Perhaps you may not have heard the name Heinz Flohe, well let me introduce you, a post second World War child blessed with one of the most refined left feet to grace the sport. Fascinated by native Indians and boxing, the man nicknamed ‘snowflake — flocke’ resembled a rock star and hailed from North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany. His rare talented flair stood out and soon attracted the interest of provincial Bundesliga giants FC Köln, who he signed for at eighteen in 1966.
During this epoch, the club were at the pinnacle of German football, having last won the inaugural Bundesliga trophy in 1963–64, preceded by four consecutive Oberliga West titles, as well as constantly progressing deep in European competitions. Physically a late maturer he took a few years to secure a prominent role in the team, earning more than twenty league starts after the 69/70 campaign. In turn his club form began to blossom and impressive performances were to pay dividends, as he was selected for West Germany’s national team, debuting in November 1970, he was to begin his journey with the golden age of German football.
Alongside a wealth of talent, Helmut Schön utilised Flohe’s tactical flexibility during his spell with Die Mannschaft, where he was either featured in a wider role or assigned deputy replacement for first choice midfield creators Netzer and Overath. Hosting the largest festival on Earth, West Germany’s eventual World Cup conquest came too early for a developing Heinz Flohe, who after starting in the first group game loss to rivals East Germany, was demoted to late substitute appearances, for his flutters of flair were less favoured compared to a more steady midfield profile.
However as the powers of the aforementioned players began to wane following the mid-seventies, Flocke was waiting in the wings to seize the opportunity of a central role, the shift in responsibility seemed to embolden his conviction, which helped him become a more determined player, unafraid to take on any opposition and ready to be decisive for his team.
This new found confidence was not enough to convince Schön to start Flohe during the 1976 European Championships held in Yugoslavia, despite this his influence was profound, substituted on from half time in both matches, his inspirational displays left Germany a Panenka penalty away from another tournament triumph. The International retirement of Beckenbaur after the Czechslovakia defeat, saw an end to a particularly sublime partnership formed with Flocke, both players engaging on the same wavelength, creating sequences of play deep from midfield and often ending in shots on goal.
The national team wasn’t the only place where he assumed further leadership duties, subsequent to the DFB Pokal victory against Hertha Berlin in 1977, long standing captain Wolfgang Overath hung up his boots, and passed the armband onto Flohe just as well as they shared the ball on the field, together they helped Köln to three European semi-finals in less than a decade. On the surface they shared many of the same footballing characteristics, meaning opposition found it almost impossible to halt both the left footed creators, for they established a connective tandem that played music in a synchronous fashion.
When asked about his departure, Flohe spoke in a rare interview that the ‘Billy Goats’ became a more collective short passing side, working for each other, as preferred by new coach Weisweiler, who had somewhat opposed to Overath’s more speculative direct style. This was not the only change to occur, as Heinz Flohe was to occupy the throne of Cologne’s Müngersdorfer Stadion for the next couple of seasons.
As protagonist, his abilities were complimented by a strong squad in which the club had invested, managed by Hennes Weisweiler, perhaps the best manager in Europe at the time, (leading Gladbach & Barcelona previously) the team deployed a progressive 1–4–3–3 system with the legendary keeper Schumacher guarding a solid defence, the inverted pivot of midfield anchored by the industrious Cullmann freed the inventive duo of Neumann and Flohe respectively.
In attack their goal scoring potency derived from a group of forwards whose clinical and direct nature proved harmonic to the subtle passes they were fed, namely these contributions came from the international signings of Japanese winger Okudera, together with the Belgian wide man Van Gool and lethal finisher, Dieter Müller, if that wasn’t enough, there was the dynamism of young Danish striker Elkjær from the bench.
Well-functioning in theory, the side produced impressive results to boot, winning a historic domestic double, defending their DFB Pokal title and being marginally victorious in the league, pipping Borussia Mönchengladbach by goal difference in a dramatic season finale.
Flying into Argentina at the end of his greatest season, Flohe expected to start in his favoured position. Thankfully this was to be the case, donning the iconic number ten strip, his displays in the first group stage were exceptional, highlighted by a brace of long range goals in the drubbing of Mexico. Although a statistical recount of his efforts would not pay justice to the technical class and subtlety of his sinistral exploits on the pitches of Córdoba and Buenos Aires. The Argentine public present witnessed the full range of the German playmaker’s repetoire, curling exterior and interior passes with ease into avenues for forward runners, dribbling powerfully through crowded central zones and controlling loose balls with a magnetic touch.
Despite proving his worth, a tear to his hamstring compelled the pragmatic Helmut Schön to revert to more reliable options after the Germans third draw of the competition against Italy. Failing to beat the Netherlands in a 2–2 tie, meant victory to neighbours Austria was a must, instead they were ashamed in defeat, heading home with thoughts of what could have been and putting the wheel in motion for a generation overhaul.
In his thirteenth and most strenuous season at the club, Flohe faced new challenges that saw a decline in his previous form, with only a meagre dozen starts on the park and with friction starting to appear in his relationship with head coach Weisweiler. Challenges that include the accumulative fatigue subsequent to a extraordinary calendar year of football in ’78 which was beginning to negatively impact his body post World Cup, he himself admitting retrospectively that surgery was continually delayed for a torn muscle injury.
Moreover the precocious emergence of the talented figure known as Bernd Schuster wasn’t making life easier, although the tipping point might have come during the 1979 European Cup semi-final loss to eventual winners Nottingham Forrest, matches in where Flohe didn’t feature from the beginning, the outcome nudged him in making the suitable decision to depart the city of Cologne for the first time in his professional career, moving south to Bavaria, where he was lured by recently promoted outfit, 1860 Munich.
His new chapter with ‘The Lions’ looked to promise a few seasons riding off into the sunset, reiterating his supreme quality in another part of Germany, prospects were looking up half through the season, Flocke regaining his mojo and tallying a goal every third game from midfield. Nevertheless misfortune seemed to accompany poor Heinz where ever he went, for on the 1st of December 1979, he was the victim of a horrific tackle from Dusiburg’s notorious brute Paul Steiner, resulting in a double leg break and chronic nerve damage that would leave him unable to take the field again.
Forced into retirement prematurely, when his luminosity still had light to project, Flohe withdrew from football into a reserved and congenial lifestyle in Euskirchen, assuming coaching and scouting roles in the comfort of his hometown, knowing he ascended himself into the upper stratum of footballing aristocracy.
It is often said that appreciation from fellow colleagues is the highest form of praise, well comments by former teammates of Flohe reveal how well he was regarded. Franz Beckenbaur saying, “What Heinz Flohe could do with his little toe, almost all the others did not manage with two feet.”. Fellow playmaker Günter Netzer shared a similar sentiment, proclaiming that, ‘He was one of the best players I’ve ever seen, able to perform technical gestures none of us could manage, in that sense maybe he lived during the wrong era for his abilities to be greater appreciated’.
Although his modest acclaim is subordinate to poster boys of the seventies, media productions can influence the expansion of one’s legacy, such was the case in 2017 when a documentary starring the midfielder was featured in the fourteenth 11mm Film Festival in Berlin, having originally been released two years earlier.
Aptly titled, ‘Heinz Flohe — Der mit dam Ball tanzte (He danced with the ball) the motion picture cinematically depicts the career of one of Germany’s most talented footballers, with a mixture of anecdotes and match footage that rightfully honours the man.
Health issues where a constant in the latter years of Flohe’s life, suffering from arrhythmia of the heart meant the former Cologne hero had to undergo corrective surgery twice in 1992 then again in 2004. This history of complications left him with an artificial valve and more susceptible to a failure of the organ. Walking back from a boxing event in 2010, he collapsed into a coma on the streets of Cologne, limiting the once prosperous individual into a vegetative state until his passing three years later, fading away in his sleep at the age of 65.