WHEN THE QUALIFICATION ROUND was drawn for the 1954 World Cup, French and German diplomats looked worriedly at each other. At a time when Europe was trying to move on from the calamities of World War Two, football reminded everyone of how politics and football are uncomfortable bedfellows. West Germany had been drawn into a group with Saarland, a former German state annexed by France in the aftermath of the war. Whilst most of us can recall both East and West Germany having separate football teams, few remember the Saarland’s brief time on the international stage.
The Saarland had been a point of contention between France and Germany long before the 1954 World Cup. It’s historical roots were as complicated as they were contentious. The German region had been annexed by France during the Napoleonic era and was only transferred back to Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In the wake of the First World War, the League of Nations administered the Saarland independent of either France or Germany but following a referendum in 1935, the Saarland voted to return to Germany.
The Second World War changed the region’s status once more, with the Saar becoming a French protectorate in 1947. This time it had its own government and constitution. The French were wary about allowing the Saarland integrate into France, something neither the French nor the Saar people wanted. Desperately, French ministers sought some way of connecting with the Saarland and sport was seen as one way of bridging the divide between France and their new protectorate. Football was an obvious choice. Football was what the Saarland did well.
FC Saarbrücken, the Saarland’s most successful team, had reached the final of the German Championship as recently as 1943. Thus, Saarbrücken were chosen by the French to be the Saar’s ambassadors in French football. Impressed with Saarbrücken’s talent, the French Football Federation invited Saarbrücken to join the French Second Division for the 1948-49 season under the name FC Sarrebruck. This wasn’t without it’s complications.
French side, AS Angoulême had to be persuaded to relinquish their league position to accommodate the former German club, something that proved unpopular with French fans. Additionally, Saarbrücken were invited to the league only as a guest side, meaning that whilst they played every league game, they couldn’t acquire points. Most problematic of all was the fact that Saarbrücken were a lot better than anyone expected. The Saar club dispatched Rouen 10-1 and Valenciennes 9-0 during the course of the season. Had the German club been a fully accredited team in the league, they would have won the it by a sizeable tally. As it was they were seen as a foreign team, too good for the French league.
Gilbert Grandval, the French high commissioner for the Saar protectorate, who had encouraged Saarbrücken to join the French division, had seen his idea backfire. Rather than foster greater French-Saar relations, the decision had increased the acrimony between the territories. The French league even refused to acknowledge Saarbrücken’s amazing string of victories. To praise a German side in the aftermath of the war would have been blasphemous.
Hoping to ease tensions, Jules Rimet, then president of both the FFF and FIFA, canvassed for Saarbrücken to join the French Football Federation so they could compete as a fully fledged team in the future. It wasn’t a popular idea as the majority of French clubs rejected it out of hand. So incensed was Rimet with the refusal to incorporate Saarbrücken that he resigned as FFF president in disgust. Saarbrücken were left in no man’s land. They couldn’t compete in the French Division and any talk of rejoining German football wouldn’t be entertained.
Worst of all for the Saarland was the fact that the Saarbrücken team was enjoying a golden period. Saarbrücken players such as Herbert Binkert, Gerhard Siedl and Herbert Martin were beginning to make a name for themselves. In particular Sieldl and Binkert were forming one of deadliest strike partnerships on the continent. Not wanting to squander their side’s talent and effectively forced out of French football, Saarbrücken created the International Saarland Cup in 1949.
This revolutionary idea saw fifteen European teams and one South American team compete in the Saarland to determine the best international club side. Remarkably, Saarbrücken won the inaugural tournament, beating Stage Rennais UC in the final. The tournament was in many ways the forerunner of the European Cup but for Saarbrücken it was seen as the only means to continue to play elite football.
Outside of such tournaments, Saarbrücken toured Europe playing friendlies against top European sides such as Liverpool and Real Madrid, both of whom they defeated. Whilst the Saarland was unloved by French Football, Saarbrücken had ensured the region remained relevant in European football. By the early 1950s, the French footballing authorities had given up hope of integration with the Saarland and Saar teams began to compete in the German football leagues from 1951 onwards. This was despite the fact that the Saarland still remained in French hands. It was a remarkable decision and indicative of how little French football clubs cared for the Saarland.
With Saarbrücken’s success domestically at the end of the 1940s and the chance of re-unification with Germany almost inconceivable, the Saarland began to set its sights on FIFA membership. Few expected FIFA to accept the Saarland’s application to gain accreditation but on June 12, 1950, a full three months before West Germany gained FIFA membership, the Saarland were accepted into the FIFA family. Despite FIFA Membership, few countries took the Saarland seriously.
The years 1950 to 1954 saw the Sarrland play 19 international matches with the majority coming against ‘B’ sides. Many FAs viewed the Saarland as another, albeit weaker, German side. Rather than reinforce the idea of the Saarland as a separate entity, as the French had hoped, international sport was serving to enforce the Saarland’s ties with West Germany. In German politics, calls were emerging for the Saarland to return to West Germany. Kurt Schumacher, leader of German political party, the SDP, regularly attracted foreign newspaper columns thanks to his insistence that the Saarland return to Germany. For many, the differences between the Saarland and West Germany were negligible. Sport reinforced this. The running order for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki saw German athletes marching right behind Saar athletes.
When the Saarland announced their intention to compete in the 1954 World Cup, there was an air of inevitability that they would be drawn against West Germany. Few wanted it to happen and yet it did. West Germany, Norway and the Saarland were drawn into a group to compete for qualification for the ’54 games. Political tensions aside, the Saars began the campaign well, beating Norway 3-2 in June 1953. Initially 2-0 down, the Saars had come back to win the game, with Theo Puff soldiering on despite a broken fibula. The Saarland briefly led the qualification group after West Germany drew 1-1 away to Norway.
The Saars next game in the group was away in West Germany, a political nightmare for both French and German diplomats. The Saarland national flag was not flown as it was deemed to be insulting to the German hosts. As a result only the Dutch flag of the referee and fourth officials was flown. On the field, West Germany ran out 3-0 winners, which meant that West Germany’s trip to the Saarland in March of 1954 would determine who would reach the World Cup.
For many, the home game in the Saarland became a bizarre specticle. Fifty-three thousand fans packed into Saarbrücken’s Ludwigsparkstadion to cheer on the Saarland against their German brothers. Cheering on your nation against your nation took some getting used to. The game itself was almost as strange. Saar centre forward Herbert Martin wrongly had a goal disallowed for offside, while a deliberate handball in his own penalty area by Germany’s Werner Kohlmeyer went unnoticed by match officials. Worst of all, West Germany’s third goal of the game in their 3-1 victory came from a clear foul on the Saar goalie. West Germany progressed to the World Cup, but few in the Saarland felt dejected. Kurt Clemens, the Saarland wing-half, would later recall:
“I still remember today that I wasn’t really unhappy after both defeats. I felt that I was German and didn’t want to prevent the team that I’d always wanted to play for as a boy from getting to Switzerland.”
Many fans echoed Clemens’s sentiment. They were German after all, despite what the French said. Amazingly the Saarland squad were invited to watch West Germany play in the 1954 World Cup final and later celebrated with the German side. Unloved by the French, the Saarland squad were unequivocally German. When the Saarland re-joined West Germany in 1957, few batted an eyelid. It ended the Saarland’s brief time in international football.
By Conor Heffernan. Follow @PhysCstudy