Wednesday, February 27, 2008

- Great moments in sport 1: German footballer breaks neck - plays on

In the Second World War Bernhard 'Bert' Trautmann was a paratrooper in western Russia. He was captured by the Russians and escaped, but was finally captured by the British. The English, as we tend to do, greeted him with the words "Hello Fritz, fancy a cup of tea?". He was brought to POW Camp 50 at Ashton-in-Makerfield, in between St Helens and Wigan, before being transferred to a similar camp in Huyton, near Liverpool . In football matches between two camps he always played on the right midfield, but one day they had no goalkeeper and so Bert tried it and performed very well. It was during this time he became known as 'Bert,' as the English had trouble, surprisingly, pronouncing 'Bernd,' the abbreviated version of his name.

After the war he bravely decided to stay in Britain and played for the Liverpool County Combination club St Helens Town. During a friendly match against Manchester City, club officials were so impressed by him that they signed him. The fans of City, however, were not best pleased about having a former member of the Luftwaffe on the team. Season ticket holders threatened a boycott and various groups in Manchester and around the country bombarded the club with protest letters. Twenty thousand people demonstrated against the signing, holding banners like "Off with the German". Besides the issues with his nationality, Trautmann also made the heinous error of replacing Frank Swift, one of the greatest keepers in the club's history. After his first matches for City, however, the protests died when the fans realised that the boy was indeed a bit special.

In the years to come, Trautmann established himself as one of the best keepers in the league, and very possibly, in the world. One of Trautmann's greatest matches was the legendary 1956 FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Birmingham City at Wembley Stadium. In the 75th minute Man City led 3:1 and Trautmann, diving at an incoming ball, was knocked out in a collision with a Birmingham's Peter Murphy when he was hit in the neck. For the remaining 15 minutes he defended his net, because at the time there were no substitutions possible. Manchester City held on for the victory, and the hero of the final was Bert Trautmann, due to his spectacular saves in the last minutes of the match. Three days later, an x-ray revealed he had a broken vertebra in his neck. How hard was this man?

It's only a broken neck, I'll shake it off

He appeared in 545 matches for City during a 15 year period between 1949 and 1964. He had no caps for Germany, because the German manager Sepp Herberger would not call up German players who were playing in other countries. This had been particularly frustrating for Trautmann because for much of his career he had been regarded as the world's greatest goalkeeper. He won the FWA Footballer of the Year Award in 1956 for his FA Cup heroics.

In 1964 he finished his career with a testimonial in front of a crowd of 60,000 people, quite a change from the crowd that initially didn't want a German. Trautmann captained a special joint Manchester City & Manchester United XI that included Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, against an England team that included Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews and Jimmy Armfield. After the match, Bobby Charlton called him one of the greatest goalkeepers ever. Russian keeper and bighead Lev Yashin had this to say:

'There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester — Trautmann.'

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