Exploring the great indoors

For fans of a certain age, this has been another strange winter break. Not just because it was very short, but also because of the absence of what used to be a classic feature of the snowy season - indoor football tournaments.

That doesn't mean there aren't any, of course. A week ago, a sell-out crowd of 8,400 followed the annual indoor masters tournament for the region where I now live. But that's the key word here, "region", because the teams that participated were all local sides from the lower echelons - four clubs from the fourth division and four from the fifth.

Long gone are the days when the biggest clubs and the greatest stars would contest a whole series of tournaments on AstroTurf all through December and January, watched by tens of thousands and shown live on television, culminating in a tournament for the national indoor championship.

To many people's regret, I should say, because the brief indoor season was immensely popular. Personally, though, I have always had aversions to indoor tournaments, as a player, as a coach and as a fan.

As a player, I hated the endless sitting around and waiting for the next game, particularly as the day wore on and the air in those small-town gyms became progressively worse. As a coach, I could talk until I was blue in the face, but my youth-team players would still eventually run around the building and, usually out of sheer boredom, fill their bellies with French fries, soda and sweets, with predictable results in the later rounds. And as a fan, I could never see the attraction, as football was clearly meant to be played outdoors.

But, like I said, I was exception. As a rule, Germans loved the indoor spectacle.

Mind you, it's not futsal we're talking about here, because that was still an exclusively South American phenomenon when the indoor football craze began in Germany, which was in the early 1970s.

The German-language Wikipedia claims that "the first indoor tournament on German soil with professional teams was held from January 13 to January 17, 1971, in Berlin's Deutschlandhalle". That's wrong. A few weeks earlier, in late December 1970, four teams contested an indoor tournament hosted by second-division Wuppertal. The three other teams were the Bundesliga clubs Oberhausen, Dortmund and reigning league champions Mönchengladbach.

After that tournament (surprisingly won by Wuppertal, with Gladbach finishing last), Günter Netzer said: "We need to lay some foundations before this can become a real success. I think Germany doesn't have large enough arenas." It was a sentiment echoed by Oberhausen forward Lothar Kobluhn, who said: "It's a great thing. The only problem is that it was a bit cramped in Wuppertal. We need larger sports halls."

That much was obvious. The gym in Wuppertal was so small that there were no hockey-style boards, because the spectators had to sit right next to the sidelines. If a ball went into the crowd, one team was awarded a "roll-in", as there was not enough room to throw or kick the ball.

Still, the Wuppertal tournament was a huge success - it was sold out, the fans loved it and "Kicker" magazine predicted: "Indoor football will break through in a big way during this winter break." And it did - about three weeks later in the spacious Deutschlandhalle, which held 12,000 people.

Three Berlin teams took part (Hertha, Tennis Borussia and Wacker) plus three Bundesliga sides (Bremen, Braunschweig and Mönchengladbach again). In Wuppertal, the teams had fielded five outfield players plus one goalkeeper. Gladbach's coach Hennes Weisweiler had criticised this, saying the pitch was too small for so many footballer, whereupon an experiment was made with only four outfield players during a smaller Berlin tournament in December (in which Tennis Borussia and Wacker took part).

That, too, must have left something to be desired, because the clubs went back to six-a-side teams in the Deutschlandhalle. On the first day, it told that the two lower-division clubs from Berlin had had some experience on the wooden surface, as they did quite well. Tennis Borussia's forward Bernd Erdmann quickly figured out how to use the board as a non-human wall player and ran havoc until the defenders adapted to the new threat of a guy playing one-twos with himself.

The problem on that day was the low-scoring games. The organisers had put team-handball goals on the pitch and these proved way too small (9.8 feet wide). On the second day, youth football goals were used (16.4 feet) and now there was a lot more action. The tournament was won by Hertha, who bagged 10,000 Marks in prize money, and watched by 34,500 fans in all.

Over the next years, the indoor game became steadily more popular and big tournaments soon turned into staples of the winter break, especially in the west, where there were many large arenas, for instance in Dortmund (Westfallenhalle), Düsseldorf (Philipshalle) and Essen (Grugahalle).

Not everyone was happy, though. Some coaches worried what the hard surfaces would do to the players' joints and tendons, while others feared meaty tackles. During a tournament in Essen in January 1976, Cologne's playmaker Wolfgang Overath suffered a meniscus injury. His knee was put in plaster and he missed the first four league games after the end of the winter break.

Crowds, however, loved indoor football. And not only in Germany. In 1978, the Major Indoor Soccer League started in the USA. Games were played on a pitch about the size of a hockey field. (Because they simply laid out AstroTurf on a hockey rink to create an indoor pitch complete with boards and glass.) The goals were 6 feet, 6 inches high and 12 feet wide and in some games there were 100 shots on goal. The late Ben Wett, a German-American sports journalist, would sometimes report on the MISL for German television and it looked incredibly alien but also strangely thrilling.

In the following decade, Germany would finally get its own quasi-league. In January 1985, then-Dortmund coach Erich Ribbeck said: "We have to have a proper German indoor championship and I think we'll have it within the next two years." His Frankfurt counterpart Dietrich Weise, meanwhile, called indoor football "rubbish" and national coach Franz Beckenbauer was also sceptical, but as the winter breaks got longer and longer, the clubs were looking for income during the cold months. And as Ribbeck had predicted, by 1987 some sort of organised competition sprang up.

There were thirteen local tournaments that winter and while "Kicker" magazine used an arcane system to award the teams points for how they did in order to crown a "Kicker Indoor Champion" (which would eventually be Eintracht Frankfurt), the tabloid "Bild" was more hands-on. The paper staged a fourteenth tournament, in Stuttgart, invited the teams it considered the best and promised the winner 50,000 Marks. (This tournament was won by Hamburg.)

That forced the hand of the German FA, as they couldn't let someone else organise a competition like that. And so the next season saw the first official edition of the German Indoor Cup, later the Indoor Masters. There were 18 tournaments played over five weeks, from late December 1987 to the end of January 1988. The best teams then qualified for the finals staged in Frankfurt.

The inaugural event was only a middling success, mainly because too many unglamorous teams reached the finals (won by Bayer Uerdingen), but over the years the "Budenzauber", as the Indoor Masters was referred to (terms like bazar or jamboree come closest), became an institution. While the original MISL folded in the USA in 1992, the German variant probably enjoyed its heyday during this period, the early and mid-90s.

But the big clubs never really liked it very much. For the small teams, it was a wonderful occasion to share the limelight with the stars and make decent money, yet the rich clubs were annoyed that their players were given less time to recharge the batteries while at the same time being subjected to serious injury risks. And all for what were piffling amounts for the top clubs. To make matters worse, the winter breaks became ever shorter in the late 90s, until it got to the point where the drawn-out indoor competition was making it hard to properly prepare the teams for the second half of the season.

In 2000, then-Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who'd always opposed the indoor game anyway, single-handedly sounded the death-knell for the series when he fielded a ridiculous team for what was Bayern's home tournament in Munich: Stefan Effenberg, Lothar Matthäus, Bixente Lizarazu, Jens Jeremies, Markus Babbel, Paulo Sergio and Oliver Kahn were all conspicuous through their absence, while midfielder Michael Tarnat was listed as substitute goalkeeper.

A year later, in January 2001, lowly Unterhaching won the Indoor Masters against Bremen in Dortmund. Even though Bayern had qualified, Hitzfeld didn't bother to even travel to the tournament finals. He dispatched a team of second stringers and went to southern Spain with the first team to conduct a proper winter training camp. When asked for a comment, he said: "The indoor game is an anachronism."

Wilfried Straub, the German FA's league secretary, was disappointed. "The indoor game isn't something we decreed, it was started by the clubs," he said. Then he added: "This isn't something you simply give up on." He was wrong on that count. There would never again be an Indoor Masters tournament series in Germany.