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Born: Sunday 31 October 1920, Kaiserslautern, Germany
Died: Monday 17 June 2002, Enkenbach-Alsenborn, Germany (aged 81)
A one-club man with home town team 1. FC Kaiserslautern, Fritz Walter was the inspirational captain of the West Germany team which stunned favourites Hungary to win the World Cup in 1954. Equally at home in a variety of positions along the forward line, his loyalty to Kaiserslautern was demonstrated throughout his career when he regularly turned down big money moves to clubs from across Europe.
Born Friedrich Walter on 31 October 1920, but always known as Fritz, he was brought up in and around his local football club as his parents worked in the club restaurant at 1. FC Kaiserslautern. By the age of eight he had been signed up for the club's youth academy, beginning an association which would last for more than 30 years. Kaiserslautern fast tracked the him through their youth teams into the first team by 1938, although being just 17 years old he required a special permit to allow him to play.
After a prolific season in 1939-40, which brought 30 goals and helped Kaiserslautern to reach the final of the 'Südwest' regional league, Walter was called up to the national team for the game against Romania on 14 July 1940. Then playing as a centre forward, he scored a hat-trick on his debut in a 9-3 German victory. It would however be as an inside forward that he would become better known, the hard-working playmaker of the national team whose strength on the ball and accurate passing allowing him to co-ordinate attacks. He was an extremely versatile player who was even capable of helping out in defence when required.
Early in the Second World War, Walter served in western Europe and remained a regular in the German national team, amassing 19 goals in 24 games by 1942. He also made occasional guest appearances for FV Diedenhofen, the only time he played for a club other than Kaiserslautern. However he was later sent to the Russian front where he was eventually captured. He might have been sent to a prison camp in Siberia, as many were, but Walter was saved from that fate. One of the Hungarian guards at his prison, knowing who he was, told officials that Walter was Austrian rather than German and he was eventually freed at the end of the war.
Returning to Kaiserslautern, Walter spent the remainder of his playing career in the newly formed Oberliga Südwest, which his team dominated in the early years. From 1947-48 to 1950-51 the team won five regional titles in a row, although Walter had to wait to win his first national title. His team lost the national final to 1. FC Nürnberg in 1948 and finished third a year later. 1951 however would be their year. Winning their group with a match to spare, Kaiserslautern beat Preußen Münster 3-0 in the final, with Walter's brother Ottmar scoring two of the goals.
It had been Ottmar, not Fritz, who was in the national team when the now West Germany were finally allowed to resume international football in November 1950. However both brothers were in the team by spring 1951, Fritz scoring in a 3-2 win over Switzerland which was his first international in more than eight years. The early 1950s would prove to be by far the most successful period of his career. Despite losing their Südwest title in 1952, Kaiserslautern won it back a year later and swept to a second national title in three years, thrashing VfB Stuttgart 4-1 in the final. Walter scored 38 goals in the Oberliga Südwest that season, the highest in the league and highest single-season total of his career.
Walter was now firmly established as the captain of the national team, the dependable leader who manager Sepp Herberger built his team around. He was also one of the most in-demand players in Europe. Offers came in from Nancy in France, from AC Milan and from Atlético Madrid, offers which would have allowed Walter to earn far more money than he could make in Kaiserslautern. Walter however always remained loyal to his hometown club.
In 1953 he led West Germany into the qualifying competition for the following year's World Cup in Switzerland, contributing two goals to their campaign including a vital equaliser in the first match against Norway. West Germany won their group comfortably and Walter went on to captain his country in the finals in 1954, usually playing at inside-left. In a group with favourites Hungary, West Germany had already beaten Turkey comfortably when Herberger took the decision to rest many of his team for the match with the Hungarians. Walter did still play, but Hungary won 8-3 to force the West Germans into another meeting with Turkey in a play-off.
Herberger had gambled that his team could beat Turkey again, which they did with a crushing 7-2 win, Walter and his brother Ottmar each scoring one goal. A 2-0 win over Yugoslavia took West Germany in to the semi-finals, where the brothers each scored twice in a 6-1 thrashing of Austria. The final was a rematch with Hungary, only this time with a full strength German team and played in heavy rain, which was known to bring the best performances from Walter. When Hungary took an early 2-0 lead another heavy defeat seemed to be on the cards, but West Germany quickly levelled and a late winner gave them a surprise win. Walter lifted the trophy after a match which did much to restore German national pride after the war years.
Domestically, Kaiserslautern were still dominating the Oberliga Südwest but were never able to repeat their successes of 1951 and 1953 at national level. The finals of 1954 and 1955 were both lost, the latter after a tight 4-3 defeat to Rot-Weiss Essen. Walter remained as captain of West Germany until 1956, still seen as the star of the team even past his 35th birthday. Manager Herberger, who had been best man at his wedding, never lost his admiration for Walter however and was able to persuade him to return to the team for the defence of the World Cup in Sweden in 1958.
Now 37 and usually employed as an inside-right, Walter played every game as West Germany won their group and edged past Yugoslavia in the quarter-finals to set up a last four meeting with hosts Sweden. Walter was injured in that match and rendered largely ineffective, and West Germany lost 3-1. After 33 goals in 61 appearances, it proved to be the last time he played at international level and after just one more season with Kaiserslautern, he retired from football altogether in the summer of 1959, aged 38.
Despite another attempt from Herberger to persuade him to play at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, Walter left active involvement in football. In his retirement he did a variety of jobs including TV commentary, advertising and working with the Sepp Herberger Foundation, which helped to rehabilitate young offenders. In 1985 Kaiserslautern named their stadium in his honour and when the city was named as a venue for the 2006 World Cup, Walter expressed his wish to live to see the games played in his home city. That was not to be, as he died on 17 June 2002 at the age of 81. On the fourth anniversary of his death, Italy played the USA in a World Cup game in the Fritz-Walter-Stadion, before which a minute's silence was held in his memory.
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- Published on Wednesday, 29 February 2012 14:30