Pierre Littbarski: German football’s glorious anomaly

Pierre Littbarski: German football’s glorious anomaly

DESPITE REACHING THE FINAL, it’s fair to say that the West German team at the 1982 World Cup would scarcely make it onto anyone’s list of most popular international sides. Even in their own country, Jupp Derwall’s squad was – and still is – far from revered, owing to a cynical edge that at times bordered on the Machiavellian.

From the ignominy of a first match loss against a shamefully underrated Algeria team – “We will dedicate the seventh goal to our wives, and the eighth to our dogs,” one German player was said to have boasted before the 2-1 defeat – to the Schande von Gijón in which a 1-0 victory over Austria was cosily engineered to send both teams through at the expense of the Germans’ North African conquerors, right through to the classic semi-final versus France and Schumacher’s infamous foul that nearly killed Patrick Battiston, this team did little to dispel the lazy post-war national stereotypes that still abounded in British culture at that time.

And yet, as a seven-year-old growing up in England, I was desperate for West Germany to beat Italy in the final. And for this, there was one reason: Pierre Littbarski.

Littbarski contradicted the athletic, muscular image of teammates like Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Hans-Peter Briegel and Klaus Fischer. At just five feet six inches tall with a willowy frame, his appearance jarred like a bantamweight in a heavyweight division. As one of the smallest in my school class, I immediately identified with the little man, and in a World Cup containing more individual talent than any I remember, I was happy to allow my friends to pretend to be Zico, Diego Maradona, Michel Platini or Paolo Rossi in our kickabouts, just as long as I could be Littbarski.

The first minute of the World Cup final encapsulated everything I loved about the German number 7. Footballing convention states that in the edgy opening stages of a high-pressure game, it should be a time to keep possession, for a team and its players to patiently feel their way into the match. Not for Littbarski.

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First, he slide-tackled Marco Tardelli in the German half before retrieving the ball. There was nothing but the touchline tight to his left and a glut of Italian players in front of him. Instantly, he flicked the ball deftly over Claudio Gentile’s boot before skipping past the retreating Tardelli. Suddenly, he was in the Italian third and – after a neat exchange of passes with Fischer – he cut the ball onto his left foot and fired a shot from 25 yards that was saved by Dino Zoff. 

His tenacity to win the ball, his desire to get forward and his creative intent was all captured in 15 seconds of football. And it all came in the first exchanges of the biggest match of the 22-year-old’s life. But he was never one to be daunted by the big occasion.

Pierre Michael Littbarski was born in West Berlin in 1960. He joined local club Hertha 03 Berlin-Zehlendorf as a teenager before his precocious dribbling skills were spotted by FC Köln and he moved west in 1978. These were heady times at Köln under the management of the legendary Hennes Weisweiler, with Die Geißböcke – The Billy Goats – having recently won the league and cup double. The move was an ambitious one but the 18-year-old soon made his Bundesliga debut and, before long, ‘Litti’ was a firm favourite among the Müngersdorfer faithful.

The young Littbarski looked every inch the traditional winger – quick, tricky and slight – yet Weisweiler felt there was more to his game than simply hugging the touchline and whipping in crosses. The astute coach saw that playing up and down one vertical channel would limit his protégé’s creative potential and so he encouraged Littbarski to drift in from the wing and become more involved in the team’s attacks from all areas of the field. The Berliner, adept with both feet, flourished in his adapted role and soon his trademark dribbles were just as likely to be in and around the penalty box as out on the flank.

The tweak to his position and the player’s growing maturity saw goals added to his all-round game. Litti’s freer role would eventually see him net at a rate of a goal every two matches for Köln over a golden four-year period; a remarkable return for a player who was never an out-and-out striker.

At just 21, Littbarski was selected for West Germany. Just as with his club, he was thrust into a settled squad that had experienced recent success, with Die Mannschaft the reigning European champions and boasting a 100 percent record in World Cup qualifying. The stakes couldn’t have been much higher for his debut, away against local rivals Austria in front of 72,000 fans, the two nations tied at the top of the qualifying group.

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The intensity of the occasion only inspired the debutant who fired in two goals to give his country a 3-1 win. His first goal – a perfectly executed volley from a high dropping ball – demonstrated Littbarski’s technical ability, while his second owed more to his tigerish qualities, pinching the ball off an Austrian defender and scrambling home after seeing his first shot smothered by the goalkeeper. His smile beamed across the Praterstadion and a national hero was born.

He came of age during the 1982 World Cup in Spain, peaking (as Germans are wont to do) in the knockout stages. Littbarski’s zenith was perhaps the second-round victory over the host nation. A poacher’s goal after a Luis Arconada mistake was followed by an impudent piece of skill to set up the second – a 180-degree swivel that made Santiago Urquiaga look like a skittish kitten chasing a bee, before side-footing to Fischer to tap in.

Soon after came the epic semi-final against France in which Littbarski eclipsed even the opposition’s legendary midfield, drilling in the opener before contributing to both other German goals in the frenetic 3-3 draw. He even netted a penalty in the victorious shoot-out.

For all his team’s pantomime villainy, Littbarski emerged from that tournament a likeable anomaly. But his runner-up medal marked what was to become an unwanted habit for the player. He was to finish second in two title races, two domestic cups and in a UEFA Cup final, albeit against a superb Real Madrid side in 1986. Another silver medal was to come with his country at Mexico 86 where he was a frustrated fringe player on their march to another World Cup final.

Thankfully for Littbarski, he managed to secure one trophy for his beloved Köln, scoring the only goal in the 1983 DFB-Pokal final against city rivals Fortuna. It was a moment marked by his customary celebration – body tilted back while punching the air with both hands, an infectious smile stretched across his face, bereft of any hint of cynicism or arrogance. Unlike so many footballers – even some of the greats – he was a man who appeared to be genuinely thrilled to be playing the game, every goal a source of pure delight.

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His happiness was never more evident than in two notable matches versus England. The first, in 1982, saw him light up a pedestrian match at Wembley when, having entered the fray as a 69th-minute substitute, he set up two late Rummenigge goals for a 2-1 win, his beaming grin as wide as the goalscorer’s.

And then there was Düsseldorf in 1987 when his international future was very much in the balance. Littbarski was only in the starting line-up due to withdrawals and had played a full 90 minutes for West Germany just once in two years. As usual, when the pressure was on he rose to the occasion, first with a terrific long-range strike that glided past a helpless Peter Shilton, and then with a goal direct from a corner. His unbridled delight was clear for all to see, his international future fully restored.

The world was to see him smile one more time at the highest level. Littbarski’s inclusion in Die Mannschaft’s starting line-up for the 1990 World Cup was by no means a formality with the likes of Thomas Häßler, Andreas Möller and Olaf Thon all competing for the creative berth in midfield.

Littbarski had to settle for a place on the bench in the first round, but after scoring as a substitute against Colombia – completed, of course, with the double fist-pump celebration – he was given his chance in the knockout stages. At 30, he was now in a slightly withdrawn role – more midfielder than roaming winger – but two bizarrely identical moments reminded fans of the old audacity.

First against the Dutch in a pulsating last-16 match and then in the final versus Argentina, he found himself in the inside-left channel, a line of defenders across the penalty area in front of him, with seemingly no danger. But with his trademark move – a drop of the shoulder and an exchange of the ball between right foot and left that even slow-motion struggles to capture – he beat a cluster of defenders before cutting in for right-footed shots that were well saved by the respective keepers in each game.

Just like that attack in the first minute of the 1982 final, those moments perfectly captured his constant yearning for adventure, never afraid to create something from nothing. After 73 caps, 18 goals and, significantly, 25 assists, lifting the World Cup that summer was a fitting end to a magnificent international career.

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For all his exploits for his national side, perhaps the most enduring memory of Littbarski for German fans is his extraordinary finish for Köln against Werder Bremen, voted the Bundesliga’s Goal of the Year in 1985.

A counter-attack started by a Schumacher throw finds its way to Littbarski, again in that inside-left position. Littbarski’s shoulder-dip puts the right-back on his posterior before he shoots from an angle. Dieter Burdenski in the Bremen goal blocks his effort and his centre-half is favourite to clear. However, the Köln man has other ideas and from a sitting position he cheekily steals the ball from his opponent’s feet, squeezes through an inch of space between man and line before again tumbling over. With defender and goalkeeper now wrestling him for possession, he finds the presence of mind to scoop the ball through a gap not even light could pierce and into the net. It’s a goal so brimming with skill, daring and indefatigable bloody-mindedness, that even the beaten Burdenski appears mildly impressed.

Littbarski graced the Müngersdorfer for a total of 14 years, punctuated only by a comparatively underwhelming year in France with Racing Club de Paris in 1986/87. He took the surprising move in 1993 to sign for JEF United Ichihara in the new J-League, joining Zico and Gary Lineker as crowd-pleasing foreign imports. Far from a cosy semi-retirement, Littbarski continued to play for a further four years in Japan, embracing his new culture to the extent that his second wife is Japanese. To this day, he remains a popular figure in the country, both for his skill and his affable nature.

For all the gifts Germany has given to football – the imperiousness of Franz Beckenbauer, the clinical finishing of Gerd Müller, the vision of Günter Netzer, the competitive qualities of Lothar Matthäus – it has produced few players like Pierre Littbarski. A diminutive figure who through a combination of impish brilliance and fearlessness, lit up even the cagiest encounters with his determination to terrorise the game’s more rugged defenders. The epitome of grace over power and joy over cynicism.

It’s telling that when asked about the time he was a ball boy at the 1974 World Cup, his thoughts turned not to that experience or even his country’s eventual triumph, but to the tournament’s most attractive team: “I would have loved to have seen the Netherlands play. They played breathtaking football throughout the tournament.” It’s a sentiment I share when I think of my own earliest World Cup memories and West Germany’s sprite-like number 7.

By Nick Davies  @nicholasdavies1

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