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Germany

German Soccer Legend Fritz Walter Passes Away

Soccer-crazy Germany mourns the death of its most outstanding soccer player and legend, Fritz Walter, who died on Monday at the age of 81.

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The man who led Germany to its first World Cup

Fritz Walter, who led West Germany to its first World Cup success in 1954, died on Monday at the age of 81.

Known as the "Hero of Berne", Walter at the age of 33 led the Germans in the soccer World Cup in the Swiss capital in 1954. It was the first time a German team participated after World War Two.

Selected by national team coach Sepp Herberger, Walter spearheaded the Germans through to the final where they met Hungary – a team which hadn’t lost a match in four years.

The Germans lost 8-3 in the first round against Hungary. But in the finals it was a different story. Despite trailing by two goals already after ten minutes, West Germany recovered and scored a winning goal in the dying minutes to win its first World Cup with a sensational 3-2 victory over Hungary.

Fußball Legende Fritz Walter

German soccer legend Fritz Walter

Captain Fritz Walter, who scored three goals in the tournament himself, became a celebrity overnight and the first German to hold aloft the Jules Rimet trophy.

Purging the ghosts of World War II

The World Cup victory was more than a mere soccer triumph for Germany.

In the words of renowned historian Joachim Fest, "It was a kind of liberation for the Germans from all the things that weighed down upon them after the Second World War". Fest said that "July 4, 1954 is in certain aspects the founding day of the German Republic".

Walter also led West Germany in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden as it reached the semi-finals losing to the hosts 3-1 in Gothenburg.

Extraordinary popularity

But it wasn’t just on the soccer field that Fritz Walter was immensely popular. Until his death, both politicians and sportsmen sought the company of the soccer icon.

"He was the embodiment of the impeccable and fair sportsman," said Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, adding that Walter had been a boyhood idol for the soccer-mad German leader.

Walter was made the first honorary captain of the German National Soccer team and in 1985 on his 65th birthday. The only club he played for throughout his career - 1. FC Kaiserslautern - paid tribute to him by renaming their stadium after him.

Modest and unassuming

But despite all the honour and attention bestowed upon him, Fritz Walter remained publicity-shy and modest to the end.

He always pointed towards other German sporting idols to explain his own success. "Max Schmeling (the former top German boxer) was always my role model and my idol. I was told 20 years ago that I would go the same way as he. It has happened. That’s why I am absolutely happy", he said recently.

Even former Captain Franz Beckenbauer saw his predecessor as "certainly the most prominent German player of the last century".

A role model for future generations

Walter, who made his debut in 1940 in a war-time friendly against Romania, retired after the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 after having scored 306 goals in 379 games for Kaiserslautern.

Rather than becoming a trainer he subsequently worked for a foundation seeking to help convicted young criminals back into society.

"Fritz Walter was a symbol of German sport in the post-war era. A man with marvellous abilities on the field, he was also engaged in social goals later in life. That has made him a model for future generations of sportsmen and women," said Manfred von Richthofen, president of the German Sports Federation.

Walter, who earned a mere 2,000 marks (approximately 1,000 euro) for his World Cup triumph, was reported to have said he was not envious of today's millionaire stars.

"We certainly had a great time with our unrivalled camaraderie," Walter said of his World Cup winning team.

West Germany won again in 1974 and then, as reunited Germany after the collapse of the communist East, in 1990.

The country is now bidding for a fourth title and faces the United States in the quarter-finals in South Korea on Friday.

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