Heinz Flohe: Football stalwart for West Germany

 

Malign fate seemed to single out Heinz Flohe. A member of the West Germany squad that won the World Cup in 1974, and a key figure when they reached the European Championship final two years later, his playing career was ended at the age of 31 by a brutal foul and he spent three years in a coma before his death, aged 65.

Flohe's tragic demise was hard to comprehend for all who saw him in his pomp at Cologne, whom he captained to a Bundesliga and German Cup "double" in 1977-78, or in the national team, which he also represented in the 1978 World Cup. Standing 5ft 9in, with a mop of tousled fair hair, he was like a one-man swarm. Fondly known as "Flocke" ["Snowflake"], Flohe was good enough to win 39 caps in West Germany's midfield in an era when, as he later noted, "the competition was fierce". It included another memorable player for Cologne and country, Wolfgang Overath, as well as Günter Netzer, Rainer Bonhof, Uli Honess, Bernd Cullmann and Herbert Wimmer.

Cologne had spotted his potential as a schoolboy. After signing for the "Billy Goats" at 18 he rose swiftly through the ranks to gain a Cup-winners' medal in 1968. He first partnered Overath, then replaced him at the hub of the side when they won both major trophies. His international debut came against Greece in 1970 and he scored the first of eight goals against Denmark a year later.

A World Cup on home soil in 1974 seemed to offer the ideal stage for Flohe. But when Helmut Schön did give him a starting role, in the politically charged group match with East Germany, he was "miscast", as he recalled, on the left wing. In the second phase he came off the bench twice but he had to sit out the final, played in Munich, while his team beat the Netherlands 2-1. He later lamented that he "never felt like a world champion".

In the semi-finals of Euro 76, West Germany trailed Yugoslavia 2-0 before Flohe was sent on. He halved the deficit before his club colleague Dieter Müller, also a substitute, hit a hat-trick and the host nation were despatched 4-2 in extra time. Even then, Schön did not start Flohe in the final against Czechoslovakia, when he again came on to help the Germans recover from 2-0 down. He scored in the shoot-out, only for Antonin Panenka's audaciously chipped penalty to prove decisive. Later that year, against the same opponents, he scored his country's 1,000th goal.

Before the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Franz Beckenbauer proclaimed Flohe "the best player in Germany". He started the first four games, scoring twice in the 6-0 mauling of Mexico. However, the tournament finished with a familiar, unfulfilled feeling, Schön declining to use him in the last two matches.

There was further frustration the next season. Cologne looked well-placed to reach the European Cup final after drawing 3-3 at Nottingham Forest in the semi-final without their injured talisman. In the second leg his 50-minute cameo could not stop Brian Clough's side prevailing 1-0.

That spring, Flohe was sent off for retaliating against a Hamburg player; Cologne finished with nine men and lost 6-0. He claimed the coach, Hennes Weisweiler, had "scapegoated" him, which led, after 453 competitive games and 118 goals, to his joining TSV 1860 Munich. In his 13th game for 1860 a challenge by Duisburg's Paul Steiner shattered his fibia and tibula. He never played again.

After an attempt to sue Steiner for damages failed because intent could not be proved, Flohe took on coaching and scouting roles with his hometown team, TSC Euskirchen, and Cologne. But in May 2010, having twice undergone heart surgery, he collapsed during a stroll through his adopted city. Doctors diagnosed a stroke and induced a coma in order to prevent brain damage. He was supposed to wake after 24 hours, yet remained in a vegetative state until his death.

Arsenal's Lukas Podolski, a former Cologne player, said: "Germany has lost one of its greatest footballers, Cologne arguably its greatest." Toni Schumacher, the former international goalkeeper and club vice-president, mourned "an outstanding player and special person", adding grimly, "Fate hit him hard."

Heinz Flohe, footballer: born Euskirchen, Germany 28 January 1948; played for Cologne 1966-79, TSV 1860 Munich 1979; capped 39 times by West Germany 1970-78; married Ursula (one son); died Euskirchen 15 June 2013.

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