In late May 1905 Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in the Strait of Tsushima against Japan. During the Olympics of 1912 Germany beat a Russian side by a double digit score; the game has been labelled as a ‘Sporting Tsushima’.
The Russian-Japanese war and in particular the battle of Tsushima was one of heaviest military defeats for Russia. Two thirds of their fleet were destroyed and it was labelled one of the most important naval battles since Trafalgar in 1805 and also the last ‘decisive naval battle’ according to Milan Vego.
Modern Football came to Russia like it did to many countries outside Britain: tradesmen brought their favourite pastimes with them and the locals simply copied it and later played together with the British. At the end of the 20. century football came to Russia and in 1901 the first city wide league was established in the capital, St. Petersburg. That’s right, before the revolution St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia, not Moscow. However, there were ancient forms of ball play. In Russia there was Schalyga which was played during winter on ice. It featured a ball made of cloths or leather which was to be played into the other half. In Georgia people played Lelo where the aim was to get the ball into the goal. It was technically and tactically very difficult to play. Nikolai Pomjalowski reports from around 1850 that a form of football was played in St. Petersburg where two teams faced each other and the ball was kicked as strong as possible into the opposing field. It was forbidden to use the tip of the foot as one could hit an opponent’s leg. It was also forbidden to run into the opposing side of the pitch. The name of the game was Kila.
From the beginnings in 1901 to the Olympic Games of 1912 in Stockholm only little time passed. Surely, the criteria for participation were different then as they are now as Russia took part and played their first international match during the Olympic Football Tournament. Against Finland that then was a part of the Russian Empire but was nonetheless allowed to take part as an independent nation, the Russians lost 2-1 after a hard fought game. Less than two days later came the real blow. On July 1, Russia met Germany in what is called ‘Consolation Tournament’. It was a debacle. The final score was 16-0 for Germany. Germany, who had fielded a completely different starting XI from their match against Austria were superior in every department. The match report of the Olympic Games stated that the Russian forwards were left on their own devices as they never got the ball and therefore could not initiate an attack. The keeper was out of his depth which explains why many goals were scored from 20, 25m distance.
The German press attested that Russia made an effort, that they were technically acceptable and not necessarily inferior to the German team but that they lacked international experience. No surprise given that this was their second international match only.
The Russian press saw it somewhat differently, likewise not surprising. The result had its roots in the rivalry between St. Petersburg and Moscow who formed the majority of the team; players from other cities were ignored. Vasili Shitarev remembers later
“Internationally we were inexperienced but that was not the biggest problem. The misfortune was the rivalry between St. Petersburg and Moscow and the fights that broke out when the set-up of the squad was discussed. The responsible people from either city tried to get as many players from their city into the squad. Sporting concerns were pushed aside.”
The press judged without holding back after the match: “Our best players did not turn up. The ball and the match bypassed them. The keeper could not stop a high ball, it was as though he wasn’t there at all. In comparison to other teams it is clear that we are still children in international football.”
The magazine K Sportu delivered a reckoning by saying that the defeat was
“A Sporting Tsushima”. It is disturbing when a superpower comes in at place 13 only fourth from bottom … it is proof of our helplessness. The game demands discipline, composure, the ability for quick orientation and to master each situation. Two teams against each other, that is like two armies. People against People. Each team represents a nation … It is proven that we are worse than the rest.”
The magazine Utro Rossii (Russian Morning) compared the defeat with the state of the Tsarist Empire. It is not capable to represent Russia abroad. It is rotten and needs to be replaced by the leadership of the middle classes and the industry. Before the end of the decade, Russia saw a revolution that toppled the Tsar and establish the first communist state in human history.
There was a player in the German team who scored five goals in each half: Gottfried Fuchs. This is a record as he only played six times in total and scored 13 goals in those matches. Fuchs was born in 1889 in Karlsruhe, one of the early epicentres of German football. It was in 1909 when Herberger saw his idol playing against Phoenix Mannheim. It was an epiphany for the future German national coach: “Never will I forget this match” he said later. The story of Fuchs however, is a sad one. He was Germany’s first Jewish international, fought as so many of his compatriots in the Great War and got wounded several times. Yet, after 1933 his name and record was deleted from the DFB archives and Fuchs himself fled to Switzerland and Paris before fleeing in the last moment to Canada where he changed his name to Fochs and where he would spend the rest of his life. The DFB never mentioned him again yet after 1945 his name re-appeared. When the West German team played in Moscow in 1955 Herberger sent a post card to Fuchs with a photograph of his world cup winning squad. The response by Fuchs was one of joy.
Herberger and Fuchs were hopeful that one day they would meet again and in 1972 the chance was there. The occasion was the opening of the Olympic Stadium in Munich in May of this year. Herberger approached the DFB and its president Hermann Neuberger with the idea to invite Fuchs as guest of honour. The response was symptomatic. Neuberger saw no reason to invite Fuchs as this would set a precedent that would cause immense costs in the future and the financial situation of the DFB did not allow such expenses. To put this into perspective, each of the team winning the European Championship the same year received a 10000 DM bonus, the return flight Montreal – Frankfurt were estimated at 1760 DM. On top of that, Fuchs was the only living Jewish football player who played for Germany, the other Julius Hirsch died during the transport to Auschwitz. There would have been no precedent, therefore; the DFB simply did not want to acknowledge its own past and responsibility.
The response of the DFB angered Herberger. It was too late for Fuchs however: he passed away in February 1972 after suffering a heart attack.
The game during the Stockholm Olympics had two sides to it. It was a disaster for Russia and a record win for Germany. The other side is that one of the players, Gottfried Fuchs was one of the early stars of German football. His treatment and the memory speak volumes of the DFB and the willingness to acknowledge its own past.