February 12. 2024
Upon the recent death of soccer player Franz Beckenbauer, I was reminded of this essay I wrote in 2013 for the Berlin/New York City blog Station-to-Station.
As a young soccer player in the middle of America, despite this being before the Internet, I somehow I knew of Beckenbauer and was a huge fan.
This is a fun read about how I discovered European football and I’m reprinting it here. Enjoy!
SOCCER MADE IN GERMANY
The name Toby Charles probably doesn’t mean anything to you. And there’s no reason it should.
To this nine-year old soccer player in America’s 1970s Heartland, however, Toby Charles was everything.
Toby Charles, you see, was a Welsh broadcaster who, in addition to his regular announcing duties, once a week hosted a public television show called Soccer Made in Germany.
This Emmy-nominated weekly series, produced by German Educational TV and broadcasted only on American public television, featured hour-long edited highlights of games involving West German association football teams and select international and European cup games from UEFA.
Toby Charles was the host from the show’s inception in 1976 until he left in 1983.
In a nutshell, Soccer Made in Germany changed my life. It was the highlight of my week, even more so than Three’s Company when it had Suzanne Somers. It was just that good.
In this distant time, in the midst of the Cold War, when television actually shut down at midnight, in the middle of pre-internet – even pre-ESPN/cable TV – provincial suburban Bible belt banality, Soccer Made in Germany was a window into not only televised soccer, which to me and my childhood friends was a miracle in and of itself, but great soccer – international soccer. It wasn’t even called soccer – it was called ‘football’ (very exotic!) – and Toby Charles was the man who took us there.
The level of play on Soccer Made in Germany was on such a breathtakingly high level, it was almost incomprehensible. It was like they were playing an entirely different game beyond what our coaches were teaching us. The pace of play, the precision of the passing, the set plays boggled our young minds. We took what we observed and tried to incorporate it into our own games.
Toby Charles’ passionate announcing brought us The Beautiful Game on a whole other level of ability and in doing so introduced us to the world outside our little province. The names of the players far surpassed the Don Ebert’s we were used to.
Every week we would see players and coaches with unimaginably exotic names like Horst Hrubesch, Klaus Fischer, Berti Vogts, Rainer Bonhof, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Hansi Müller, Hennes Weisweiler, Franz ‘der Kaiser’ Beckenbauer, Hans-Günter Bruns, Wolfgang Dremmler and a team with the incomparable name of Borussia Mönchengladbach. Utterly incredible, utterly glamorous.
It was a whole other world. Sunday Bible school began to slowly lose its hold on us.
We brought Toby and the show into our daily lives. Not a soccer practice went by when someone would not break into a Toby Charles impersonation and ‘announce’ the play that was happening or had just happened. And he had his own idiosyncratic phrases, which we, of course, would mimic.
A shot returned to play by a keeper deflection or a post to the same player for a second shot was to Toby Charles “another bite of the cherry.” And a spectacular play-of-the-day type of shot or move was greeted with “Ooooo, they’ll be talking about that one in the pubs tonight.”
We didn’t even know what pubs were but we said the word like we knew.
When watching the show, we would sometimes turn down the volume and announce it in a Toby Charles accent, creating our own versions of what we imagined were German sounding names. Werner Steinschlager, Horst Kullnap and Wolfgang Kreggelbrusser come to mind as a few of the more memorable ones. Skrink, Planak and Brimwoller were others. “Skrink over to Planak, back to Skrink, over to Brimwoller – oh, and what a save by Kreggelbrusser! Another bite of the cherry for Brimwoller – and it’s in the back of the net!”
Soccer Made in Germany was a peek into an elevated version of the game we loved and also a window out of our strip mall provincial ennui and into outlandishly exotic, far away places like Hamburg and Munich, Cologne (a name always worth a snicker) and Stuttgart, Schalke and Dortmund and, of course, Braunschweig (wait, like the lunch meat?) – places where the fans were rabid and sang alluring songs in incomprehensible languages.
These fans waved huge flags and sometimes set fires and rioted. Now that was passion, the passion we craved for the sport we loved. At our own soccer games, we never heard anything more elaborate than the banal, ubiquitous ‘here we (insert team name) here we go! – clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!
Then, after the game, it was off to Swensen’s ice cream for a banana split. No flag burning here in the Missouri suburbs.
We were all ensconced in the land of Wonder Bread, where General Tso’s Chicken were considered nouvelle cuisine. Other than Soccer Made in Germany, the closest we got to international culture was Andre the Giant on Sunday morning wrestling.
Besides Soccer Made in Germany, German Educational TV also produced a daily special program live from its New York studios presenting highlights of the day from the 1982 World Cup from Spain.
This was the first time that World Cup was presented on Public Television in the United States bringing the sport to millions of homes each day. The final match was live-broadcast on ABC-Network (Jim McKay, co-commentator) as a first live showing of a FIFA World Cup event on U.S. network TV. West Germany was defeated by Italy 3-1.
Today, I live in Berlin, am married to a German and play in a weekly soccer game. Just how influential Soccer Made in Germany was in the course of my life, I’ll never know for sure.
I do know, however, that, these many years later, when the ball comes right back to me after the goalie stops my shot, the voice of Toby Charles still rings clear in my ears telling me to “take another bite of the cherry!”