Bert Trautmann is waiting in the lobby of a Berlin hotel with the late-night welcome of a coffee and a brandy and the heartiest of handshakes. He looks fit and tanned, still a striking figure at 82. There's a glint in his eyes, which are appropriately sky blue. He could pass for 62.
It's good to see him. We were supposed to meet in the winter, only there was a problem. He had to use up another of his nine lives.
"I didn't think it was serious at first," he says, in his distinctive Germanic-Lancastrian accent, recalling what was eventually diagnosed as a bout of double pneumonia. "In the end, the Spanish doctor said to the wife, 'If this fellow hadn't been so tough he would have died'."
"The funny thing was I didn't have a temperature, but I was a heavy smoker. And while I was coughing my head off the voice up there said, 'You never smoke again'. And I haven't touched anything since. This is the 11th week, and I feel better for it.
"It's funny; smokers know it's dangerous and hazardous for health, but you keep on smoking. Then something like this happens and you're scared you're going to die. I felt that way."
It was different back in 1956, when the Bert Trautmann legend was forged. The only fear that Manchester City's German goalkeeper felt after diving head-first at the feet of Peter Murphy was the prospect of losing the FA Cup final. Sure, he was dazed and in agony, but City had another 17 minutes left in which to hold on to a 3-1 lead against Birmingham City. He helped them do so. It was only four days later that Trautmann was diagnosed with a broken neck.
"You should be dead," Professor David Lloyd Griffiths, an orthopaedic surgeon at Manchester's Royal Infirmary, told him. An X-ray showed that the second of five broken vertebrae had split in two. Trautmann survived only because the third vertebrae had slammed against it and wedged it into position.
Fifty years on, the damage is nothing more than a pain in the neck to the octogenarian who was the first German to play in an English FA Cup final (in 1955, when City lost 3-1 to Newcastle), the first foreigner to win the Footballer of the Year trophy (in 1956), and probably the only man to have been awarded both an Iron Cross (First Class) and the Order of the British Empire - not to mention a certificate for athletics excellence signed by Hindenburg.
"I still have some pain if I make an unexpected turn with my head," the remarkable Trautmann says. "It's like a cramp and it really hurts. I get tears in my eyes and it takes me two minutes to recuperate. But it's OK. If it's nothing worse than that, I have to live with it.
"If the impact hadn't been so hard, if the third vertebrae hadn't pushed itself under the second, I would have been dead. Or paralysed. One of the two. So I was very, very lucky, wasn't I?"
Perhaps so, but it is with emotions stirred with tragedy that Trautmann looks back on the month of May 1956. The 50th anniversary of the Cup final was on Friday. It was three weeks later that Trautmann's first-born son was knocked down and killed after buying sweets from a mobile shop near the family's home at Bramhall in Cheshire. John Trautmann was five.
Bert had just been released from hospital, with his head and neck supported by callipers. He was on his way to Berlin to be guest of honour at a friendly international between West Germany and England. Of all the blows he has suffered in his eventful life, it remains the most painful.
That much is clear as the spark instantly disappears from those sky blue eyes. It seems callous to touch on such personal grief yet disrespectful to think of not mentioning it. "No, it's OK," Trautmann says. "My wife never got over it. I think she... well I know she died of a broken heart. She had no interest in life any more. We're all made of different fibre and things, and the wife never got over it. You do try. We moved to Anglesey, but it was no good there either."
Margaret Trautmann, John's mother, was Bert's first wife. In his retirement, he has settled in Spain, near Valencia, with his third wife, Marlis. He has travelled to Berlin to attend a youth tournament and academy organised by a noble group of young Germans who have formed a foundation in his name.
The objectives of the Trautmann Foundation are to encour-age and inspire youngsters, to foster Anglo-German relations, and to keep the Trautmann legend alive - not least in Germany, where the story of Bernd Trautmann, as he is known in his native land (it was his first girlfriend in Lancashire who bastardised the German contraction for Bernhard to plain Bert), is not widely known.
It probably would have been different had the directors of Manchester City accepted the advances of Shalke 04 in 1952. If he had been playing in what was then West Germany, Trautmann would have almost certainly been chosen to keep goal for the national XI who won the 1954 World Cup and who became immortalised in the 2003 film The Miracle of Berne. Then again, had Trautmann returned home in 1954, he would never have become the former prisoner of war who survived a broken neck in the English Cup final - or quite the incredible real-life story that is surely a big-screen success waiting to be written, directed and produced.
You could hardly invent a more compelling script than The Miracle of Bernd, or of Bert. Born in Bremen, Bernhard Carl Trautmann excelled as sportsman in the Hitler Jugend, the Hitler Youth. He won the javelin and finished second in the shot in the national youth champion-ships held in the Olympiastadion in 1938, two years after the Berlin Olympics. A member of the Luftwaffe's paratroop regiment, he was captured by the Russians and by the French Resistance and managed to escape from both. He was one of a handful of survivors of an Allied bombing mission on the town of Kleve, after being buried in the basement of a school that was reduced to rubble.
He escaped from the Americans when two GIs led him out from a barn to what he supposed to be his execution. In fleeing, he jumped over a fence and landed at the feet of a British soldier, whose first words were: "Hello Fritz; fancy a cup of tea?" "Really; that's what he said to me," Trautmann says, nodding with a smile when the well-documented greeting is queried.
Only the British could hold on to the Hanseatic Houdini. Trautmann was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp next to Haydock Park racecourse in Lancashire. He joined the camp's football team as a centre-half, retired to the nets because of injury, then, after his release, stayed in England to keep goal for St Helens Town in the Lancashire Combination League. When he signed for Manchester City in 1949, as a replacement for Frank Swift, there was public outrage. Jewish supporters and Maine Road regulars who had fought in the war threatened to boycott the club, and for several years Trautmann received hate mail.
He was hailed as a local hero, though, long before he hung up his gloves, with Maine Road packed to the rafters for his testimonial match in 1964. He captained Manchester City and the Football League. In 1998 he was chosen as one of 100 Legends from the first 100 years of the Football League. In 2004 he was awarded the OBE. He also has the latter-day German equivalent, the Bundes-Verdienst-Kreuz, which he holds with greater pride than he ever did his Eiserne Kruez.
"I don't have my Iron Cross from the war," Trautmann says. "I kept nothing from the war. I was reluctant to be a brave soldier. You got your orders and you had to follow them. In the German army, if you didn't you were shot. I was 17 when we invaded Russia, in June 1941. I remember being on the Polish border on the first day, scared to bloody death. I wasn't the only one it happened to. Millions of people were involved. The whole war cost 50 million people, so they say. You can't imagine it. The Russians lost 20 million. It's horrendous, isn't it?
"I thought I was going to be shot when the Americans captured me. When somebody tells you to hold your hands up and marches you out... I broke the 100m record to get away. I was one of the lucky ones."
The fleeing paratrooper of 1944 says he feels fortunate in 2006 to consider England to be "as much my home as Germany is, even though I live in Spain". He will be in England this week but has declined an invitation to the FA Cup final, put off by horror stories about getting to and from Cardiff on the big day.
Instead, the hero of the '56 final will content himself with watching the action on television - as he will when Arsenal contest their European Cup final in Paris on Wednesday week with Germany's No 1 keeper in goal.
"I agree with Jürgen Klinsmann," Trautmann says of Germany's World Cup coach. "I would pick Jens Lehmann ahead of Oliver Kahn. He's playing well: no goal against in eight Champions' League games..."
By this time, we are drinking late-morning cappuccinos. The other patrons of the hotel bar haven't given a second glance to the distinctive silver-haired chap happily chatting about his remarkable life and times. Not that the miraculous Bernd could care. "Ah, it's great, isn't it?" he says, leaning back in his chair. "Life, I mean..."
For further information, visit: www.trautmann-foundation.org
Screen play: Great stories made for film
The celluloid story of the son of a Wesleyan minister who was sent from Africa to England to follow the same calling but became the first black athlete to win a AAA title (in 1886), the first sprinter to run 10.0sec for 100 yards in a championship race and the first black professional footballer (as a keeper with Preston, Darlington and others) is "in the production process", its working title Gold Coast Showman, scripted by Phil Vasili and Irvine Welsh.
C B FRY
In the 1930s Charles Burgess Fry visited Hollywood in an unsuccessful attempt to become a film star. It was one of the few failures for the man who captained England at cricket, played in an FA Cup final for Southampton, played rugby for the Barbarians and held the world long-jump record. He was offered the throne of Albania, met Hitler while flirting with a career in politics as a fascist, and his wife was involved in a major Victorian sex scandal.
PRINCE ALEXANDER OBOLENSKY
Obolensky's family fled Russia after the revolution of 1917 and settled at Muswell Hill in London. He studied at Oxford and his selection for the England rugby union team caused a stir - as did his debut, in which he scored Twickenham's most celebrated try in England's first win against the All Blacks in 1936. He became an RAF pilot in the Second World War and was killed when his Hawker Hurricane crashed in East Anglia in 1940.
Post Trautmann: They followed in his studmarks
JENS LEHMANN: Guaranteed Arsenal legend status after his last-gasp Champions' League penalty save, the 36-year-old is finally winning his twin battle for recognition in England and at home. Readers of Kicker magazine concurred with national coach Jürgen Klinsmann and gave him an approval rating ahead of Oliver Kahn for first time.
DIETMAR HAMANN: The first German since Trautmann to play in an FA Cup final (a loser with Newcastle v Man Utd in 1999), the Bavarian lifted the Cup with Liverpool in 2001 and played a pivotal role as a sub-stitute in the Champions' League final win. Also scored the last goal at the old Wembley, for Germany.
JURGEN KLINSMANN: Played only one full season in England with Spurs, 1994-95, yet won the Football Writers' Footballer of the Year award (the only German other than Trautmann to receive the honour). Notorious for his lack of stability in the penalty area, he also stopped Spurs taking a dive out of the Premiership in the 1997-98 season.
UWE ROSLER: Top scorer in three of four seasons he played for Man City, the bustling striker, like Traut-mann before him, became a big German favourite at Maine Road. Capped five times by East Germany, he celebrated his most significant victory in 2003, winning a battle to overcome cancer of the chest.
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