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Feb 10, 2009

Hoffenheim suffer the curse of Meyer

I suppose you have never heard of Peter Meyer. This, however, is not a particularly embarrassing knowledge gap, as even most German football fans are not too familiar with the strange and sad story of this player from the 1960s. Although his name has cropped up a few times of late, particularly in connection with the injury to Hoffenheim striker Vedad Ibisevic.

Meyer first made a brief comeback of sorts in the public awareness (or rather, the awareness of a small part of the public) in the summer of 2007. That's when the jack-of-all-trades Arnd Zeigler - amongst other things, he is an author, singer, radio host and Werder Bremen's announcer - aired a forty-year-old black-and-white film during his football call-in show on television. The clip shows an interview with an impressively hoarse Fortuna Düsseldorf fan who is slightly the worse for wear and sings Peter Meyer's praises.

The original 1960s clip is on YouTube, as is the rap video Zeigler turned that into.

The fan tells the reporter that he's just come back from Offenbach, so we must be talking about the June of 1966, when Düsseldorf won 5-1 away at Kickers Offenbach to clinch promotion to the Bundesliga on goal average. (The tiebreaker that predated goal difference.) Fortuna's 26-year-old striker Peter Meyer scored twice in the first half to decide the game early, he also had a third goal disallowed for offside.

No less than 15,000 Düsseldorf fans had made the trip to Offenbach, and after the final whistle hundreds of them invaded the pitch, tore the shirts off the players' backs and carried the team around the ground. The fan in the clip must have been one of those exuberant supporters because he proudly shows the reporter he's wearing midfielder Jürgen Schult's number 10 shirt.

There is an unpleasant footnote to this match. Two and a half years later, Fortuna's former chief executive claimed his club had bought the win for 35,000 German Marks. The matter was never really cleared up, though some witnesses supported the claim. And it wouldn't have been the first time something was fishy. In May of 1964, during an away game at Herne, a Fortuna player offered his marker money for taking it easy. The player was Peter Meyer.

In any case, by the summer of 1966 Meyer was finally in the Bundesliga with Fortuna. But the stay was short. Meyer scored only eight goals, Düsseldorf finished 17th and went straight back down. The drop automatically nullified all existing contracts, and among the players who were not offered a new one was Meyer. He received an offer from MSV Duisburg, a mid-table Bundesliga team, and agreed on terms with the club. Then fate intervened.

Like virtually all German players of the period, Meyer was not a full-blown professional but had a more conventional job on the side. He ran a car workshop in Düsseldorf, and one day an unexpected customer showed up - Günter Netzer. The Bourussia Mönchengladbach playmaker did not have a problem with his car, though. Rather, he came as a messenger from Borussia to offer Meyer a contract.

Meyer must have been quite a fun-loving guy during those years. He was on a pack of cigarettes a day, loved tall drinks and, in his own words, "was always where the action was". I guess that's why he jumped at the chance to stay in his native Rhineland instead of joining a Ruhr area club like Duisburg. Meyer signed with Gladbach.

In his first game for Borussia, on August 19, 1967, away at Schalke, Meyer scored three goals. In his second game, he scored once. In his third, he found the net twice. In his fourth, he scored another hat-trick.

That run gave him nine goals in his first month at the new club. Not bad. Predictably, things then dried up a bit and Meyer couldn't add to his tally in the next five games. But in mid-October, he broke the spell with a goal against Dortmund and got hot again: a week later, he scored twice at Karlsruhe and seven days later found the target no less than four times against Neunkirchen.

On November 25, 1967, Meyer scored twice within 120 seconds away at Cologne. It was the 15th day of the season and he now had 19 goals to his name.

There are two reasons why this incredible feat has largely been forgotten over the past decades and why Meyer's name is not a household one. The first reason goes by a past name even more common in Germany than Meyer, namely Müller. Just a shade over twelve months later, in November of 1968, Gerd Müller scored a hat-trick on the 14th day of the season to bring his tally to, wait for it, 20 goals.

Suddenly, Meyer's achievement was no longer a record in the still-young league and it faded from memory. Yet over the many years of Bundesliga football that followed, no player save Müller ever managed to rival Meyer's tally again. (Müller did it for a second time in 1976/77, when he scored 19 goals in the first 14 games of the season.)

The second reason was an intra-squad training match (played in Duisburg!) in the second week of January 1968, during which Meyer collided with his goalkeeper Volker Danner. The striker broke his shinbone and calf bone. He underwent an operation, then began to train too early again, which necessitated another operation.

Meyer only made his comeback in August of 1969, nineteen months and two weeks after the injury. After the first half of a game against Bayern, he complained of pains in his leg. He didn't come out for the second half. And he never again played in the Bundesliga.

And now you know why Meyer's name was mentioned here and there when Ibisevic tore his cruciate ligament. The Hoffenheim striker had scored 18 goals in 17 games, and in early December Gerd Müller had said: "If he carries on like that, he'll reach my 40-goals mark. And then I'll congratulate him."

That matter has been settled now. And there are those who think the same goes for Hoffenheim's title drive. The "Süddeutsche Zeitung" recently suggested Bayern may have become the first team ever to win the league during the winter break, considering Hoffenheim have to make do without their best goalscorer now.

Like Meyer, Ibisevic suffered his injury during a meaningless preparation match in January. However, that's where the comparisons have to end. On the official Gladbach homepage, Meyer is quoted as saying he thinks that, without the injury, he "would have been able to set a goal scoring record that might still stand today." And his former team-mate Herbert Laumen says: "We might have won our first league title that year if he'd been able to play the whole season."

Well, while it's surely hard to argue with ifs and would'ves, there are a couple of things that have me presume neither event was likely to happen. Meyer, and many people aren't aware of this, had gone three games without a goal when he got injured. So it looks as if he'd gotten a bit cold again. And even if that wasn't the case, even if he was just about to get back to the monster pace he'd kept up during the first 15 games - it wouldn't have been enough. In order to set a record that would "still stand today", he would have needed to score 22 goals in the remaining 16 games. Not impossible, but unlikely.

As regards Laumen's claim, Meyer's last game before the injury was a resounding 6-1 loss at home to Schalke. It left Gladbach eight points off the pace. Sure, they may have mounted a late challenge with Meyer in the side, but if you take into account that Borussia won the first three games after Meyer's injury, lost only two matches the rest of the season and still didn't catch Nuremberg, well, I have my doubts that losing Meyer lost the title.

Hoffenheim, by comparison, were in first place when they lost their most consistent goal scorer, and so Ibisevic's injury could indeed turn out to be a deciding factor in the title race.

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