He was branded the best substitute of the world: Jürgen Grabowski was the greatest Eintracht player ever. In this interview – kindly provided by German football magazine 11FREUNDE – he talks about sipping espressos with Gyula Lorant and a bad foul of a certain Lothar Matthäus.
Jürgen Grabowski, we brought a little something for you – do you recognize the car in this picture?
Of course. It’s an Opel Bitter, named after race driver Erich Bitter. Beautiful, isn‘t it?
Bernd Hölzenbein recalled that only himself, Paul Breitner and you were driving this car in the seventies.
That’s right, mine was silver-grey, the one of ‘Holz’ was light green metallic. You wouldn’t have seen me in that one.
Light green metallic? I need to like what I see and that is not my colour. Nothing against Holz’ car but some people buy a car and are happy once it’s moving. But with me, the optics got to be right.
So you are an aesthete?
I know what you’re getting at. Skilful Grabowski, who rather caresses the ball than hoofing it towards the front. But let me tell you, I was a professional footballer for 15 years and in those 15 years I had a man marking me in every single match. So that’s 90 minutes Horst-Dieter Höttges, Berti Vogts and all the other experts breathing down your neck. If I would have tried to play against those guys with ‘the beautiful game’ only my career would have been over faster than you can say ‘Opel Bitter’.
But still people associate you with elegant passing and fast dribbles. This image doesn’t annoy you, does it?
Of course not. I loved those great one-twos and subtle crosses, and the crowd in Frankfurt expected those special moments of me. If Grabowski is on the pitch he has to play that way. And indeed I was lucky to have a manager right at the beginning of my career absolutely supporting my style of playing.
You joined Eintracht in 1965 from FV Biebrich.
Yes, and the Hungarian manager Elek Schwartz loved stylish high-class football. He had lead Benfica including Eusebio to the European Cup final. And I was a regular starter right away even though I only just joined from an amateur’s club.
How did Schwartz develop your confidence?
He talked a lot to me and gave me a boost. Before the season started he told the media “This lad will be playing for Germany in a year’s time!” The journalists called him insane. But as a result I was totally up for it. Right in the first match we beat Hamburg 2-0 and I had a decent debut against the feared Jürgen Kurbjuhn. Eight months later I was playing for Germany.
Was there a danger of losing the sense for reality, with this super-fast rise?
Very little. For example in September 1968 we played Bayern München and had a crowd of 60,000. We drew 1-1 and got a bonus of 125 Deutschmark each, before tax. I enjoyed the privilege of playing matches with large attendances but it didn’t make me rich. That lessened the chance of ‘losing it’.
Was Elek Schwartz the most important manager in your career?
Certainly one of the most important ones. But also Erich Ribbeck, Dietrich Weise, Hans-Dieter Roos, Dettmar Cramer, Otto Knefler and Friedel Rausch, and especially Gyula Lorant.
Lorant was in Frankfurt only for a year. But his achievement in the 1976/77 season will hopefully remain unforgotten around here. We were ranked 16th when he took over. At the end of the season we were fourth, only two points behind the champions. We didn’t lose in 22 consecutive matches!
How did he do it?
He was just different. Ahead of an away match against Schalke he told the media of Gelsenkirchen that I was as good as Johan Cruyff. But it wasn’t only with me, he also told all the other leading players how much he worshipped their skills. Besides, I had an outstanding match against Schalke. And he had some crazy ways of motivating us ahead of games.
Before every match kit manager Anton Hübler set up a bench outside our changing rooms. There we would find cups filled with mocha and espresso, and plates with cookies. Only minutes until kick-off, we could hear the studs of the opponent players in the tunnel already. They came striding towards us, highly motivated, just to find us sipping espressos. Those methods also gave us the motivation to stay unbeaten in 22 matches.
You said of Lorant once „He taught me things I did not know before.” But when he joined you were 32 already.
My shooting was decent but in his first training session he grabbed the ball of me, arranged it on the pitch and pointed to the black hexagon in the middle: “Look at patch of ball. See? Two meters inrun only, never more!” At first we smiled at it but my very first attempt hit the top right corner of the goal right away. In a match against Paderborn I scored that way from a free-kick right under the cross bar, from 30 meters.
Two meters inrun, that was the secret?
Yes, not more than two meters and to hit it frontal. Gyula of course sold this to us sensationally. If one of three attempts in training went flying in using his technique he would go “See? I told you!” Maybe there was an aspect of coincidence in it but I had a lot of respect for the new manager.
Lorant was renowned for his tactical skills.
In the first session he wrote our names onto a board and took the chalk and then off he went. “You here, and you here, he goes that way and you that way!” You couldn’t make out the board in the end for all the chalk lines. A piece of art! Our officials were silent in disbelief and did not know what to make of it.
And the players?
We had our doubts. Also when he instructed us not to mark the same players all over the pitch but to pass them on to the next available team mate. In a way a first version of zonal defending, back then a revolution. But it worked! If a striker would go past us we would say “Bye, see you later!” as we knew a team mate would already wait for him.
But already in November 1977 Dettmar Cramer took over. You objected to that move and took on the Eintracht board. Why?
I was convinced of Gyula 100% which is why I wanted to circumvent him leaving. I was pushy and took quite a risk.
It was said you had spoken of a “disqualified Eintracht board”.
The decision makers in the Bundesliga back then were not used to revolutionary behaviour like that. But it was too late and Gyula left for Munich.
At that point you had already featured in three World Cups for Germany - 1966, 1970 and 1974. Which one was your favourite?
The World Cup in Mexico.
Even though you were not a regular starter?
There was tough competition in the team of 1970, so it was difficult to even complain about my situation. My main adversary on the right flank was Stan Libuda, a sensational football player. But only one of us would play, it was him or me – that was how manager Helmut Schön had announced it.
How did you get on with Libuda?
Great, we even shared a room during the World Cup. And we openly chatted about our competitive situation.
That sounds nice but one can hardly imagine that these days.
It is all a matter of respect for your team mate. I still talk of Libuda with deepest respect today as I was a big fan of his artful way of playing. He most likely felt the same way about me. In a way we were soul mates, and competitors on the pitch.
How would you describe Libuda? We know little today about his character.
Stan was an outstanding football player, but very introvert off the pitch. But not many know that he was a great laugh too. In Mexico it was just a matter of time after training that Stan and Helmut Haller would have a water fight with the garden hoses. That reflects the spirit in the team, both Helmut and Stan were not set starters with Helmut Schön but they still had fun.
During the quarter final against England you came on for Libuda. At that stage Germany were 2-0 down but went on to win 3-2. The international press named you the “best substitute of the world” thereafter.
I still don’t know whether I should be pleased about that or not. Of course I benefitted from this image as the world knew my name then. But all my life I was a regular starter, only for Germany I came from the bench a few times. It is a difficult image for someone who captained Eintracht Frankfurt and started 441 league games without being substituted even once.
But the new image resulted in a well-paying offer of Feyenoord Rotterdam. Why did you stay at Eintracht?
The offer was actually not as concrete as the papers made it. Not as concrete as negotiations had been two years earlier with Bayern.
Bayern wanted to sign me, badly. I will never forget when Bayern’s sporting director Robert Schwan was on the phone to our president Rudi Gramlich while I was waiting outside for the decision. But apparently Gramlich was able to refuse the offer Schwan had made to him and so I stayed at Eintracht. If he would have agreed to the deal I supposedly would have joined Bayern.
In Munich you had your biggest success of your career. Cheesy question – how does it feel to win the World Cup?
It was an unbelievable moment when the final whistle went. Nothing compares to this, from a sportive point of view. In 1954 I stood in front of a shop window in a knot of people, it was a TV store in my home town Biebrich and I admired the ‘Heroes of Bern’. When I won it myself 20 years later I thought for a moment: “The world is yours now!”
But why did you not name this World Cup then when we spoke about your favourite tournament?
Too much had happened in 1974. I played all three group matches but after the – admittedly bad – game against East Germany I was out of the squad. I was in the stands during our match against Yugoslavia which was the end of the world for me. I was truly hurt, more than I thought would be possible.
In the following match against Sweden you came on after 63 minutes.
I reckon God almighty must have thought “Let’s help this Grabowski lad” back then. 11 minutes after coming on I scored the 3-2, and it was the best goal of my career. Go figure! We won 4-2 and I was part of the team again, started both remaining matches against Poland and the Netherlands.
After the tournament you surprised everyone by announcing not to play for Germany again. Why?
I considered retiring from the German team when I was in the stands during that Yugoslavia match. It really beat me up. It was the worst case for me during this World Cup.
So a single match of being not nominated caused you hanging up your boots, at least for Germany?
In addition to that I was rather a playmaker in central midfield but in the national side I always had to move to the right as we had numerous players in the middle.
Why ist that?
Helmut Schön favoured Wolfgang Overath or Günter Netzer. And back then a playmaker was a different position. Overath got really angry when he wasn’t the first to get the ball during an attack. Like me in Frankfurt. But in the national team I had to stick to the side line and wasn’t allowed to make our game narrow - which would have happened if I would have moved to the middle. For Germany I never played in the position I was best in.
So you were offended?
Yes, my ego was bruised. I was not the only player who performed badly against East Germany. But they were looking for a scapegoat, and they found me. Later I found out via the press that some players supported my displacement. Of course I was angry.
You were 30 years old with the experience of three World Cups when you retired from the German team. Strangely enough your career took off after that.
Crazy, isn’t it? The last six years of my career were the best. Four years after leaving the national team Helmut Schön even pushed for my comeback for the World Cup 1978 – as playmaker. But I rejected it.
I had made my mind up and wanted to stick to my decision. But I still travelled to Argentina, as a reporter for a Frankfurt newspaper.
How did you cope being in the stands when there’s a team on the pitch you could have been the leader of?
Those were bad weeks. I was sitting amongst all these fans and spectators and thought „Why are you not on that pitch playing football? How stupid are you?” I mean it had been an honour to be invited again by the manager, being 34 years of age.
Did you ever regret your decision?
That would make it even worse. Of course I ruled out more caps, a European Championship and a World Cup with the decision. I never felt at ease with that decision and I still do not know whether it was right.
Rephrasing the question – would you do the same again?
I think so. I felt treated in an unjust way which was reason enough to retire, after careful consideration.
On March 15th in 1980 you were tackled by Lothar Matthäus and injured so badly that you had to abandon the season. You were not able to play in the UEFA Cup finals. Matthäus said in an interview in 2008: “Maybe he (Grabowski) had a good insurance back then. With an injury like that surely one has not to give up his career.”
I tried everything for weeks, day by day, to recover from this metatarsus injury. Three to four times a week a physio came to my house for treatment. But the injury was so stubborn, it was all for nothing – the dream of the UEFA Cup final was over. As I wanted to finish my career at the end of that season anyway I stupidly did not claim the insurance and probably lost a lot of money. At least I was able to play a farewell match half a year later in November, with plenty of painkillers and injections.
Were you still able to enjoy winning the UEFA Cup?
I was over the moon. For the club, the great fans, my team mates. But the two finals were nothing else than torture. A disaster. Your team is in the final and you are sitting in the stands for the pain in your foot won’t stop. That is just not fair.