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Born: Sunday 28 March 1897, Mannheim, Germany
Died: Thursday 28 April 1977, Weinheim-Hohensachsen, Germany (aged 80)
Coach of the first German team to win the World Cup, Sepp Herberger led his country for more than 25 years either side of the Second World War and played a big part in rebuilding German football in the 1950s. Despite a relatively modest playing career, he was renowned as a superb tactician and strategist who had a remarkable ability to motivate his players and to mould individual players into an effective unit.
Herberger was born in Mannheim on 28 March 1897. His family was not well off, and following the death of his father he left education at the age of 14 in order to help provide for the household. Despite taking a tough job in a factory, he maintained an interest in football throughout his teenage years and in 1914 he joined local team Waldhof Mannheim. He would spend two years with the club before being drafted into military service in 1916, at the height of the First World War.
At the end of the war Herberger returned to Waldhof where he build a reputation as a hard-working, battling striker. His form earned him a call up to the German national team in September 1921, where he scored twice in a 3-3 draw with Finland in Helsinki. Those would be his only international goals, however, as he won just two more caps for his country. In 1922 Herberger's playing career suffered a huge blow when he was banned for a year for accepting a transfer payment when he moved to Waldhof's rivals VfR Mannheim, in contravention of amateur rules.
The highlight of his career with VfR was success in the south German regional championship in 1925, but hopes of a national title were ended in the first round of the final knockout competition. The following year, Herberger moved to play for Tennis Borussia Berlin, and during his time in the capital he began to study for his coaching diplomas. When his playing career ended in 1930 at the age of 33, those diplomas enabled him immediately to move into coaching with Tennis Borussia, where he would stay for two more years.
After leaving Tennis Borussia in 1932, he spent the next four years developing his coaching skills with the Western Germany Sports Association. In 1936, a coaching vacancy arose with the national team following their poor performance on home soil in the 1936 Olympic Games. Herberger was appointed, and his first match in charge of the national team came on 13 September 1936 against Poland, in Warsaw. Successfully negotiating World Cup qualifying with three comfortable wins, Herberger's team were fancied to do well in the finals in France in 1938.
By the time the finals came around, Germany had annexed Austria and Herberger's plans were disrupted as political pressure was put on him to include Austrian players in his squad. Germany faced Switzerland in the first round and despite taking the lead, could only draw 1-1. The match was replayed, and this time Herberger's team took a two goal lead but the Swiss hit back with four goals to send Germany out. There would be no immediate chance to make up for this disappointment, as little over a year later the Second World War began.
Germany continued playing friendly matches until 1942, but after the war the country was not immediately allowed to begin play again. Towards the end of 1945, Herberger began a short spell with Eintracht Frankfurt but was largely out of the game until the new Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was admitted to FIFA in 1950. Their absence from international football had denied Herberger the chance to coach at his second World Cup earlier that year in Brazil, and once he had been restored as national coach he turned his attentions to the next World Cup, to be played in Switzerland in 1954.
Over the next few years Herberger built his team, keeping meticulous notes on players, opponents and tactics in order to maximise West Germany's chances of success. They qualified with ease, with three wins and a draw in their four matches, but when the tournament came around they were not considered to be among the favourites. The tournament format gave each first round group two seeded and two unseeded teams, with the seeds only playing the non-seeds. West Germany were not seeded, and would have to face favourites Hungary and surprise seeds Turkey.
They beat Turkey in the first match, and with Hungary to come next Herberger saw a chance to take advantage of the format to help his team. Defeat would mean a second meeting with Turkey in a play-off, which Herberger was sure his team could win, and so he rested a number of his players against the Hungarians. The move was controversial and resulted in a crushing 8-3 loss, but West Germany's rested players thrashed Turkey 7-2 in the play-off to reach the last eight. Herberger always stood by his decision, believing that Hungary would have beaten even a full strength West German team at that time.
Herberger's team were finding their form, beating Yugoslavia 2-0 in the quarter finals and then easing past Austria 6-1 to reach the final. The final brought another meeting with Hungary, who were overwhelming favourites but this time had to face West Germany's full strength squad. At first, it seemed that Herberger's gamble had failed as Hungary took an early 2-0 lead, but his team levelled before half-time. With six minutes to go, Helmut Rahn gave West Germany the lead, and after a scare when a late equaliser was disallowed, they held on for a remarkable 3-2 win. The game was one of the World Cup's biggest upsets, and to this day is known to German football fans as 'the Miracle of Bern'.
Four years later, Herberger led West Germany in the defence of their title, where they narrowly came through a very tight first round group. As in 1954, they edged past Yugoslavia in the quarter finals but in the semi final let slip an early lead to lose 3-1 to hosts Sweden. Another defeat, 6-3 to France, saw West Germany finish in fourth place. Herberger went to his fourth World Cup in 1962, and once again took his team into the knockout stages, but in a third consecutive quarter final with Yugoslavia a late goal sent West Germany out.
Herberger's last match in charge came in June 1964, a 4-1 win over Finland in Helsinki, where his international career as a player had begun over 40 years earlier. Altogether, his time as national coach had lasted for nearly 28 years. Herberger led his country 167 times, winning 94 of those matches. His players knew him as a man of strong values who expected the same from them, and the mutual respect he fostered within the national squad played a large part in their success.
Following his retirement, Herberger returned to live in Mannheim. He died in 1977, one month after his 80th birthday. He is remembered today as the coach whose tactical planning helped West Germany to their first world title against all expectations, and played a huge part in restoring the fortunes of the national team following the Second World War. His legacy is seen in the Sepp Herberger Foundation, established to advance the social role of football in Germany.
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- Published on Friday, 25 November 2011 17:43