A hero in Italy, unknown in Germany: the Karl-Heinz Schnellinger story

A hero in Italy, unknown in Germany was how the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel once referred to the long-serving international defender Karl-Heinz Schnellinger.

This ‘stranger in his homeland’ tag makes some sense when set in the context of a player who only made his Bundesliga debut as a 35-year-old with a relegation-doomed club.

That’s only a small part of his story of course.

This was also a player who spent eleven hugely successful seasons in Italy meaning that despite his high-profile with the West German national team he represented with distinction in four successive World Cup tournaments, much of his club career was out of sight and thus out of mind for the West German footballing public.

While the full extent of his legacy can be debated, there really was no question about his ability as a player: this was one of the very best defenders in the world during the 1960s and early 70s; as gifted at left-back (the position he played for his country) as he was at sweeper (the position he predominantly played in Serie A).

The Schnellinger story started back in 1952 with his local club SG Düren 99 taking him into their junior ranks as a 13-year-old. Development was rapid and by 1957 his talent was being noticed further afield and earning him a call-up to represent West Germany at a UEFA Youth Tournament in Madrid. An appearance for the German amateur XI followed and, soon after his 19th birthday, a first full international cap against Czechoslovakia in April of 1958.

Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Köln
Source: Twitter

Named in the World Cup squad for Sweden as a reserve, Schnellinger returned as his nation’s first choice left-back after impressing in his single appearance; West Germany’s Third Place Play-Off defeat to France.

Köln signed him that same summer and a strong team developed with the full-back at its heart. Defensive solidity was one of this side’s main characteristics as they reached three championship play-off finals in four seasons with one, the 1962 series, culminating in success over Nuremberg. Schnellinger carried forward his fine form to the World Cup in Chile and earned a nomination in FIFA’s All-Star Team.

Other accolades poured in as he was named West German Footballer Of The Year ahead of the legendary Uwe Seeler and Europe’s third-best player behind Masopust and Eusebio in France Football’s annual poll.

Living rent-free in a luxury Köln apartment made available to him by the club’s president, Schnellinger enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle by the standards of most West German footballers of the time, but was by no means a wealthy man.

The nationwide professionalism that the start of the Bundesliga would herald had not quite arrived and even a seasoned international player like him would be earning a basic salary of little more than £10 each week.

As keen as Köln were to keep him, the avaricious advances from Italy made a move impossible to avoid. In the summer of 1963 Roma paid £70,000 to acquire his services, a colossal fee for a defender even by Italians standards.

Within weeks Schnellinger would learn that signing for an Italian club was not a simple matter of pulling on your new shirt and going out to play football. The complex politics that surrounded Italian clubs and their transfer business would quickly shatter those preconceptions.

Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Mantova 1963-64
Source: Alchetron

Roma also completed the transfer of Mantova’s Brazilian forward Angelo Sormani for a world-record fee that summer, but it needed the offer of Schnellinger’s services on loan for a season as a sweetener to conclude the deal. The German made an impeccable debut in Mantova’s stirring 4-1 win over the club that would become the one he would be most readily identified with: Milan.

It was unfortunate timing, but the Roma he returned to a year later was one lapsing into a catastrophic financial crisis. While selling their valuable West German international would have helped ease their financial plight considerably, it transpired that Schnellinger wasn’t even their asset to trade.

The money for his transfer had been loaned by a Lombardy bank that took control of his rights when Roma defaulted on loan repayments. His complex contractual situation was resolved a year later and he departed as part of a general fire sale of Roma’s best players.

Schnellinger was one of a trio who would pitch up at Milan and it was at the San Siro that he would enjoy huge success over the next nine seasons – once he got past his early conflicts about his role with the rossoneri.

His club and international career in Germany had seen him operate exclusively and effectively as a marauding left-back with the stamina and the technique to push forward at will.

While Giacinto Facchetti had similar licence to roam for neighbours Inter, the Italian game generally preferred to compartmentalise players into performing their specialised roles and little more. Defenders were there to defend and players who strayed out of their rigid designated zones broke team shape and risked compromising the team. This was the stark reality of risk-averse Serie A at the time.

Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, West Germany
Source: Pinterest

Defining the scope of his role caused disagreement between player and management and reached the stage where he was even threatened with a fine if he ventured beyond the halfway line. It seemed an emasculation of his talent and a small glimpse of that lost potential was on display when Milan played Chelsea in the Fairs Cup during the 1965-66 season.

Italian clubs cared little for this tournament and Schnellinger was given rare free-reign to express himself. At Stamford Bridge he put in a brilliant and dominant performance, whether repeatedly taking the ball off his direct opponent Peter Osgood with ease or marauding forward to support Milan’s attack.

The emergence of the young left-back Angelo Anquilletti was the catalyst for Schnellinger’s Milan career to properly take root. Accommodating the talented youngster in the team gave management the opportunity to switch Schnellinger to the centre and into the sweeper role they had always envisaged him occupying.

Now tasked with being the last line of defence, this had the positive effect of focusing him almost exclusively on his defensive duties and allowed a formidable partnership with Giovanni Trapattoni to develop, one that would grow to be as good a pairing as any in Europe at the time.

Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Milan
Sure: Alchetron

The trophies rolled in for Milan: Coppa Italia in 1967, Cup Winners Cup and Serie A in 1968, European Cup in 1969, World Club Cup in 1970, further Coppa Italia wins in 1972 and 1973 and a second Cup Winners Cup success, also in 1973.

His total immersion into the Italian defensive school did have consequences to his international career. Helmut Schön felt he might no longer fit into Germany’s more expressive and attacking style and often he was left out of qualifiers and friendlies to allow other options to be explored.

Nothing was found that could replicate his quality though and Schnellinger remained a fixture in the nationalmannschaft for the games that mattered in both the 1966 and 1970 World Cups. His solitary international goal and perhaps his most famous individual moment came in that wonderful 1970 semi-final against Italy: that last-gasp, close-range volley snatched an equaliser for West Germany and set the scene for a memorable extra-time period in a game that became known in West Germany as the Jahrhundertspiel – the game of the century.

After eleven fine years in Italian football, Kalle Schnellinger left Milan in 1974 and headed back to Germany to spend a season with newly promoted Tennis Borussia Berlin. It wasn’t really a case of heading home as by now he had developed a much stronger affinity with his adopted Italy than his country of birth. Upon his retiral in 1975 he returned to the Milan area to live and work and remains there to this day.

There are few players who conform more closely to the fondly held stereotype of the Teutonic footballer than Schnellinger: big, powerful, hard-running, calm, technically able, tactically aware, selfless, mentally strong and ruthlessly efficient.

This was a composed and confident player with a keen sense of what most game situations required and the ability to execute on them successfully. His unerring consistency and reliability earned him the nickname of, predictably, the ‘Volkswagen’.

When the ball was in the air he dominated all opponents and when it was on the ground he preferred to use his timing and anticipation in the tackle, rather than brute force or intimidation – so unlike the thuggish approach that many of his defensive contemporaries adopted in a roughhouse period for the game.

Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, West Germany
Source: Twitter

SEE ALSO: Celebrating Roberto Boninsegna: An Italian striking giant

The world’s best left-back during the 1960s and much of the 1970s? Probably Giacinto Facchetti of Italy and Internazionale. The world’s best sweeper during the same era? Certainly Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany and Bayern Munich. Towards the end of his career Facchetti had an unsuccessful spell playing sweeper for Inter while we are unaware of Beckenbauer ever playing as a full back. And this was the great virtue of Karl-Heinz Schnellinger for us: in one big, blonde package you had a player who could play at something very close to a comparable level to both of those illustrious players, in both of their specialised positions.

To be able to play to a world-class standard in two different roles is a rare talent and one that Kalle Schnellinger had in common with another great Milan star, Paolo Maldini. who represents a good contemporary comparison point for those who have never seen the West German play.

At Köln some members of the coaching staff felt that he was wasted at left-back and should instead be installed in a left-half position to involve him more in the broader team function. Not for the only time in his career, conservatism and lack of imagination prevailed among those charged to maximise his talent. Because Schnellinger was firmly established as the international left-back, opinion erred towards the safe view that why should you run the risk of breaking something that wasn’t broken in the first place.

Schnellinger’s natural inclination from an early age to dribble the ball out of his own crowded penalty box was frowned upon by coaches and seen as a dangerous and self-indulgent way for a defender to play. Accepted theory went that a simple long kick out of the box was safer and there appeared little scope for lateral thinking, even when working with a player of rare talent like Schnellinger who was capable of shattering convention.

It’s not as if he was ever an arrogant or selfish player, simply one with the assuredness to play football on his own terms as his tidy and broadly error-free game demonstrated. Just a handful of years later Franz Beckenbauer would revolutionise how accomplished footballing defenders were thought of, forcing a dramatic reappraisal of German coaching as a result. Schnellinger was in many respects the right player doing the right things in the right place – albeit a decade too soon.

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