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Reliving the 'Miracle of Bern'

October 10, 2003

Elation swept through West Germany when the country, humiliated by war, won the 1954 World Cup. Sascha Göpel, who played the forward who kicked the winning goal in a new film, recently spoke to Deutsche Welle.

Scared stiff: Sascha Göpel played a legendary soccer hero in "The Miracle of Bern"Image: Senator Film Verleih

Time was running out and West Germany and Hungary were tied at 2-2. German striker Helmut Rahn took a pass from his midfielder and managed to kick the ball past a maze of Hungarian defenders safely into the goal, winning the 1954 World Cup for his country in Bern, Switzerland. Led by Rahn, the so-called "heroes of Bern" entered the annals of German sports history as gods.

"The Miracle of Bern" quickly assumed the dimensions of a legend in West Germany. It was the first time Germany had held the title of soccer world champion, and it came at a time when the devastated and depressed country was in dire need of bucking up, less than a decade after the end of World War II.

Now German director Sönke Wortmann has turned one of the highpoints in German sports history into a film, named after the colloquial title for the World Cup win, "The Miracle of Bern." The movie focuses on 11-year-old Matthias, who finds a surrogate for his father in local football hero Helmut Rahn. The return of his real father from a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp alienates the boy. Father and son rediscover their affections for each other with the help of Rahn and the German national team that bring home victory in Bern.

Wortmann auditioned 1,500 men who had to both look similar to the 1954 German team players and show significant soccer experience. The film debuted at the Locarno Film Festival this year and was lauded by film critics and soccer fans alike. But Helmut Rahn never got a chance to say what he thought of the film. He died in August without seeing it.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, actor Sascha Göpel, who played Helmut Rahn, described his experiences making the film.

When did you first hear about the "Miracle of Bern?"

When I was ten. Then I played for the youth team, and Helmut Rahn was the guest of honor at one of my club's summer tournaments. We were well briefed beforehand and knew exactly who Helmut Rahn was. That was the only time I met him. I didn't guess how significant the "Miracle of Bern" would be for me later.

What did you know about Helmut Rahn before the film was shot?

Helmut Rahn went to school with my grandfather and lived in the same neighborhood. So I know a lot of anecdotes, like how Rahn switched from the club Sportfreunden Katernberg to Rot-Weiss Essen for a motorcycle and a fence. Katernberg wasn't allowed to charge entrance fees at home because the sports field wasn't fenced in. To get Rahn to switch to Rot-Weiss Essen, the president of Rot-Weiss paid for a fence.

How did you get the role?

Sternstunde des deutschen Fußballs
Helmut Rahn celebrates after tying the score on a corner kick by teammate Fritz Walter in the World Cup final against Hungary on July 4, 1954.Image: AP

A friend called me up in the middle of the night because she had heard about a casting call for a soccer film. That was all she knew. She gave me the production company's telephone number and I called them the very next day. It was my second year at acting school -- I was a total nobody. Besides, the application deadline for the casting session had already passed. But I bugged them so much that they finally invited me to come.

How did you prepare for the role?

Since Helmut Rahn's health was very shaky a meeting was impossible. So I talked to his contemporaries, first my grandparents but also former Rot-Weiss Essen players. In addition, I did a lot of research in year books and club chronicles and I read Rahn's biography.

What do you have in common?

We're both from Essen, we both grew up here, and we both played for Rot-Weiss Essen. Maybe we are also connected by a fundamental enthusiasm, a 'yes' feeling towards life, a positive attitude. Fritz Walter kept talking about how Helmut Rahn came up with the craziest things and always livened things up.

What would you have asked Helmut Rahn if you had met him again?

I wouldn't have asked him about the 3-2 (Shooting the winning goal) because the poor man had to answer the question around six billion times during his life. Instead, I would have asked him how it was to be part of a legend.

What did it mean to you to play the boss?

Das Wunder von Bern, Film von Sönke Wörtmann, Locarno 2003 The Mircale of Bern,
Scene from "The Miracle of Bern"Image: presse

It was the absolute dream role, since I was able to perfectly combine my passion for soccer with my profession as an actor. And then I also got to play a soccer hero. That means a lot for someone who once wanted to be a professional soccer player. Plus, I'm from Essen and Helmut Rahn is the city's hero.

What was most difficult during the filming?

[Kicking] the 3-2. I was scared stiff. It had to look exactly as it had back then. In later scenes I always had someone next to me who I could ask for help, like [director] Sönke Wortmann, [actors] Peter Lohmeyer or Peter Franke.

How was it to meet former world champion player Horst Eckel?

It was very exciting. Horst Eckel recounted what was going on in the national team back then, how the atmosphere was. Toni Turek played the accordion in the team bus and the team sang along. You couldn't even imagine something like that now. It was an entirely different generation.

Do you still have contact to the other actors who played on the German team?

Yes, we do. We meet up now and then. After all, we did win the World Cup together. Next weekend we're even going to play as a team at a tournament in Hamburg.

Sascha Göpel was interviewed by Peter Wozny.