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He had been planning to celebrate the milestone. Horst Eckel was very much looking forward to his 90th birthday. He had undergone another operation this year without complaining, and then had taken up his "veteran training".

A long time ago, Horst Eckel used to be the quickest in the training sessions. The soccer player from the Palatinate region never spared himself, and neither did he spare the others. And when the coach blew his whistle to signal the end of the session, Horst Eckel would look up from the ball and ask, "What, already? Mr. Herberger, please give us another 15 minutes!"

Some of his teammates did not like him very much at those moments.

After ending his career as one of the country's best midfielders in the 1950s, he continued playing for provincial clubs for a while and took on jobs as a coach. He taught arts and sports, tried his luck as a hotel owner, raised two daughters with his wife Hannelore, and was a legend in his hometown of Kaiserslautern. Horst Eckel played tennis and table tennis – actually no, "played" is the wrong word, he wanted to win the matches. Off the playing field, he was a very gentle man who smiled a lot. He went from one honor ceremony to the next. Filmmaker Sönke Worthmann hired the then 75-year-old as advisor for his movie about the 1954 soccer World Cup ("The Miracle of Bern").

When his body got tired, Horst Eckel just shrugged and adapted his "training". He worked on himself as best he could. "I don't loaf around," he said. "I'll make it to my 90th, you'll see."

It wasn't meant to be. At the age of 89, Horst Eckel has died. He was the last survivor from the team that made the "Miracle of Bern" come true in 1954 and won the World Cup over Hungary with a score of 3:2.

"I think of that final every day. I can't help it." That's what he said once during a visit to Vogelbach. He was wearing a swish white sweat suit with three dark blue stripes and pretty beat-up running shoes. We were having coffee and cakes. His wife Hannelore poured more coffee and urged the visitor to have another piece of her homebaking. She didn't say much; she was her husband's "minuting service", leaving him free to relate stories from his life.

Horst was born in Vogelbach. They didn't have much money. His father worked for the railways and his mother took care of two sons, one daughter, and the household. Horst was thin as a rake and very tough – and most of all he wanted to go out and play soccer. He played with the older boys and had to be agile and smart to compete. Horst's older brother died in the war. "After that, I wasn't allowed to go out onto the street anymore. So, I shot out the lamps in our living-room."

At the age of 15 – when he was already playing in the top league in his hometown and was about to take up a job at the local sawmill – Horst Eckel would bike over to the Betzenberg in Kaiserslautern, 18 miles away. This was where the legendary team of the 1. FC Kaiserslautern trained. He would crawl through a hole in the fence and onto the field. There, the legendary Fritz Walter, the "hero" of his time, noticed him.

"That boy will become a great player," said Walter, and declared himself Horst Eckel's mentor. He introduced "the Greyhound" to national coach Sepp Herberger.

The latter agreed. That Eckel guy would be a great one. He was hardworking, the sort who'd never give up. Quick like no one else. Didn't drink, didn't smoke. "A thin Sparrowhawk. Thin as a rake." Herberger would build him up.

The year was 1951 – and Sepp Herberger had a vision that he silently kept to himself. They would have declared him crazy.

In 1954, Sepp Herberger had nearly reached his goal. The German national team was in the World Cup finals.

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Those 105 minutes in Bern would change a whole country. In the first 45 minutes, the German players were immediately swept off their feet by the Hungarians. The score was 2:0 for the frontrunners in no time.

Seemingly knocked out already, Sepp Herberger's men then suddenly got back on their feet. When they shuffled back to the locker room for the half-time break – looking dead tired – the score was 2:2.

Adi Dassler was mounting long studs onto the boots; masseur Erich Deuser was serving tea; the players were hunched on the benches. There was a smell of perspiration, stale textiles, and arnica. Their mood should have been elated, combative, victorious. But as Sepp Herberger would recall years later:

"They were arguing. That's what they were doing. Defender Liebrich was scolding the forwards, Rahn was shouting at Posipal, and Turek was insulting Kohlmeyer. That was the first time I really yelled at them. I shouted, 'Shut up, all of you! We could be world champions, and you are fighting? Now I'll tell you something. These Hungarians will pounce on you again in a minute. They want to seal the deal. Look out! You need to burn for another 45 minutes. Fight against them! One for all, all for one. You know what to do. Right – now, get out onto the field!' They fell silent. Until the referee, Mr. Ling, put his head round the door and said, 'Let's go!'"

While the others had been fighting, Horst Eckel had been sitting quietly by the door, concentrating on the second half. He would have to run a lot. He would run like never before in his life, and they would win. There was no question of that.

And win they did. 3:2. The "Miracle of Bern".

And then?

Then, Horst Eckel’s "simple" life just carried on.

"I showed up at Pfaff again every morning at seven. Precision mechanic on sewing machines. Nine hours a day. Just like before. We got eight days off each year and had to take unpaid leave whenever we played international matches with the national team. Right after the World Cup, various offers from abroad came in. I could have gone to England. 150,000 German marks one-off payment plus 6,000 marks per month. They offered Fritz Walter 350,000 marks plus 10,000 a month. But nobody went because Fritz declined.

In Kaiserslautern, I was earning 320 marks at the time. I know, nobody can understand today why I didn't go. But to be honest, I would actually have paid money to be allowed to play for Kaiserslautern. I got into Kaiserslautern at the age of 17. I became a regular, won my first German national cup at 19 and became world champion at 22. What else would I want? I had already achieved everything that a soccer player can achieve.

People were saying for the first time: we could get there. The whole world didn't believe in us. We were devastated politically, economically, and sports-wise. It was so enormously satisfying to come in as a complete outsider and then be able to say: We're the world champions."

Holger Gertz, one of today’s smartest German-speaking journalists, writes: "Horst Eckel was to Fritz Walter and the others who died young what Egon Bahr was to Willy Brandt. He kept the memory alive by retelling the story of the miracle. Not one bad word about Sepp Herberger, no jokes, not even about old Fritz. Comradeship? Sounds outdated, which doesn't fit with Horst Eckel, whose mind was alert until old age. Loyalty would be a better word. Friendship."

That's it. It has always been about values. Which brings us back to Adi Dassler. He loved guys like "the Greyhound" from the Palatinate.

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