Farewell to German Legend Franz Beckenbauer

Photograph Source: Bert Verhoeff for Anefo – CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

Arguably the greatest German soccer legend and one of world football’s icons, the Kaizer, Franz Beckenbauer has joined the ever-increasing celestial footballing pantheon.

He won everything as a player save for the UEFA Cup which he missed out on in his twilight playing days after returning to Germany and the Bundesliga from the New York Cosmos. He then joined his lifetime club’s (Bayern Munich) rivals, SV Hamburg under that tactical genius, Ernst Happel. Hamburg reached the 1982 UEFA Cup final and were overwhelming favorites against Sven Goran Eriksson’s Gothenburg and remained so even after the Swedes won the home leg with a late Tord Holmgren goal. Beckenbauer was on the bench for the return at the Volksparkstadion and was ready to come on in the probable event that Hamburg would turn the tables and coast to overall victory. Beckenbauer would thus complete the set of international medals with his 1974 World Cup, 1972 European Championship, 1974, 1975 and 1976 Champions Cups and his first European honor, the 1967 European Cup Winners Cup, the first two with West Germany’ s Mannschaft (national team) and the rest with Bayern Munich. He also won the Ballon d’Or twice. It was not to be.

Gothenburg shocked Europe with a display of sparkling football inside the Hanseatic city, taking advantage of lapses in the Hamburg defense to win 3-0 in the second leg. Beckenbauer did not have to come on for a side that was to claim the Champions Cup the following season. By then Beckenbauer had left to pursue an equally glittering career as national team manager, winning the 1990 World Cup, thus following the recently bereaved Mario Zagallo to win football’s highest national team honor both as a player and manager. He was also an official and General manager for Bayern as they completed their set of club competitions in Europe by clinching the UEFA Cup in 1996.

Beckenbauer was, in certain respects, West Germany and Bayern in football. Bayern’s rise as a footballing club powerhouse in Europe coincides with his emergence as the leading light among a galaxy of players who would provide the backbone of the team and West Germany in subsequent years.

Before then they were not even the leading team in Munich. That honor, surprising to many who followed football from the late sixties and seventies onward, went to their now unfashionable intercity rivals, 1860 or TSV Munchen. The latter played at Wembley two years prior to Beckenbauer bursting onto the world stage in 1966 when he captained Germany in the final lost after extra time to the hosts, England, courtesy of a hotly disputed goal in extra time. TSV lost two seasons before at Wembley to West Ham United in the final of the European Cup Winners Cup. The Hammers were led by a man who was to become a familiar foe to Beckenbauer on the pitch and a great friend off it, Bobby Moore.

Bayern did not take long to emulate Borussia Dortmund, who won the Cup Winners Cup at Hampden, the first German team to attain European club glory. Bayern kept the Cup Winners Cup in Germany by taking advantage of a final staged in Bavaria, Nuremberg, in 1967, to beat Rangers after extra time through a Frans Roth goal. They thus spoiled what would have been a tremendous year for Scotland, with the Scottish national team beating the then newly crowned World champions, England at Wembley and Celtic becoming the first non-Latin side to win the Champions Cup.

With that victory in Nuremberg, Bayern certainly emerged from the shadows of Eintracht Frankfurt, TSV Munchen and Dortmund, to announce themselves on the European and World stage. The marksman that day, Franz Roth, would continue to score, alongside Gerd Muller, for Beckenbauer’s team in much more prestigious finals such as the European Cup final against St Etienne at Hampden in 1976. This was Beckenbauer’s and Bayern’s third Champions Cup or European Cup victory in a row.

Bayern had six players in that team which formed part of the German national side which, in winning the European Championship in 1972, rivaled club side, Ajax Amsterdam in displaying a brand of total football which was breathtaking. Beckenbauer interpreted the sweeper role to perfection, almost as an extra midfielder flicking passes with the outstep, when the conventional way would be to pass with the instep, complemented in his immaculate control from the back and breaking out in transition, without breaking sweat. His qualities were allied to the skill and vision in central midfield of a rather late bloomer, Gunter Netzer, from Bayern’s then new rivals, Borussia Moenchengladbach who also complemented the deadly Bayern ‘ der bomber, Gerd Muller, with an equally lethal, and arguably more skillful footballer in Jupp Heynckes. I would dare say that of all the very successful German teams throughout history ( I have no recollection of the 1954 team led by Rahn and managed by Sepp Herberger but we are talking about four World Cups and three European Championships) that 1972 team and its superlative football remains etched in my memory. Bayern initially struggled to reproduce that football, despite having the bulk of that side, six in all. In 1972, Rangers gained revenge over them en route to winning the Cup Winners Cup and Ajax seemed to have ended the argument of which of the two sides plays the better total football by thrashing Bayern 4-0 in Amsterdam en route to clinching their third European Champions Cup. But with Cruyff gone to Barcelona a year later and Neeskens to follow suit the following year, the stage was set for Bayern to shine, and they clinched this, mostly with a pragmatic, deadly counterattacking approach in contrast to the expansive 1972 West Germany team. Beckenbauer was the supreme orchestrator through his superb technique and reading of the game.

One might also mention his knowledge of languages, especially French. This is often alleged to have enabled him to convince the linesman and referee to chalk off a Leeds United goal. Beckenbauer was let off the hook when Leeds United were denied a blatant penalty he committed, tripping Alan Clarke in the 1975 European Cup final in Paris. Kitabdjian was the French referee who fell for this and Bayern and Beckenbauer gave the impression that they had become well advanced in the dark arts of the game.

Beckenbauer would have the last laugh and revenge over Dutch total football in edging West Germany to the 1974 World Cup defeating the much-fancied Netherlands in the final. They contrasted the latter’s refreshing attacking football (the Dutch transferred their then club football prowess, through Ajax and Feyenoord. to the national team) with their pragmatic approach. This centred around the cool leadership of the Kaizer, the deadly prowess of Muller and the powerful overlapping of a player destined to eventually, in the later years at Real Madrid and again Bayern, switch from wing back to central midfield maestro. This was Paul Breitner. Pragmatism was the name of the game in 1974 as manager Helmut Schoen withdrew Gunther Netzer from midfield and reinserted the less expansive and. greatly experienced Wolfgang Overath, then of FC Koln. The pressure of home advantage and expectation made the 1974 side less adventurous than the refreshing 1972 side.

Beckenbauer would continue to lead West Germany to near success when only a penalty shoot out miss by Uli Hoeness cost him a second successive European Championship in 1976 in a shoot out well remembered for the Panenka penalty.

Penalties however soon became a German strength as England found out twice, the first of which in a top quality World Cup semi final against West Germany in Turin in 1990. Nothing could separate the two sides who emulated each other not only in goals but in hitting the posts. Beckenbauer was the adversary as manager then. He lost to England after he shadowed Bobby Charlton in the 1966 final but became their nemesis as a player ever since, first by leading them, himself scoring the late only goal of a scrappy game, to their first ever victory over England in a friendly in Hannover, 1968, then taking advantage of Bobby Charlton’s withdrawal in Mexico 1970 to be relieved of any defensive shackles to pull clear and haul West Germany back into the game and provide a turn around, then beat them comprehensively at Wembley, in their first European Championship success, in 1972 and finally by clinching the World Cup final spot as manager through a shoot out in Turin. We all know how the final turned out as Maradona was hounded in Rome and Beckenbauer obtained revenge as manager over Argentina four years after being pipped at the death in Mexico 86. In that final, West Germany clawed back from 0-2 down to 2-2 only to be hit by a Jorge Burruchaga sucker punch.

That campaign had started off in 1984 with West Germany labouring to win 3-2 in Malta. This presented me with my opportunity to interview Beckenbauer for a feature in Maltese I wrote for the Malta Union of Teacher’s children’s magazine Saghtar. I interviewed him at the Dragonara Hotel where the West German contingent for the Malta game was staying. He was courteous, ever willing to sign autographs, including the photo which was to accompany the feature, with the words ‘Best wishes to readers of Saghtar’ across. It must have been a treat for all the young Maltese school children who read this magazine. His English was impeccable, probably developed further during his stint with the New York Cosmos in the USA. His linguistic facility was a mark of the footballing Kaizer that he was. May he rest in peace. A legend of the world game.

Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).