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Feb 23, 2013

A Pröpper impact

On account of the Müller/Messi chase and then the Messi/Ronaldo one-upmanship, there has been a lot of talk about goalscoring heroics this season, and I, too, haven't been immune to it (see "Looking for Goals", November 17, 2012).

Which makes it even more surprising how little people, including myself, knew about the way the record in the German professional game was set. This realisation was triggered by a simple remark my esteemed colleague Paul Simpson made while we were working on a book that will be published in October or thereabouts.

"When Günter Pröpper set his goalscoring record," Paul said, "what was his longest scoring streak?" I was stumped. Not only didn't I have the slightest idea, I didn't even know where to look this up without having to go to great lengths.

I knew that Pröpper had scored 52 goals in a 34-game season in 1971-72, but I doubted whether in-depth data was readily available online, for the same reason many of you have surely spent the last few seconds shaking your head and mumbling "Who in heaven's name is Günter Pröpper?" Because the fact was, he was a local hero rather than a national star and went on his goalscoring rampage out of the limelight, in what was then the second tier of the German game. (Though it should be pointed out that he subsequently proved he could score quite freely in the Bundesliga, too.)

But first things first. Pröpper was born in 1941 in Dorsten, a town on the outer edge of the Ruhr industrial area, 18 miles north of Essen. He had eight siblings and since his father had been killed in the war, Günter needed to earn money early. Which is why a career in football wasn't the first thing on his mind - instead he went into the coal mines at age 14 and was later trained as a welder.

Yet he kept playing - and scoring - for his local team in his spare time and finally, in 1964, a bigger club picked him up: VfL Osnabrück, then playing in the Regionalliga Nord, one of the five regional second divisions. Osnabrück had a half-decent centre forward at that time by the name of Udo Lattek. Pröpper, however, was better and Lattek was pulled back into defensive midfield to accommodate him.

Even though Pröpper stood only 5ft 10in, he was excellent in the air; even though he wasn't the muscular type, he had a powerful shot with either foot; even though he had a benign, guileless air about him, he possessed the ruthless knack of being at the right place at the right moment in front of goal.

He scored 18 goals in his first season, 15 in his second, then won the league's Golden Boot with 25 in his third - all for a team that never finished higher than seventh place. This earned him a move to Rot-Weiss Essen in 1967. He was still in the second tier, now in the Regionalliga West, but with a club that had just been relegated from the Bundesliga and was hoping to bounce back soon.

In Essen, Pröpper encountered some more men destined for higher things, as his coaches were Erich Ribbeck and Kuno Klötzer. For reasons lost in the mists of time, the former gave Pröpper a few outings but the latter rarely played him, despite the fact the striker responded with goals whenever he saw action. In 1968-69, Pröpper became Essen's second-best scorer (with 17 goals, Willi Lippens had 23) yet still wasn't a regular.

So he jumped at the chance to join league rivals and neighbours Wuppertaler SV, a semi-professional club that also promised him a decent day job. Essen sold Pröpper for 30,000 Marks (around £3,400) - not one of the better deals in the club's history. Because in the hillside surrounding the Wupper river valley, in the city where Aspirin was invented, Pröpper exploded. In his first season, he scored 21 goals and Wuppertal finished third, only four points away from first place. In his second season, he scored 22 and Wuppertal missed out on top spot by a single point. (Bochum won the league and also promotion to the Bundesliga that year.)

Then, in 1971-72, history was made. The lightning-fast left winger Gustl Jung, the deep-lying playmaker Dieter Lömm and the two wing-backs called Manfred, Cremer and Reichert, became the main providers as Pröpper ran rampant. As early as the third matchday, he scored five goals in one game (against Erkenschwick, no pushovers) and on October 31, 1971, he had the sweetest revenge you can imagine when Wuppertal, in first place, travelled to Essen, then in third.

In front of 30,000 fans - many of whom booed when his name was announced prior to the game - Pröpper scored a hat-trick before the first half was over and later added a fourth goal for the final scoreline of 5-0. Coach Horst Buhtz took him off after 67 minutes and both sets of fans gave him a standing ovation as he left the pitch.

The scary thing about Pröpper's historic season is how easily it could have been even better. He missed two games on account of injuries - there was a match at Neuss in which Wuppertal netted six yet somehow he wasn't among the scorers - and in early April 1972, in a game against Lünen, he managed to waste not one but two penalties!

Still, when the regular season ended on May 14, with a 7-1 victory against Gütersloh in which he chalked up a hat-trick, Pröpper had set a record for the upper tiers of the German game by scoring 52 goals. Over the next weeks, he would score eight more as Wuppertal waltzed through the promotion rounds.

Add the goal he had scored against Kaiserslautern in the cup and you have 61 goals from 42 competitive games. Not bad for a 31-year-old. No wonder they dubbed him Meister Pröpper in Wuppertal. ("Meister Proper" was the German brand name of the Mr. Clean cleaning solution. "Meister" is related to "master" but can also mean "champion".)

Those who suspected that Pröpper could score in the lower division but not in the Bundesliga were proved wrong the following year. Wuppertal finished their first season in the top flight in a stunning fourth place and Pröpper, with 21 goals, was the third best scorer. Only Gerd Müller and Jupp Heynckes were more prolific, and of course they - and his age - were what kept Pröpper out of the national team.

A season later, 1973-74, Pröpper scored an entirely respectable 16 goals for a team that was now desperately fighting relegation, but eventually both he and his club ran out of steam. Wuppertal went down in 1975, never to return. (In 2004, the club merged with Borussia Wuppertal to form Wuppertaler SV Borussia.)

Pröpper finished his career, still at Wuppertal, in 1979, when he was almost 38. His club organised a testimonial game for him and although the German FA initially balked at the idea (arguing that only internationals should get a testimonial), stars like Günter Netzer and Wolfgang Overath readily agreed to play. Wuppertal defeated the All-Stars 7-4; Pröpper scored a brace.

P.S: Oh, to answer Paul's question: his longest scoring streak in his record season was six consecutive games, but only if we include the promotion rounds.

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