“I know I’m mad,” he said to a friend who had asked him why he curses so much. “You must understand that anybody who was there and survived came back mad. Those who think they are normal, they are mad. We all became mad. Nobody came back from there sane.”

“He” was Emanuel Schaffer and “there” was the holocaust, the years when Schaffer, a Jewish German-Polish teenager, fled and suffered years of hunger and loneliness. It was a burden he had to carry for the rest of his life and fame and success did not make it any lighter.

But Schaffer was a survivor by nature. He managed to see the end of the war and rebuild his life. “Football was his life,” said Eran Schaffer, his son, in the family house in affluent Ramat HaSharon, to the north of Tel Aviv. “Football helped him survive during the war, football helped him back to life and gave him fortune and fame.”

In the summer of 1970, football gave Schaffer his place in history when he led Israel as manager to their first and only appearance in the World Cup finals. It was his proudest moment when Israel played against world powers like Italy and Sweden. In many ways he owed that success to the nation that had hurt him so deeply. Football and Germany were the two factors that shaped Schaffer’s life and his personality. 

Schaffer was born on 11 February 1923 in Poland and moved with his family a month later to Recklinghausen, in the Ruhr area of Germany. He grew up in Germany but, in 1936, three years after Adolf Hitler took power, the family was expelled to Metz in eastern France near the German border. As anti-Semitic persecution grew, the family contemplated emgrating to Palestine, but Schaffer’s father chose in 1937 to move to the village of Porohy in Poland where he had relatives. 

When the war broke out, the region where the Schaffers were living was under Soviet rule according to the Ribbentrop Molotov pact that divided Poland between Germany and the USSR. For a time, they were safe and Emanuel was sent to school in Drohobycz where he lived with his uncle and aunt. There he began playing football with the Jewish club of Beitar Drohobycz. 

In June 1941 the war came to the USSR when Germany attacked its former ally. German forces stormed through eastern Europe and millions of Jews fell under Nazi rule, their lives placed in constant danger. Schaffer, who heard rumours of the hardship of Jews in Nazi territories, fled to the east while his family stayed behind.

“Eddy [his nickname in Germany] escapes behind Russian lines by pure good fortune,” explained an article in Anstoss, the magazine of the artistic and cultural programme for the 2006 World Cup. “For many months he suffered from typhoid, diphtheria and deficiency diseases before finally overcoming them.”

Schaffer, still a teenager, reached Baku in Azerbaijan and later wandered further east to Alma Ata [now Almaty] in Kazakhstan, where he worked in a shoe factory producing boots for the armed forces. He escaped the Nazis and the fate of his people but life was extremely hard for the young boy in Stalin’s country. There were nights when he had to share a bench in a park with his cousin whom he met there. Many times he went without having a proper meal and later in life when he became a successful manager he didn’t forget those days. ”I must have a loaf of bread everyday,” he told his players, “just so that if I die tonight, I won’t die a hungry man”. 

During those days his personality was forged. His work at the factory hardly made ends meet, but his luck was about to change. One day he saw a woman carrying a bag of pirozhki — Russian pasties. “The smell must have tortured him,” said his son Eran. He followed the woman and offered her a hand carrying the sack. She agreed and when they reached her destination she gave him a pirozhok. The fresh, warm pastry was a rare treat but the young Schaffer was too resourceful to waste it. Despite the huge temptation to devour it, he managed not to eat the pirozhok and instead sold it in the local market for a greater quantity of plain bread. From that day on he waited for the woman every day and helped her in return for one pasty.

“Even early on in life he knew how to survive and how to do business,” said Shoshanna, his widow. 

Life became easier when he joined Dynamo Alma Ata, the NKVD (secret police) team and it was then that he received the news from his aunt that his parents and three sisters had been killed in the holocaust. When the German army advanced east, the Jews in the village were rounded up and sent to Stanisławów ghetto (today Ivano-Frankovsk in the Ukraine). There they lived in horrendous conditions until they were murdered by Germans and Ukrainian collaborators in the Jewish cemetery. The tens of thousands of bodies were thrown into mass unmarked graves. 

The shock and grief followed him to his final days but Schaffer had found a new purpose in life. With a friend, Zvi Zimmet, he returned to Poland, to Bielawa where his aunt lived, having survived the war thanks to a Polish woman who hid her. There he founded a Jewish football team — ZKS [Jewish Sport Club] Bielawa.

While working as a salesman in a clothes shop he honed his skills acting as organiser, coach and player. The team won promotion to the second division of the Polish league but that wasn’t the only achievement of ZKS, which was much more than a football club. “The work we did at the club helped people who had their heads down,” said Zimmet. “It helped them a lot. It was also a social club with dancing and singing in Hebrew and Yiddish, songs that people remembered from before the war. It uplifted the morale and once the gentiles saw a different kind of Jew it changed their perception.”

In 1950 the club activity was terminated by Soviet orders and Schaffer, having been called up to the Polish army, decided to emigrate to Israel, which had been founded in in 1948. With his football connections he got a job in Haifa port and a place on the wing at Hapoel HaNamal Haifa [Haifa Port Worker]. Later he married Shoshanna, a Holocaust survivor from the same Polish village, although they met for the first time in Israel, and moved to Hapoel Kfar Saba. He had a decent career, winning eight national caps before an injury forced him to retire in 1957. The next year he forged a friendship and understanding that changed his life.

It was only 13 years after the war. The wounds were still open but Schaffer decided to attend a coaching course at the acclaimed German Sports College in Cologne. He was only the second foreign student and there, under the guidance of Hennes Weisweiler, he was awarded his badges to become the leading Israeli coach in the world.

For an Israeli to go to West Germany wasn’t a simple matter. The reparations agreement between Israel and West Germany was signed in 1952 and led to great turmoil in the young and traumatised state. In January 1952, while the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, debated the agreement, Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition and later prime minster, led a demonstration and addressed crowds in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. “They say there is a new German government that we can talk to, that we can negotiate and sign an agreement with,” the charismatic Begin said. “Before Hitler came to power the German people had voted for him. 12 million Nazis served in the German army. There no one German who didn’t murder our fathers. Every German is a Nazi. Every German is a murderer. 

“Today I will give the order: Yes! It will be a war to the death,” cried Begin and his supporters reacted. The protest turned into a full-scale riot in the streets of Jerusalem.

The parliament building was stoned and some members were hurt while others fled the scene. The debate was cut short for the only time in the history of the Knesset.

The relationship has improved over the years. The state and survivors received compensation and German products started entering the Israeli market. But for many Israelis it was too soon, especially when it came to culture and sport. 

Music by Richard Wagner, an anti-Semite and the Nazi regime’s favourite composer, is taboo in Israel to this day and Hungary’s defeat to West Germany in the 1954’s World Cup final was mourned in Israel, almost as a national disaster. When, in 1965, a former Wehrmacht officer was appointed as the German ambassador to Israel the old pains resurfaced. The new ambassador was greeted with stones and a mass demonstration. 

In 1966 a broadcaster on state radio refused to read an ad for Volkswagen cars, saying she could not morally aid the distribution of German products in Israel. To go and live in Germany in 1958 was a bold move. “For him it was the best school in the world,” explained Eran Schaffer. “He thought that German football after the 1954 World Cup was the best in the world and as a perfectionist he had to go there. He made the distinction between football and the past.”

He still had some difficulties. “He once went out with a friend, journalist Yehoshua Sagi, to a German restaurant,” says his son, “and there was a big queue. He said to Sagi, ‘Let’s go out of here. I’ve been made to queue for food by the Germans before; I’m not doing it again.’ He found it hard with old Germans, the thought of where they’d been during the war was always at the back of his mind but that was the place to learn football. Weisweiler was the Alex Ferguson of the time. He turned Borussia Mönchengladbach into a European force.”

“It always surprised me,” said Amatzia Levkovic, his assistant in Mexico 1970, “but he spoke German and adored their football. It was the best school and it was his homeland.”

Germany wasn’t just the fatherland: it was the land that rejected him in the most brutal way and categorised him as sub-human. For Schaffer to be greeted back there was sign of acceptance and even revenge. His life mission was to present a different image of Jews and football was his weapon.

He became Weisweiler’s friend and was chosen by the rest of the year at the school as one of the two best students; the other was Rinus Michels. Schaffer had a number of offers in to work in Germany but his family was the priority. “He went to visit Recklinghausen,” said Shoshanna, “and wrote to me that a woman from the Jewish community said that he could live and work in wonderful conditions there. I told him that I would not let my son grow up in Germany and I wouldn’t have a German nanny for my son, no matter how much money he was offered.”

When Schaffer came back to Israel, he rose from coaching the youth team of Hapoel Kfar Saba to become manager of the Israel national youth team in 1964 and, on the eve of the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, he was promoted to lead the senior team. It was the start of the best two years of Schaffer’s career, and the best two years in Israeli football. 

Israel began the 68 Olympics with a 5-3 win over Ghana and secured a place in the second round after a 3-1 victory against El Salvador. A 2-0 defeat to the eventual winners Hungary in the third game led to a quarter-final match against Bulgaria. Georgi Christakiev scored for Bulgaria after four minutes but Israel levelled through Jehoshua Faigenbaum in the final seconds. Extra-time brought no further goals and so the game went to the drawing of lots. Bulgaria won. “I’m sure the two pieces of paper both had Bulgaria written on them,” said Mordechay (Motalle) Spiegler, the Israeli captain, half-joking. As a result, Israel missed the chance to win their first Olympic medal. 

The game had major implications for Israeli sport and world football. Israel had to wait 24 years to win their first Olympic medals, claiming a silver and a bronze, both in judo, in Barcelona in 1992, while the heads of the Israeli FA, in their frustration, tried to come up with a better and fairer way to decide the outcome of draws. In a letter to Fifa, they suggested a penalty shoot-out. 

It was the start of a revolution in Israeli football. At the time, as far as the sport went, Israel was a primitive outpost. Players had day jobs, football was heavily politicised and most grounds outside Tel Aviv and Haifa were just a bare pitch between dusty hills or makeshift stands. 

Schaffer brought his German values, science, systems and demands and the result was a culture shock. “We will have three training sessions,” he said to his players in one of their first meetings. “Three sessions a week?” complained one of the players. “Even in our team we don’t do that.” 

“No!” shouted Schaffer. “Three times a day”.

In broken Hebrew, a language that he never fully mastered, he set rules that stunned the players. Food and fitness were key issues. He controlled their diets, threw away cakes and cream from the tables and checked the players’ weight regularly. The stars of the team were outraged but he had history on his side. 

Israel, in the years after the Six Day War of 1967, was a bastion of self-belief and the army was a model for Schaffer as he looked to install the mentality of an elite unit. When Israel qualified for the Mexico World Cup of 1970 (through Oceanian qualifying), Schaffer successfully demanded long periods to work with the players. In the year before the World Cup he had 170 days of training with them, far more than their clubs had.

He galvanised the team with a speech about what it meant to play under the Israeli flag. “We have the best army in the world,” he said. “We have the best engineers in the world. There is no reason why we won’t have great footballers too. They have two legs as we do, but we have better brains.” One player even volunteered for reserve service on the deadly shores of the Suez Canal when he got back from Mexico.

In Mexico, Schaffer told David Lacey of the Guardian that “whatever the results, our aim is to prove to the world that what we have achieved in our home with the army we can achieve on the football field.”

His personality also brought crisis after crisis to the team. He was a perfectionist, a demanding man prone to flying into a rage at the slightest provocation. His poor Hebrew didn’t help and he used his assistants and some of the players to ease tensions after those eruptions. “They were all my children,” he said in later life, trying to defend his out bursts. “We are a team of amateurs,” he told Lacey, “and that means that I have to be tough. There is no other way. Not all of my players love it but that’s the way it is. I would rather be a good coach and a tough guy than a bad coach and a good guy.”

The language barrier and the strict discipline led to some misunderstandings that found their way into Israeli folklore. “I want to see you tomorrow at half eight,” he said, translating from German and so meaning 0730. One player was up and booted by 0400. The players whom he took to the World Cup weren’t the best players in Israel but the ones he could work with and whom he deemed dedicated enough for the mission. The sensitive, lazy and unfit were left out. “He picked the most reliable rather than necessarily the best players,” the goalkeeper Yitzhak Visoker told the Israeli journalist Uri Misgav. “He saw us as his soldiers and he wanted only those he could count on.

“What was great about us was that we completely agreed with his German approach.” That meant man-to-man marking, attacking full-backs and operating as a unit with a work-rate never previously seen in Israeli football. Only two players had creative licence: the playmaker Gyora Spiegel and the Russia-born winger, Motalle Spiegler. Spiegel, a member of a football dynasty, was wonderfully talented but was also slow and not keen on running up mountains, and was the hardest player to fit into Schaffer’s Spartan style. “I found the fitness sessions hard not just because of the difficulty but also because nobody bothered to explain why it was so important,” he told Misgav. “I rebelled and had lots of discussions with Schaffer and it wasn’t pleasant. I really struggled with the long-distance runs. I was way behind and didn’t make a real effort to catch up with the rest. I asked him to tell me why it was so important but he didn’t like it because it would have broken the distance between us. In the end he just used to say, ‘Shut up and do as you’re told.’” 

Those were the years when the relationship between Schaffer and his old mentor, Weisweiler, became closer. Borussia Mönchengladbach took their winter breaks in Israel and, in February 1970, played against Schaffer’s Israel. At half-time, Borussia, inspired by Günter Netzer, led 3-0. “Eddy,” asked Weisweiler, “shall we keep on playing like this or should we drop down a gear?”

“I told him to keep on playing like this,” said Schaffer. “I wanted the players to know what they were up against in Mexico.”

Drawn in the same group as Uruguay, Sweden and Italy, Schaffer feared a series of heavy defeats. He brought a lieutenant-colonel from the Israeli army to work on fitness and took the team to the heights of Ethiopia, Switzerland and Colorado in preparation for playing at altitude in Mexico. Alamosa in Colorado was, according to David Primo, a tough defender, “a satanic hell hole, a shitty miners’ town up in the mountains.” 

“Our lungs were on fire,” said the defender Menachem Bello. 

Amid the turmoil, players and coach found a way to work together. “We heard him but did things our way,” said Spiegel. “On the pitch we played as we thought we should do and usually it worked. Motalle and I understood that in football you need moments of spontaneous inspiration and unexpected moves. I use to leave myself some space, to keep some energy so that in the decisive moment I’d be sharp enough to score or give the crucial pass. Schaffer wasn’t stupid: he saw that and shut up. He gave a little, we gave a little and met each other half way.” 

On 2 June 1970 Israel played their first World Cup game in Puebla against Uruguay. Goals from Ildo Maneiro and Juan Mujica didn’t tell the whole story. Uruguay were comfortable 2-0 winners and Spiegel and Spiegler didn’t wait long to voice their opinions. “We are strikers, not centre halves,” they told Israeli TV and began crisis talks with Schaffer. 

Israel looked like they didn’t belong in the World Cup. “Israel intended to rely on set pieces, corners and free-kicks but against the tall Uruguay defence that availed them little,” reported the Guardian but it also had positive words about the manager: “Schaffer’s fierce urgency of manner has been welcome effervescence in the pervading moroseness of the group. He has communicated a great deal of it to his players, many of them pitifully innocent of the simplest tactics of modern professional football.”

The team was on the back foot, timid and passive. It was their worst game under Schaffer and he blamed the Israeli FA who hadn’t let him travel and spy on the South Americans. ”I saw Sweden and Italy and I knew what was in store for us. I didn’t see Uruguay, so they were unknown and that’s why we lost,” he said. 

Five days later in Toluca, Israel faced Sweden. It was one of the most violent and brutal games in World Cup history, with both teams exchanging kicks, elbows and grapples. It suited the Israelis and, with their nine fighters and two artists, they took the game to Sweden. Tom Turesson scored in the 54th minute (from an offside position, claimed Schaffer) but two minutes later Spiegel found Spiegler who equalised with a beautifully struck shot from 20 yards, Israel’s first ever goal on the world stage. Back in Israel it was hailed as a historic point won.

Against Italy, the European champions, Israel came as a different team. If for the first game the players couldn’t believe they shared the same stage with Pelé, Moore and Müller and against Sweden they came to “kick the hell out of them” as one player commentated, against the team of Riva, Rivera, Mazzola and Faccheti, they came to play. “We played in a smart way,” said Spiegel. “It wasn’t just being back in our box. We played slowly and held the ball. We made it to the halfway line in 20 passes. They were used to a much faster pace and it rattled them.”

Italy had two goals disallowed and hit the woodwork but Spiegler also had a golden chance saved by the goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi. Physically, the Israeli amateurs held their ground in Toluca and both teams were happy to hear the final whistle. After Middlesbrough in 1966 and the shock defeat to North Korea, the Azzuri didn’t mind how they got out of the group. Italy made it safely to the second round and later to the final and Israel left Mexico with two points and a decent performance.

In Israel, the results were received with joy. “There is no doubt that yesterday we made history in world football,” said a piece in Maariv newspaper. “We took a point from a superb Italy and we finished our performance at the World Cup with an achievement we didn’t dare to dream of: two draws against the lions of the group… You should have seen our players, all of them bar none. How they battled, how they fought and how they threw themselves to the ground when it was the last option. And for this I have two words: Well done!” 

“Everyone should play according to his abilities,” Schaffer said. “When you play against a similar team you can attack like we did against Ghana [in 1968]. When you play against the mighty Italy you need to be tactically disciplined.” 

The players were given a vacation in Acapulco and $100 as a bonus for their efforts and Schaffer fulfilled his life’s ambition to represent Israel on the world stage but the euphoria was short lived. A bitter dispute with the FA, who demanded that players be called to the national team on basis of the political affiliation of their clubs, led to Schaffer’s resignation a few months later. 

By then Schaffer was the German football ambassador to Israel. The Borussia Mönchengladbach of Netzer, Vogts, Heynckes and Simonsen visited Israel nine times in the seventies and was greeted by Schaffer each time. West Germany’s defeat of Holland in 1974 was still regarded as a national disaster but thanks to Schaffer relations between the two football federations grew closer. Over the years people like Franz Beckenbauer and Otto Rehhagel used to have coffee at the Schaffers’ house when they visited Israel. 

Apart from raising generations of Israeli coaches, Schaffer stopped working as a coach and despite not having a proper education became a successful manufacturer for Adidas. Business trips to Germany were part of everyday life and after one such trip he heard about the death of his old friend. “In 1983 we went to the airport to pick him up,” says Eran, “and on the way it was announced that Weisweiler had passed away. Dad landed, we told him the news and on the spot he bought a ticket and went back to Germany that day. They were the best of friends.”

Before the 1980 Olympics he was tempted back to the head post of the national team but the old magic was missing. The clubs and players were much stronger, he could not keep the players away from their teams for long periods and they reacted badly to his harsh manner. 

Football remained a great passion and he kept going to domestic games and international tournaments. In 1997 he suffered a stroke while in Germany and for a while couldn’t speak. “First to come back were the languages he acquired first,” said Eran. “It was in that order: German, Polish, Yiddish and Russian and only in the end broken Hebrew. When we got him back home after he was released from the hospital, a German journalist called and asked to speak to him about football and then, suddenly, his memory came back to him. We were amazed. He remembered games and dates like nothing had happened to him, like his brain lit up again.”

In December 2005. he was given one final honour, as the German football federation (DFB) presented him with their Golden Award for his outstanding services to international and German football. “Through this award the DFB thanks the honouree for his valuable cooperation and the many proofs of friendship and affection which he has shown German football,” the organisation announced. “In the post-war years and beyond he has at all times furthered the idea of reconciliation between Germany and Israel through his actions.

“We express our gratitude to Emmanuel Schaffer and his substantial effort for the solidarity and the cohesion of the international football community.”

Schaffer passed away on 28 December 2012. On his death bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, he kept calling for Cila, his elder sister who had been murdered seven decades earlier.