Reinhard Libuda: the forgotten German wizard who became a hero at Dortmund and Schalke

Reinhard Libuda: the forgotten German wizard who became a hero at Dortmund and Schalke

NOWADAYS IT’S NORMAL to see fans complaining about the quality of international football. National team coaches have to wait for the infrequent international breaks to impose their philosophies upon players who spend much of their times playing varying systems at their respective clubs.

The landscape, however, was different back when summer tournaments were arguably the pinnacle of the sport. From Hungary’s 1954 heroes and the Netherlands’ Totaalvoetbal to Telê Santana’s unfortunate 1982 Brazilians and Carlos Bilardo’s all-conquering Argentina side, the World Cup showcased classic teams in bucketload.

For many, no team comes close to the Brazilian side deservedly crowned as champions in Mexico in 1970. It was fitting that Brazil retained the Jules Rimet trophy on that occasion, although they had to settle for a replica since the original was stolen almost 13 years after Mário Zagallo’s men outshone a stubborn Italian side in a memorable final. While the most successful nation in World Cup history took centre stage courtesy of some exhilarating football, West Germany were in the process of assembling their own transcendental team.

Both the 1954 side, who secured the Miracle of Bern, and the winners of the last World Cup in Brazil are widely revered in Germany, but the team of the first half of the 1970s, who came close to winning three successive major titles before losing to Czechoslovakia on penalties at Euro 1976, is still considered as the greatest in the history of the four-time world champions. As many as six players from the 1970 semi-final defeat to Italy took to the field when West Germany came back from an early deficit against the Netherlands to win the World Cup on home soil in 1974.

Among the noticeable absentees, there were two long-serving members – sweeper Willi Schulz and skipper Uwe Seller – who hung up their boots after the 1970 finals, while age had caught up with Karl-Heinz Schnellinger. Then there was Reinhard Libuda. In his first World Cup, the fleet-footed winger made quite the impression, despite not keeping up with his otherworldly start in the group stage match against Bulgaria. Sadly, that was destined to be his only appearance on the grand stage.

It all started for Libuda at his beloved Schalke when he joined their junior ranks as a nine-year-old. He broke into the first team in 1962/63, the final season before Bundesliga’s emergence. There was much controversy in the DFB’s selection of the 16 clubs from the five Oberligen for Germany’s very first professional league season. Libuda’s Schalke profited from the complicated placing that considered the results of the last 10 years, and they were among the first teams who made the first cut despite finishing the season sixth in their division, the Oberliga West.

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Libuda featured in all but three Bundesliga matches in the inauguration season, finding the net four times while assisting further four. Schalke started the season with four wins and a draw but they had to settle for an eighth-place finish after dropping the baton in the second half of the season, losing 10 of their last 14 outings. They started the next campaign on a high when they led Eintracht Frankfurt, who finished third, 2-0 at half-time in the 1964/65 curtain-raiser, with Libuda netting the second. But the Eagles levelled the scores and Schalke finished at the bottom of the table at the end of the season.

For a guy who already played six matches for the national team – his debut came in 1963 when Seller’s hat-trick helped West Germany to a 3-0 success over Turkey – Libuda’s departure was expected, although Schalke later avoided relegation because of the league’s expansion to 18 clubs. It was, however, a shock move when he signed for fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund. After lifting the cup the previous term and finishing in the top four in the first two Bundesliga seasons, Dortmund were aiming for the big prize.

Libuda’s debut was uninspiring – Dortmund losing 4-0 at Braunschweig – but he setup Lothar Emmerich’s winning goal against Borussia Neunkirchen in his first game at Dortmund’s old ground, the Stadion Rote Erde. Dortmund entered May at the top of the table but lost their last three matches, including a home defeat against 1860 Munich, whose resurgence saw them lift the title.

You could say that there was some distraction for Dortmund at the time, however, in which fan-favourite Libuda wrote a unique piece of history. As DFB-Pokal winners, Dortmund entered the Cup Winners’ Cup, and it was a stroke of genius from Libuda that helped them to become the first German side to win a major European trophy. After beating West Ham, who defeated 1860 Munich in the previous year’s final, in the semis, Dortmund were already under the spotlight of the British media. In the final against Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, few predicted the Germans would prevail against the English champions at Hampden Park.

Roger Hunt levelled the score for Liverpool minutes after Sigfried Held put Dortmund ahead. It was an aggressive encounter, and it entered extra-time with Liverpool looking far more dangerous going forward. But the deciding moment came when Libuda lobbed Liverpool’s goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence with a delightful chip 10 minutes from time. This strike came second when Dortmund fans voted for their greatest goals of the 20th century.

It was a sensational finish from a player who saw his name cheered by the fans from start to finish. The spectacle was part of a memorable time in which quick, mazy dribblers made the most impact, with the likes of Garrincha and Stanley Matthews at the very top of the game. The German winger’s similar style to the Englishman famously saw him dubbed “Stan” Libuda.

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The Cup Winners’ Cup success would prove to be his only trophy in a three-year spell at Dortmund, with the club finishing a lowly 14th in his final season. Although the league saw different winners in each of its first seven seasons, the last winner of the championship format had to wait until 1995 to get their hands on the Bundesliga trophy. Libuda returned to Schalke for the 1968/69 season with the club struggling at the wrong end of the table. The wing wizard helped the Gelsenkirchen side to a much-improved seventh-place finished in his first season back.

They also reached the Pokal final where they lost to Bayern Munich, whose glory signalled the first season of what would become a dynasty. As Bayern headed to the European Cup, Libuda had another chance to grace the Cup Winners’ Cup with Schalke. Although he scored in both legs, Schalke lost to eventual winners Manchester City in the semi-final. There was a Pokal respite for Libuda and Schalke, however, as they lifted the cup in 1972 in memorable fashion.

On a personal note, Libuda had a tough time breaking into West Germany’s squad. He didn’t make it to the 1966 World Cup and he was on the cusp of missing another one before a crucial tie against Scotland in Hamburg. The corresponding draw in Glasgow was the only time West Germany failed to win a match in their qualifying group for the 1970 World Cup, and a defeat would force a playoff on neutral territory.

Scotland took an early lead, Jimmy Johnstone taking full advantage of a rare Sepp Meier’s error. Libuda’s clubmate, Klaus Fichtel, pulled Germany back before the break, but Scotland were far from done. Moments after Billy Bremner rattled the crossbar with a thunderous drive, a familiar routine resulted in Germany’s second with 30 minutes left on the clock. Franz Beckenbauer’s cheeky free-kick was nodded by Seller in the direction of Gerd Müller, who provided a typically composed finish. Four minutes later, a lapse in concentration helped Scotland to get back in the game through Alan Gilzean’s header.

It was a match full of emotion, as illustrated by fans invading the pitch every time West Germany scored, while Scotland’s aggressive approach reflected in Tommy Gemmell’s horrendous challenge on Helmut Haller, who took the match ball home after the 1966 World Cup final before presenting it to the hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst some 30 years later. That wasn’t before Haller set up the crucial winner for Libuda, however, as the tricky winger evaded Gemmell to poke home the goal that sent West Germany to Mexico. Libuda was an unused sub in Germany’s opening win against Morocco in the tournament but he made the most of his World Cup debut against Bulgaria.

Asparuh Nikodimov’s free-kick opened the scoring for the underdogs but it was to be Libuda’s night. He scored the equaliser with what could have been chalked off with the help of VAR, as Bulgaria’s goalkeeper Simeon Simeonov made a mess of keeping out Libuda’s cross-cum-shot. Libuda ran riot down the right flank as he setup Müller for West Germany’s second before winning a penalty early in the second half. The Bayern striker converted the spot-kick and completed his hat-trick two minutes before time off another Libuda assist.

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A goal, two assists and winning a penalty; it was some achievement for a player who was making his debut on the grandest stage. Bulgaria’s coach Stefan Bozhkov later reflected that a gun would have been the only option to stop Libuda from wrecking to his defence. Unfortunately, Libuda couldn’t keep up his stunning form throughout the tournament, and the Bulgaria game marked the only time he played a full match. In a sensational quarter-final success over England, where West Germany staged their third comeback win of the tournament, Helmut Schön’s decision to replace Libuda with Jürgen Grabowski worked wonders as both the Eintracht Frankfurt man and fellow winger Hannes Löhr played direct roles in Müller’s extra-time winner.

Coming off the bench against Italy in the semis, Libuda was the initial source of both West Germany goals in an exhilarating extra-time duel, but they still lost the game 4-3. Germany and Libuda were lacklustre in the third-place match against Uruguay, although they still managed to finish third with a scrappy win. The 26-year-old fancied further chances with Die Mannschaft but that was to be the end of his brief spell at the top of the game. The Bundesliga Scandal (Bundesligaskandal) was a major hindrance to his career, and he was suspended for life for his part, later revoked in 1974.

There was a memorable cup run for Libuda and Schalke before losing big in the match-fixing allegations, however. Schalke overturned a 4-1 first leg defeat at Köln in the semi-final before beating Kaiserslautern 5-0 in a one-sided final.

The club saw a total of 13 players suspended, with their 1-0 home defeat against Arminia Bielefeld fixed to help the visitors avoid relegation, which later resulted in Kickers Offenbach’s relegation. The investigation started when Offenbach’s outraged president, Horst-Gregorio Canellas, who didn’t avoid suspension for his part in an attempted fix against Köln, played a tape recording of match-fixing deals at his 50th birthday party.

After a brief spell at Racing Strasbourg, Libuda returned to Schalke after his ban ended. The goalless draw against Poland in the 1972 European Championship qualifiers was the last time he wore the white of Germany. With only 26 caps and three goals, his international career left plenty to ponder. There was scant glory in his club career too, but Libuda’s name looms large at both Dortmund and Schalke.

It’d be a mistake to overlook the brilliance of his goal against Liverpool when traversing Dortmund’s history. Moreover, Schalke fans immortalised him with the “Nobody comes to God, except Stan Libuda” line, which was expanded from the slogan of a German Evangelical Church Assembly in the 1960s. Sadly, life after retirement wasn’t kind for Libuda. The iconic winger had a hard time landing a job before suffering from a throat cancer. He passed away in August 1996 following a sudden stroke.

While Reinhard Libuda could’ve achieved more in his playing career, such was his undoubted ability, he still left us with some precious moments. With his dribbling technique, he embodied a skillset that is becoming rarer by the season in modern football, and his name lives on at two of Germany’s most historic and powerful clubs.

By Eskender Tamrat  

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