated a regional league system (the national Bundesliga was not born until 1963), but even in that structure the team were not at the top of the ladder. Szymaniak broke into the first team at the age of 18 and quickly established himself as a regular. When nearby Wuppertal SV were promoted to the Oberliga West (the highest league in Western Germany under the regional system) in 1955 they naturally came calling for the bright young prospect to bolster their chances in the top flight.
Wuppertal were though far from dominant in the Oberliga. Their primary concern was to avoid relegation, but in a team like this Szymaniak stood out. As a teenager at Erkenschwick, Szymaniak had lacked the physical strength to accompany his composure on the ball, but as he matured he filled out into a force of nature in the Wuppertal midfield. It was in his early years at his new club that he first caught the attention of national team manager Sepp Herberger.
Szymaniak’s first involvement with Die Mannschaft was for the B team in a game against Spain in May 1956 which saw him play in an unfamiliar right-wing role. He impressed enough though to win a call up later that year for the full team (the reigning world champions at the time) in a match against Switzerland. Szymaniak suffered an injury in that game and had to be replaced at left-half by Karl Mai, but he returned a month later against Belgium and soon established himself as a vital part of the German side.
On his arrival on the international stage comparisons were naturally made with Germany’s last great half-back, Andreas Kupfer. Kupfer was an integral part of the German side of the 1930s, the team that came to be known as the “Breslau Elf” on account of their 8-0 thrashing of Denmark in that city in 1937. For Szymaniak then the expectations were significant if he was to equal the achievements of his exceptional predecessor, yet he managed to, if anything, exceed the performances of Kupfer in his domination of Germany’s midfield.
Although Wuppertal SV were relegated from the Oberliga in 1958, Szymaniak’s disappointment was tempered by the opportunity to play in his first World Cup. The Germans reached the semi-finals before defeat to the hosts, Sweden. Szymaniak was the team’s brightest spark and was named among numerous “all-star” tournament selections at left-half in recognition of his fine all-round contribution as well as finishing 8th in the Ballon D’Or. Most players who had enjoyed a tournament of this calibre would have baulked at the thought have returning to play in the second division of a regional league. Szymaniak though was determined to do everything he could to take Wuppertal back to the top flight.
Despite his best efforts Wuppertal were unable to clinch promotion in the 1958-9 season, and so Szymaniak realised he needed to move on if he was to retain his place in the national team. Rumours were widespread of a move to Spanish giants Barcelona or Real Madrid, but Schimmi, as he was popularly known, decided to stay in West Germany with Karlsruher SC. For the first time in his career, Szymaniak had a club which could afford him an appropriate platform for his skills and he did not disappoint. In his first season at Karslruher SC, the team won the Oberliga South and were beaten finalists in the German Cup, losing 3-2 to Borussia Moenchengladbach.
In 1961 Szymaniak was again on the move, this time to Italy. CC Catania of Sicily were desperate to acquire his services, and in making the switch Szymaniak became only the third German, after Ludwig Janda and Horst Buhtz, to play in Serie A. The move in clubs also prompted a change in positions for Szymaniak who was used almost exclusively by Catania as an inside-forward. The team felt that Szymaniak’s creativity and intelligence was of greater value closer to goal and so considered him wasted at half-back. However, Catania were generally a struggling team in Serie A and as such Szymaniak’s defensive qualities were still put to the test.
Szymaniak’s performances at Catania were enough to persuade Helenio Herrera that he could be used to improve an Internazionale team who were already Italian champions. The move to Inter came at a time when Szymaniak might be thought to have been entering his peak, at 28 he still had much to offer to any team. Yet his time at Inter was a frustrating one. Italian regulations at the time limited teams to just two foreigners, and Herrera was totally set on a formation which included Luis Suarez as his playmaker and Jair on the right-wing. Szymaniak was bought therefore almost exclusively to be used in the European Cup, where no such limit existed.
Schimmi was an integral part therefore of the team for midweek games, but found himself left out of the side for the league matches. This might have worked for Szymaniak had his contributions been properly recognised. Instead, after playing a key role in Inter’s route to the final he was promptly dropped for the victory over Real Madrid in Vienna. Szymaniak would not play for Inter again.
Instead he made the move to modest FC Varese in Serie A in search of regular football, but remained there for just one season before returning to Germany. There he joined Tasmania Berlin who were promoted to the Bundesliga in rather bizarre circumstances after Hertha Berlin had their Bundesliga license revoked due to a dispute over salaries. Tasmania Berlin were only allowed into the league due to a desire within divided Germany at the time to have a team from the former capital included. Unfortunately for Szymaniak the rest of his colleagues were in no way close to his level. Tasmania finished bottom of the league with the worst record of any team in Bundesliga history. Even Szymaniak couldn’t help them.
After the disappointing spell in Berlin, Szymaniak moved again, this time to Switzerland with FC Biel before taking the bold decision to go to America. Long before Pele, Cruyff and Beckenbauer arrived Szymaniak opted to join the Chicago Spurs of the National Professional Soccer League. Again, the rest of the team were mediocre in comparison to the talent of Szymaniak and he chose to retire after a mid-placed finish for the club. A career marked with dazzling performances was not matched by the medals it deserved.
What set Szymaniak apart from his rivals was his alliance of his physical gifts with exceptional technique. There were few players in his era who were able to play so comfortably as a defensive half-back and as a creative inside-forward and in both roles he was able to demonstrate the full range of his talents. As a left-half Szymaniak was tall and strong, with a fantastic ability to anticipate the movements of his opponents. For Catania, Szymaniak was noted in a rare appearance at half-back for the marking role he performed on Jimmy Greaves, at the time playing for AC Milan. Greaves’ spell in Milan was unhappy but prolific, yet for once he did not find the back of the net thanks to the attentions of the German. At inside-forward Szymaniak demonstrated a delicate touch, a love of surging forward from deep and the vision to pick out his teammates in dangerous positions. Had he chosen to play further forward he might well have rivalled Netzer, Overath and Fritz Walter among Germany’s finest creative cogs.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of Szymaniak’s true worth was the judgement of his contemporaries. German magazine Kicker, known for their notoriously harsh semi-annual assessments of the nation’s players, considered him “World Class” every year from 1957-61. Only Franz Beckenbauer achieved more consecutive “World Class” ratings than Schimmi. Meanwhile his five nominations for the Ballon D’Or (in the same years) showed that he was appreciated well beyond his home nation. More than enough reason to start remembering this forgotten great.
By Rob Fielder
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona