Toby Charles: The man who brought German football to the U.S.
German football wasn't too popular back in 2002 when I started writing for ESPN. There weren't many places where you could regularly find English-language content about the game's culture and history, or stories other than match reports and transfer news.
Many readers of the site (Soccernet as it was back then) said they were craving information about German football because they had become hooked on it during the 1970s and 1980s thanks to a weekly programme on American television called "Soccer Made in Germany," hosted by a man called Toby Charles.
That's funny, I thought. I had never heard of "Soccer Made In Germany," let alone seen it. But I knew Toby Charles very well. Or rather, I knew his voice.
In the western part of Germany, where I grew up, Charles was an icon; a legend. Every Saturday, my family and I would sit in front of the radio and continue listening to the afternoon sports show more than half an hour after the Bundesliga games had ended.
That's because we knew Kurt Brumme, the show's host, would eventually announce he had his England correspondent on the line, none other than Toby Charles. Then Charles would give us the results and some of the goal scorers from England's First Division.
It was our only connection to mythic places like Anfield, White Hart Lane or Old Trafford, because of course there was no live coverage from England's top flight in Germany back then.
Over the years, I occasionally read up on Charles and the "Soccer Made in Germany" show, thinking that maybe I should one day talk to him about it for one of these columns. So, for my 400th, I found out more about how he helped to bring football to a wider audience.
"My car once broke down on the autobahn between here and Dortmund," he says when I remind him of how popular he used to be in Germany. "A guy from the ADAC [mobile mechanics] came along. He said: 'Hey, I know you! You talk with Kurt Brumme about English soccer every weekend. I recognise the voice!'"
In late 1984, a magazine published a story about how Charles was in fact not in England at all but calling Brumme from Cologne. It tells you a lot about how famous Charles had become that the magazine in question was the noted political monthly Der Spiegel -- and that the silly story was blown out of all proportion to become a proper, if short-lived, scandal.
More than 30 years later, Charles still shakes his head over the episode. "I never said I was in Britain unless I actually was at the time we spoke," he recalls. "And Kurt never said I was in Britain, either. But media journalists, especially print journalists, like to get hold of something like that and say it's a scandal and all the rest of it. What makes me laugh is that 50 percent of all so-called live music programmes are playbacks. But nobody complains about that."
During my research for the column I found out some astonishing things. For instance, he came to Germany as early as January 1961, when he was in his early 20s, and has never really lived permanently anywhere else since. When I ask him what attracted him to Germany, he reveals: "A young lady."
It also caught me by surprise that the programme that made him famous went out to Asia and Africa before it ever reached the United States, so in all likelihood there are many more people, not just Americans, who were introduced to German football by Charles.
"There were two guys called Christian Viertel and Jorg Klebe, two Germans," he recalls. "They were in the media business in New York and said, 'Why don't we promote German soccer in the States?' They got in contact with the Deutsche Welle (TransTel at the time). We were already doing the programme for Asia and Africa."
Essentially, "Soccer Made in Germany" was a weekly one-hour highlight show. Charles was the host during most of the years that it ran in the U.S. "There was a guy called Alan Fountain who did the show for a while because I had a legal dispute with the company I'd been working for, Transtel, in Cologne," he says. "So I couldn't do it for them. Then the legal dispute was settled and I went back to doing it again."
While 1976 is generally accepted as the start of the show's run in America, opinions vary as to when it ended. Some say it was 1988 but Charles claims it went on for longer. "I think we actually kept going until a bit after the 1990 World Cup," he says. "Germany had just won the World Cup -- and then they closed it down! So I think it might have been 1991, not 1988. It continued in Asia and Africa, though."
The end of the show caught everyone by surprise, not just the viewers. "We were all surprised and disappointed when it finished," Charles said. "Money was involved, but there was also a dispute between the company I'd been working for and another company that was also trying to get the rights to broadcast German soccer. The result was that nobody got it and it finished altogether."
It was a shame because the show was very influential. When you search around on the web you'll even find the info that the enormous popularity which women's football enjoys all across the United States might be traced back to 1981, when "Soccer Made in Germany" covered a women's cup game from Frankfurt.
At the time, the women's domestic cup was obscure even in West Germany, having been introduced only the year before. And if the game in question really came from Frankfurt in 1981, it can't have been anything more than just a quarterfinal. Of course, it may have actually happened in 1982 when the men's final was staged in Frankfurt and the women's final was played as some sort of warm-up ahead of it, but Charles does not remember exactly as it was a busy time for him.
In 1982, he presented a weekly show with highlights from the World Cup in Spain -- the first time the tournament was covered on U.S. public television. "We did a 60-minute programme that was basically highlights," Charles recalls. "I found it fascinating that beforehand there hadn't been any big international football, or soccer, tournaments on TV."
In a most delightful podcast I found a few years ago -- a 50-minute interview with Charles done by Christopher Harris -- he says it was only on this trip that he realised how popular his programme was in the U.S. and that nobody else was doing anything like it.
"Until I went there I didn't know there were no other soccer programmes in the U.S. at the time," he says. "None except 'Soccer Made in Germany.' It did surprise me because it's such a worldwide sport."
Perhaps that was for the better, because Charles remembers a few awkward, funny moments. "We didn't do the World Cup final; that went to ABC," he says. "They had a commentator called Jim McKay, who was an American Football commentator. He did the final and came up with a few strange quotations. He got the two sports confused a bit. He was talking about touchdowns or field goals!"
And now? Well over two decades after the show ended, Charles is still viewed as a living legend for those who followed "Soccer Made in Germany." The Bundesliga has continued to go from strength to strength and with a global audience that enjoys the game in part due to his work, the former broadcaster is now enjoying watching from the other side of the screen.
"Of course I still follow football," he says emphatically. "And of course I follow German football all the time. I'm a very big fan of Borussia Monchengladbach. When Max Eberl, the director of sports, took over, I thought: 'Oh no, he's not the man for that job.' I didn't like him as a player and I thought he couldn't do that. But he proved me wrong, he's brilliant!"
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.