On the 27th of September 1980 I began to hate the Richmond Football Club.
Over the last 34 years my views have softened – there was a time in the mid ’90s when I quite liked the Tiges – but for the most part I have regarded them as a mildly annoying football team with a kick-arse club song.
But the last few weeks have drawn me to the Yellow and Black. This year didn’t start so well – they had won only three matches of their first thirteen games – and I was worried that history would repeat and they’d sack their coach (I quite like Damien Hardwick) but they didn’t. And then they began to win. I won’t bother you with why (you either know already or don’t care), but as the August days started to lengthen, the odds on Richmond making the AFL finals started to shorten.
It all came down to their last game of the regular season on Saturday afternoon, travelling to Sydney to play the top of the table Swannies. And goodness me – they did it – winning by three points and grabbing eighth spot. Which is one spot higher than ninth.
Now given that my team is not in finals (so what? we’re rebuilding) I am sincerely wanting the Tigers’ dream run to continue. They’ve won nine in a row. Why not ten? eleven? Win thirteen and they’ve got their first flag in 34 years.
Now I know my readers are smart, rational people who will be thinking it can’t be done. But history tells us that it can. Sometimes. And it for this reason I invoke:
DAS WUNDER VON BERN
To describe Europe after the Second World War as being in a period of ‘recalibration’ is an understatement. Displaced people, returning POWs, economies in tatters, bombed out cities. And then there was the guilt, the geo-political squeezing and negotiating, the assertions of power. In this context international sporting events were a welcome distraction, as well as an opportunity to do a bit of nation defining. The latter was treated warily – it was felt the German’s had done more than their share of nation defining between 1933 and 1945, and it was not until 1950 that any of the Germanies (West, East or Saarland) were allowed to compete in major sporting competition.
So when West Germany qualified for the 1954 World Cup, they did so as a ‘dark horse’. The nation was new, in many respects, although many in the team had played for Germany until 1942, before total war bundled most of them off to various bits of the armed forces. Sepp Herberger, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and had became national coach in 1936 was now at the helm of the West German team. He is famous for saying “The ball is round so that the game can change direction” (I suppose it sounds more impressive in German)
All teams might have played with a round ball, but in the 1950s there was one team who could make it change direction better than others – Hungary. Between 1950 and 1954 the “Magical Magyars” played thirty internationals and lost…none. They had won the gold medal at the ’52 Olympics and in 1953 they had the honour of being the first team to beat England at Wembley Stadium. You can see why they were known as the Golden Squad (Aranycsapat).
Their coach was Gustav Sobes who had an innovative approach to the game where all the players could swap positions regularly and at will. This meant the opponents were constantly off balance, and that attacks were unpredictable. In the early ’50s this was revolutionary – and some propagandists argued that it embodied Communism – where people shared, didn’t mmd doing different roles for the greater good.
Hungary were red-hot favourites to win in Switzerland in 1954. They beat South Korea, West Germany (8-3!), and the 1950 finalists Brazil and Uruguay in their road to the final. West Germany’s path was tougher, and had to play a decider against Turkey to even progress beyond the group stage. But they were successful against Yugoslavia and routed Austria.
In the final at Wankdorf (ha! I’m juvenile) Stadium in Bern, after only eight minutes it looked like the Hungarian brand of Total Football was going to result in Total Humiliation for the West Germans – even the injured champion Ferenc Puskas was kicking goals to put Hungary up 2-0. But then…
Looking back, the defeat at Bern could be described as a mere blip for Hungary because they went back to winning straight after, stacking up 42 wins, seven draws and one loss between 1950 and 1956. But that one loss was a big one – Hungary have never ever won a World Cup. (Take note Fremantle…)
Much has been written about what the game meant for West Germany, how it contributed to building a new, post-Nazi national identity. But I’m not interested in any of that. I like the story because it reminds us that with a savvy coach (conveniently forgetting his Nazi past), talented players, a good game plan and an ounce of luck the underdog can have his day.
So go Tiges – some bits of history are on your side.
Note: there’s a nice German film about a little boy whose fortunes are tied to the success of the ’54 team called ‘The Miracle of Bern’. You might like to check it out.