Adolf Hitler: my part in his sporting education

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The Independent Online
THE RULES of football are daily becoming more and more complicated. No sooner have we accustomed ourselves to the latest ruling on the number of paces a goalkeeper can move with the ball than we are told that it is now illegal for Britain and Germany to play a match on Adolf Hitler's birthday. Am I the only person who finds this new rule a little odd?

I find it odd not only because until a month or two ago probably nobody in Britain had the slightest idea when Hitler's birthday was, but also because it doesn't take into account what Hitler himself might have felt about the matter - and it is his birthday, after all.

It is all too seldom remembered that the late Adolf Hitler was a great sportsman and games-lover. I am not just thinking of the 1936 Olympic Games, which he turned into one of the greatest spectacles of modern times. I am thinking of the private Adolf Hitler, the man who always turned first to the sports pages in the Sunday papers to see whether his beloved Berchtesgarten Rovers had done anything to improve their dull promotion prospects from the Fourth Division South.

I am thinking of the Adolf Hitler who had dreams of uniting the whole of Europe in a super-European football league under one flag - surely ahead of his time there?

And I am thinking of the Adolf Hitler who was not too proud to ask to have the game of cricket explained to him.

I cannot claim to have known Hitler well, but in the days before the Second World War imposed stiff restrictions on international sport (which none regretted more keenly than he), I was a fairly regular visitor to his headquarters in Berlin. I went there on business primarily, and after the day's haggling was done, Hitler would often call me aside and beg me to tell him about the season's doings with Arsenal Football Club.

''Arsenal]' he would exclaim, his eyes lighting up with excitement. 'What a name for a football club. Jawohl, die Gunners] Bang, bang, bang] Grossartig]'

Hitler had always had dreams of playing football professionally, but the First World War had cut short his ambitions and he had been forced to go into world leadership and dictatorship instead.

'It's not bad,' he once confessed to me. 'I like giving orders, and seeing them carried out.

'But I will tell you something I have told no one else.

'When I stand up there at Nuremberg at one of my rallies and I see 40,000 people on their feet shouting 'Sieg Heil', in my imagination they are all shouting 'Goal]', because in my mind I have just scored to put Germany 3-1 ahead with only 10 minutes left in the game and the light fading.

'Do you think this is a childish fantasy, mein Freund?'

I considered the matter carefully and then shook my head firmly.

'It is admirable,' I said. 'We should all have secret dreams. To the outward eye you are merely bent on world domination, but inside you are different] You have a vision] You long to be a useful striker and to slip a ball past the advancing keeper into the back of the Russian net] This is wonderful. Es ist allzumenschlich]'

Then Hitler would put his arm round my shoulder and give me an affectionate squeeze.

'You are a good sort, Toby,' he would say. (I carried out my work under a pseudonym, in order to make things easier with the British customs.) 'Nobody understands me like you do.

'Now, why don't you tell me about the leg going before the wicket again?'

There was nothing that Hitler hated more than being unable to understand something, and in order to work out the laws of cricket he had a small green park in Berlin partitioned off, where he would set up stumps and get 22 of his senior mathematicians dressed in white uniforms to take up their positions in the field under my instruction.

I would explain to him that at any one time at least nine of the players had to stay off their field, but he thought this was unproductive and illogical. (Like many Germans, he believed fiercely in logic and behaved fiercely emotionally.) Consequently, there were always 19 fielders on the ground when Hitler was playing cricket, which rather tended to keep the scoring rate down.

Ah, indeed, I often think of those idyllic, far-off summer days, with the gentle breeze murmuring in the lime trees and the smack of willow on leather and the voice of the Fuhrer himself, shouting from the pavilion: 'Ach, Du heiliger Dummkopf] You must forward to the pitch of the ball get]'

You can call me sentimental, but come his birthday there will be the suspicion of a tear in my eye, at least.