The first three coaches of the German national team would hold the position for a combined period of 53 years, overseeing the development of a squad that gradually turned into one of the world’s leading footballing powers. The Nationalmannschaft won three major trophies in the time up to and including the tenure of Helmut Schön in 1978, with two FIFA World Cups in 1954 and 1974 and the UEFA European Championship trophy in 1972.
This period represented a great continuity in the running of the German national team. When the first incumbent Professor Otto Nerz was replaced in 1936 it was with his assistant Sepp Herberger, who held the reins for an astonishing twenty-eight years straddling the Second World War – winning the FIFA World Cup in 1954 – before he too was replaced with his own assistant Helmut Schön. Schön himself held the post for twelve years, becoming the most successful Nationaltrainer in leading the side to both the European and World titles in 1972 and 1974 before he was followed by his assistant Jupp Derwall in 1978.
Prof. Dr. Otto Nerz (1892–1949)
Nationaltrainer from 01.07.1926 to 07.08.1936
The first dedicated Nationaltrainer, Professor Dr. Otto Nerz was in charge of the national team for much of the time before organised international tournament football began. With Germany not taking part in the first FIFA World Cup tournament in Uruguay in 1930, the former schoolteacher and trained medical doctor from Hechingen in Baden-Württemberg led the team in its tournament debut in the 1934 tournament in Italy, achieving a more than creditable third-place finish.
A keen student of the game and former amateur player for VfR Mannheim and Tennis Borussia Berlin, Nerz did much to improve Germany’s standing on the world stage. After the third-place success in 1934 much was expected of the side during the 1936 Olympic tournament which was to be held on home soil in Berlin, but things did not go to plan. The first round saw Germany canter to a 9-0 victory over Luxembourg, but the burden of expectation proved to be too much at the quarter-final stage as they fell to a disappointing 2-0 defeat at the hands of unfancied Norway.
Nerz resigned and moved back into local domestic football after his team’s Olympic exit, and was replaced by his assistant Sepp Herberger.
Having been involved and associated with the Nazi regime – something that was largely unavoidable at the time – Dr. Otto Nerz was sent to the camp at Sachsenhausen (which after the war had been administered by the Soviets) where he died of meningitis in 1949 at the age of 56.
Career Record as Player
Career Record as Coach
Total matches: 70
Wins: 42 (60%)
Draws: 10 (14.3%)
Defeats: 18 (25.7%)
Tournament Record as Coach
FIFA World Cup Italy 1934 – Third Place
Sepp Herberger (1897-1977)
Nationaltrainer from 13.09.1936 to 07.06.1964
A former international who had won three senior caps during the 1930s, Mannheim-born Josef “Sepp” Herberger became the second man to be appointed Nationaltrainer in 1936 – spending a record twenty-eight years in charge.
Herberger’s first major campaign as Reichfussballtrainer in the 1938 World Cup in France was nothing short of a disaster. With the team little more than a political tool for the Nazi regime, he found himself forced to blend an existing German squad that had achieved a creditable third place four years earlier with members of the team from Austria, whose country had been incorporated into the Reich earlier that year.
In 1937 Herberger’s side – based around a talented core group of players known as the Breslauer-Elf – had put together a stunning run of ten wins and a draw in eleven matches, and had been seriously considered by many commentators as serious contenders for the world crown. On paper, the inclusion of a number of star Austrian players into what had been a promising German side would have looked like the perfect opportunity to build a championship-winning squad.
The reality however was somewhat different as the unwanted political interference played havoc with team selection, and the confidence that had been building throughout the previous year seemed to ebb away with the inclusion of the Austrian players whose presence in the side was demanded by the Nazi leadership. Despite all of the problems both on and off the field, Herberger’s side were still expected to win their opening encounter against Switzerland – a side they had not lost to in nine matches since 1926 – but instead found themselves having to come from behind to salvage a 1-1 draw and take the tie to a replay.
The replay five days later was a catastrophe. Despite taking a two-goal lead inside the first quarter of an hour and going into the half-time break 2-1 up, Herberger’s side were rolled over by their opponents in the second half as the Swiss scored three times in the space of fourteen minutes to transform their one-goal deficit into what would be a winning two-goal lead.
In a stroke, Germany’s World Cup dreams were over. With their tails firmly between their legs, they were on their way home before the tournament had even started to warm up.
Despite the early exit in France Herberger managed to keep his job, and it is largely down to him that the team was able to keep itself together during the war years. During the early years of the conflict fixtures against friendly and neutral nations were still being arranged and the Reichstrainer was able to keep his players safe, but as the conflict dragged on things became more difficult. The last friendly match was played in late 1942, and after that time Herberger simply used whatever influence he had to ensure that his key players didn’t end up being posted to the front.
While in the wider scheme of things one might argue that footballers should never be allowed to escape duties that their fellow citizens are obliged to undertake, it is testament to Herberger’s sheer determination and bloody-mindedness that his entire World Cup squad – with the exception of star player Otto Siffling who died from pleurisy in October 1939 at the age of 27 – were able to survive what had been seven years of bloody conflict. In a war that had seen more than thirty percent of the young men that had served in the German armed services being killed, the survival of the entire World Cup squad could best be described as something of a miracle.
After the end of the war and Germany’s return to international competition Herberger led the re-formed Nationalmannschaft in three major campaigns, reaching the last four twice and winning Germany’s first World Cup trophy in Switzerland in 1954 after a superbly orchestrated campaign that saw his underrated team beat the red-hot favourites from Hungary in a legendary final known as Das Wunder von Bern (“The Miracle of Bern”).
Having been comprehensively beaten 8-3 by the “Magical Magyars” in the opening group phase, Herberger’s team went from strength to strength, hammering Turkey 7-2 and beating Yugoslavia 2-0 before destroying a highly-rated Austria 6-1 in the semi-final. On the back of this snowballing success, they would meet the Hungarians again in the Swiss capital.
The opening minutes of the final saw the Germans fall two goals behind within eight minutes, but the wet weather, a superb display in goal by “Fussballgott” Toni Turek and some uncharacteristically shoddy finishing from the Hungarians allowed them to claw their way back into the match. Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn had brought the score back to 2-2 with not even twenty minutes gone, though everyone would have to wait until six minutes from the end for the winning goal.
In what was a moment that has gone down as one of the greatest days in the history of German sport, Hungary failed to clear and the ball fell to Rahn who drilled it low to the right of ‘keeper Gyula Grosics from the edge of the penalty area. The radio commentary of that dramatic moment, provided by Herbert Zimmermann, have become the stuff of legend.
Germany’s historic victory in Switzerland would be the crowning moment in Sepp Herberger’s twenty-eight year spell as Nationaltrainer, though he did then take an arguably weaker side to Sweden four years later that delivered an unexpected fourth-place finish in defence of the trophy. He finally retired and handed the reins over to his assistant Helmut Schön in 1964, two years after his side had been disappointingly eliminated by Yugoslavia at the quarter-final stage in Chile.
Also known for what has now become a famous collection of football-related sound bites and quotes, Josef “Sepp” Herberger died in 1977 from a lung infection, a month after his 80th birthday.
Career Record as Player (1921-1925)
Total matches: 3
Total goals: 2
Tournaments (Goals): n/a
Career Record as Coach
Total matches: 167
Wins: 94 (56.3%)
Draws: 27 (16.2%)
Defeats: 46 (27.5%)
Tournament Record as Coach
FIFA World Cup France 1938 – First Round
FIFA World Cup Switzerland 1954 – Champions
FIFA World Cup Sweden 1958 – Fourth Place
FIFA World Cup Chile 1962 – Quarter-finalists
Helmut Schön (1915-1996)
Nationaltrainer from 04.11.1964 to 21.06.1978
Dresden-born Helmut Schön had been a promising centre-forward for both his local club side Dresdner FC and the German national team, scoring seventeen goals in a sixteen-match career for the Nationalmannschaft that had been curtailed by the Second World War. Having moved west in the early 1950s Schön followed closely in the footsteps of his mentor Sepp Herberger in becoming coach of the Saarland in 1952, and when the region was reincorporated into the then Federal Republic of Germany in 1956 he was appointed as assistant to the Nationaltrainer – a role in which he remained until Herberger’s retirement in 1964.
The only Nationaltrainer to win more than one major international title, Schön coached the national side in a record seven major tournament finals during his epic spell in charge – making the last four on five occasions. Given the relatively short career spans of modern coaches, these are records that are unlikely to be beaten.
Schön’s first successful international campaign came in his very first tournament in charge, the 1966 FIFA World Cup held in England. Despite only being in the job for two years and having witnessed dramatic changes in German football with the onset of professionalism, the team progressed serenely to the final, losing out only in extra time to the hosts. One of the stars of the campaign was a young Franz Beckenbauer, a man who would be central to much of the team’s success for much of the following decade.
The achievements of 1966 were offset slightly by the Mannschaft’s failure to qualify for the 1968 European Championship finals, but by 1970 in Mexico the team was truly starting to take shape. Having coming from behind to beat the defending champions in the quarter-final they lost by the odd goal in seven to Italy in a classic semi-final encounter before beating Uruguay to secure a second successive podium finish.
By 1972 all of the final pieces had fallen into place, and Schön’s second crack at the European Championships proved to be far more more successful than the first. After progressing unbeaten through their qualifying group, Germany met England at Wembley in a game that would forever go down as one of the finest performances by a German team in the modern era: the hosts were given a footballing lesson as they were dispatched 3-1, and from that point on there were few doubts as to the destination of the trophy. An equally dominant performance saw the Soviet Union beaten 3-0 in the final in Brussels, and Schön’s first trophy was safely in the cabinet.
The World Cup held on home soil two years later would see the Nationaltrainer overcome a host of problems both on the pitch and behind the scenes. The threat of a revolt by senior players over bonus payments threatened to derail the home side’s campaign before it had even started, and when things did get under way a series of insipid performances in the opening phase capped by a humiliating single-goal defeat at the hands of the GDR cast serious doubt on the team’s hopes of winning a second world crown.
From somewhere however the team founds their feet and gathered momentum, and from the second phase onwards they never looked back. An excellent second phase took them to the final against neighbours and rivals the Netherlands, and even a first-minute penalty for the talented and much-fêted Dutch wasn’t enough to put the Germans out of their stride. A Paul Breitner penalty levelled the scores, and two minutes from half-time the unstoppable Gerd Müller scored what would turn out to be the winner.
Overshadowed by the media haze surrounding the “total football” of the great Dutch side of the 1970s, the style and grace of Schön’s team has largely been overlooked. The German side of the 1970s has by default been thought of as dull and boring in comparison to Cruyff et al, but simply watching them play suggests anything but.
While the Dutch squad that reached the final of the 1974 World Cup have been somewhat mythologised, the fact remains that they were beaten by a German side that was just as skillful and as exciting to watch. That oft-repeated famous Cruyff turn didn’t win any World Cups; it didn’t even result in a goal. The sharp turn and shot by Gerd Müller however did.
In guiding his team to the European and World titles in 1972 and 1974, Schön became the first coach from any country to hold both crowns at the same time. After managing the side to a second successive European Championship final in 1976 where they lost to Czechoslovakia only after a penalty shootout, he resigned on a poor note after the 1978 World Cup when his side were eliminated by Austria in the second phase in match that was thereafter known as Der Schmach von Córdoba or the “disgrace of Córdoba”.
Having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and spending his final days in a nursing home in Wiesbaden, Germany’s most successful coach passed away in 1996 at the age of 80.
Career Record as Player (1937-1941)
Total matches: 16
Total goals: 17
Tournaments (Goals): n/a
Career Record as Coach
Total matches: 139
Wins: 87 (62.6%)
Draws: 30 (21.6%)
Defeats: 22* (15.8%)
*matches listed as defeats include the penalty shootout loss against Czechoslovakia (UEFA European Championship Final, 1976)
Tournament Record as Coach
FIFA World Cup England 1966 – Runners-up
UEFA European Championship Italy 1968 – DNQ
FIFA World Cup Mexico 1970 – Third Place
UEFA European Championship Belgium 1972 – Champions
FIFA World Cup Sweden Germany 1974 – Champions
UEFA European Championship Yugoslavia 1976 – Runners-up
FIFA World Cup Argentina 1978 – Second Group Phase
Statistical Overview 1908-1978
The following chart provides a statistical representation of the records of the first three Nationaltrainers. While Sepp Herberger was in charge for an astonishing 167 matches spanning almost three decades, the best win/draw/loss record of the three was achieved by Helmut Schön, whose fourteen-year tenure produced 87 wins in 139 games with only twenty-two defeats.