Mark Godfrey

Robert Schlienz - Overcoming the odds to become a German great

Mark Godfrey
Robert Schlienz - Overcoming the odds to become a German great

BY SAM FRANCE

If you had happened across VfB Stuttgart’s training pitch on an autumn evening in 1948, you may have found yourself surprised to find coach Georg Wurzer apparently teaching one of his players how to hurl himself to the ground.

You might scoff, assuming it was some sort of diving lesson, a one-on-one tutelage in football’s darkest art. You may have been puzzled, seeing that the player Wurzer was devoting his evening to was clumsy and uncoordinated, barely resembling a top-flight footballer at all.

But had you wandered closer, your interest piqued by this unusual scene, your intrigue would have turned first to amazement, then to admiration, for this wasn’t just any player. This was Robert Schlienz, Stuttgart’s star striker, a 24-year-old knocking on the door of an international call-up. And earlier that summer, he had lost his left arm.

Born in 1924, the young Schlienz was destined to have his nascent footballing career interrupted by the Second World War. As soon as he came of age he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and packaged off to hell, fighting on the Eastern Front.

Before long, he had met the bullet that may well have saved his life; it shattered his jaw and left him permanently scarred, but the wound was enough to earn him an honourable discharge and a return home.

The club he had grown up with, FV Zuffenhausen, was decimated by the war. With too many players killed or serving in the military, Schlienz joined the next closest team, Stuttgart, as a ‘guest player’ – a common arrangement in Germany at the time, with not enough players to go around.

He was taken to Stuttgart by Ernst Schnaitmann, the coach who had spotted him while under Zuffenhausen’s employ some years before, and within a year he had earned himself a permanent move. His first full season was 1945/46, where he provided some relief to a war-weary city by smashing in 46 goals in 30 Oberliga Süd appearances.

Competitive and combative, Schlienz was an early prototype of the ‘complete striker’; defenders loathed him and team-mates held him in the utmost respect. As teammate Lothar Weise would go on to say, “on the field he was a dirty git, but afterwards he was my best friend”.

As the post-war years rolled on, Schlienz kept scoring. On August 13th, 1948, though, his mother passed away. He was permitted to miss that day’s team meeting, but he was determined to play in Stuttgart’s cup match the following day, borrowing a friend’s car to make a solo journey some 70km to Aalen.

Saturday 14th was a hot, sweaty day, and the striker rested his arm out of the car window as he drove. He was on time but, anxious to rendezvous with the rest of the squad, he rushed – and the car dipped into a pothole. It rolled, and Schlienz’ arm was crushed under the car’s weight. Within hours, it was amputated. His arm was gone, and his career presumably with it.

After all, how does a pain-in-the-arse centre-forward put himself about with only one arm? How does he hold off a defender; how does he generate power to leap for a header; how does he soften his landing when he falls?

Disabled sportsmen were not unheard of in the post-war years. Fritz Gunst, with one leg amputated at the thigh, continued a prolific water polo career and Horst Kretzschmar, left with one arm like Schlienz, continued to run middle distance.

But football is more physical then either of these sports, certainly the way Schlienz liked to play it. Luckily for him, coach Wurzer knew that a clever forward does half the work in his head – and in Schlienz, he saw a man who understood the game.

“You have a certain sense for how an attack develops,” Wurzer told him. “When you're not too far forward yourself, you know what ammunition the lads up front need. And then, if the ball you provide isn't enough, you'll get up there yourself!”

The coach wasn’t naïve. He knew Schlienz was not going to be the same player, but he was sure he could still be a good one. He encouraged him back to training, first dealing with the physical impediments he would have to contend with. They worked on his balance and on how to fall, and his confidence grew with each one-on-one session.

Soon enough, Wurzer became sure that his centre-forward could be just as effective if played further from goal as an inside-forward – a less combative role on the pitch. They trained until late in the night, and by the beginning of December 1948, the previously unthinkable happened. With Stuttgart taking on Bayern Munich just 113 days after losing his arm, Robert Schlienz took to the pitch as captain and playmaker.

It wasn’t a total fairy tale with Schlienz coming from the bench to score a hat-trick and win the game in the last minute. Real life doesn’t tend to work like that. But the magazine Fußball noted that “Although he no longer possessed his past level of mobility, the South Germany Oberliga’s former top scorer still produced rather useful balls forward, from which [Erwin] Läpple and [Karl] Barufka in particular benefited”.

Growing into his role as playmaker-in-chief, Schlienz’ surviving arm was adorned with the captain’s armband and would go on to lift Stuttgart’s first championship in 1950.

Two years later, 86,000 had crammed themselves into the Ludwigshafen Südweststadion to see Stuttgart crowned champions once more, with the final game of the season coming against Saarbrücken. Fans panicked as the underdogs took an early lead, but Schlienz had overcome too much to see this glory slip away at the last minute. He was Man of the Match as Stuttgart came back to win 3-2; according to reports, he helped out in defence, directed the midfield, and was instrumental in their first goal.

With two league titles in the bag, by 1954 Schlienz had captained Stuttgart to their first German Cup, but it wasn’t enough to earn him a place in the squad for that summer’s World Cup.

West Germany manager Sepp Herberger was well aware of Schlienz’ talents, but the rest of the world was not. Herberger worried that upon seeing a one-armed man take to the field, opponents would be liable to go easy on him, a situation he wasn’t prepared to accept. Schlienz could only join the rest of the nation gathered around their televisions and radios as West Germany came from 2-0 down in the World Cup final against the revered Hungarians to lift their first trophy and bring the newly formed Federal Republic to its feet.

Schlienz was not totally confined to domestic football, though. At one point, Stuttgart organised a friendly with the Spanish national team. After full-time, none other than Alfredo di Stéfano gasped to the media: “The best player on the pitch had one arm, and what I saw of him was unimaginable to me.”

High praise indeed, and eventually Herberger could ignore Schlienz no longer. At the age of 31, seven years after his life-changing accident, Schlienz played three times for his country against Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, and England. Perhaps the world does have a bit of fairy tale magic in it after all.

Schlienz’s remarkable career came at the end of football’s Dark Age, with little video footage remaining and newspaper reports only available after a trawl through decades of archive material.

But for those who saw him, the one-armed man had few equals.

“It was not Jürgen Klinsmann who was the greatest footballer that Stuttgart ever produced,” said journalist Hans Blickensdörfer, “but Robert Schlienz. He was at the very highest level of what we call a goalscorer.

“Those who did not see Robert Schlienz play, and that applies to most of them who are going to the Neckarstadion today, have had, from a footballing point of view, the misfortune of a late birth. For a successor, who could match his immense importance for the team, has not been found.

“And far too weak is the statement that he was captain of the most successful of all VfB teams. Undaunted, obsessed gang leader is much more correct for his 15 years of play, from 1945 to 1960, in which VfB won two German championships and two cup wins.”

Blickensdörfer places Schlienz above Gerd Müller and Uwe Seeler in the German pantheon of great strikers. With highlights hard to come by, we may simply have to take his word for it.

Though the memory of Schlienz may be fading, his name lives on in the Robert-Schlienz-Stadion in Stuttgart, home to the club’s youth sides. One can hardly imagine a more inspiring story for the young stars, hoping to achieve something close to his remarkable success.

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