In the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe and European football was in disarray. Nations had fallen, nations had been created and regions had been annexed.
Today we look at the story of the Saarland, a German region, annexed by France following WWII. This is the story of FC Saarbrücken, who briefly played in the French Second Division. Rather than easing Saar-French relations, Saarbrücken’s appearance in French football only made things worse.
The Saarland had been a point of contention between France and Germany long before the 1954 World Cup. It’s historical roots were as complicated as they were contentious. The region had been annexed originally by France during the Napoleonic era and was only transferred to Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
In the wake of the First World War, the League of Nations administered the Saarland independent of either France or Germany but following a referendum in 1935, the Saarland voted to return to Germany. The Second World War changed the region’s status once more with the Saar becoming a French protectorate in 1947.
This time it had its own government and constitution. The French were weary about allowing the Saarland integrate into France, something neither the French nor the Saar people wanted.
Desperately, French Ministers sought some way of connecting with the Saarland. Sport was seen as one way of bridging the divide between France and their new protectorate. Football was the obvious choice. Football was what the Saarland did well.
Domestic Football in the Saarland
FC Saarbrücken, the Saarland’s most prestigious football club had reached the final of the German Championship as recently as 1943. Granted the war had greatly disrupted the German League, but it was no mean feat. Saarbrücken were chosen by the French to be the Saar’s ambassadors in sport.
Impressed with Saarbrücken’s talent, the French Football Association invited Saarbrücken’s to join the French Second Division for the 1948-49 Season under the name FC Sarrebruck. This wasn’t without it’s complications. French side, AS Angoulême had to be persuaded to relinquish their league position to accommodate the former German club, something that proved unpopular with French fans.
Additionally, Saarbrücken were invited to the League only as a guest side, meaning that whilst they played every league game, they couldn’t acquire points.
Perhaps most problematic of all was the fact that Saarbrücken were a lot better than anyone expected. The Saar club dispatched Rouen 10-1 and Valenciennes 9-0 during the course of the season. Had the German club been a fully accredited team in the League, they would have won the League by a sizeable tally. As it was, they become a foreign team, too good for the French league.
Gilbert Grandval, the French high commissioner for the Saar Protectorate who had encouraged Saarbrücken to join the French division had seen his idea backfire. Rather than foster greater French-Saar relations, the decision had increased the acrimony between the two territories.
The French Football League even refused to acknowledge Saarbrücken’s amazing string of victories. Hoping to ease tensions, Jules Rimet, then president of both the FFF and FIFA, canvassed for Saarbrücken to join the French Football Federation so they could compete as a fully fledged team in the future.
It wasn’t a popular idea, with the majority of French clubs rejecting it. In fact over 500 French clubs voted against Rimet’s decision. So incensed was Rimet with the refusal to incorporate Saarbrücken that he resigned as President of the FFF in disgust.
Rimet had been president of the FFF since 1919 and his resignation sent shockwaves through French football. Saarbrücken were left in no man’s land. They couldn’t truly compete in the French Division and any talk of rejoining the German Football Federation wouldn’t be entertained.
By the early 1950s, Saar were competing once again in the German leagues. The Saarbrücken experiment had been given little time to succeed and ultimately must be viewed as a failure. In a post-war France hostile to anything German, the introduction of a high-scoring German team into the French second division was perhaps a misguided idea. Then again, hindsight is always 20-20 isn’t it?
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena