Günter Netzer: the rebellious loner who became a hero

Günter Netzer: the rebellious loner who became a hero

It was a warm summers day in Düsseldorf on June 23, 1973. The DFB-Pokal final had entered extra time as old adversaries Borussia Mönchengladbach and FC Köln refused to be separated. Gladbach supporters bellowed the name “Netzer, Netzer, Netzer!” and the television commentators seemingly only mentioned him. Gladbach players looked around for their star man to guide them to victory, but Günter Netzer wasn’t there.

Instead, Netzer was sat upright on the substitutes bench, his right hand clasped to his chin pensively. Manager Hennes Weisweiler decided to leave Gladbach’s totem out of the starting line-up for one of the club’s biggest ever matches, a decision which shocked fans and confused pundits. They would discover that only a few days early Netzer informed Weisweiler that he was signing for Real Madrid. Coupled with the death of his mother in the build=up to the final, Weisweiler felt Netzer wasn’t in the right frame of mind to play.

At half-time, with the game level at 1-1, Weisweiler approached Netzer and asked him if he wanted to go on. Netzer refused and responded dejectedly, “they don’t need me”. So Netzer remained on the sidelines, brooding and sullen. On the stroke of full time, as both sides were preparing for extra time, Gladbach’s Christian Kulik collapsed with cramp and could not continue. Netzer strolled over to Weisweiler and muttered “Ich spiel dann jetzt” (I’ll go and play now).

Netzer removed his tracksuit top and went onto the pitch of his own accord as Weisweiler watched on. Three minutes into the extra period, Netzer received the ball for the first time. With his back to play, the German sharply turned to his left and paced forward with the leather attached to his right foot. He passed into the feet of Rainer Bonhof and sprinted towards the edge of the box. Bonhof threaded it back between two Köln defenders into Netzer’s path. Gladbach’s number 12 connected perfectly with his left foot and rifled a shot towards the top corner.

Köln keeper Gerhard Welz was rooted to his spot, statuesque as Netzer’s drive whizzed past him like a comet into the roof of the net. Gladbach were 2-1 in front and would keep that lead intact to secure their second German Cup. He leapt in the air in jubilation and was quickly engulfed by team-mates at the final whistle, as the commentator shouted “Günter Netzer – superstar!” Netzer’s parting gift to his hometown club was Roy of the Rovers like, the dream ending for a footballer who regularly transcribed his own narrative.

Günter Netzer was born and raised in the city of Mönchengladbach, west of the Rhine. Contrary to popular belief, his initial foray into football was with the lesser-known 1. FC Mönchengladbach, whom he played for until the age of 19. Transferring to Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1963, Netzer honed his skills as an effervescent attacking midfielder in a youthful team that achieved promotion to the Bundesliga in 1965.

The late-1960s transitioning towards the early-1970s was an extraordinary time of change and exploration throughout the globe. Television converted from black and white to colour. Music doubled up as an expression of artistic and political endeavour. The bands of the 60s LSD-fuelled era The Beatles and The Rolling Stones stepped aside for the anarchic attitude of The Clash and The Sex Pistols, who captured the imagination of a disaffected youth.

Broad shouldered and handsome, armed with a flowing, blonde mane, Netzer neatly fitted with that caricature. An individualistic rebel, who marched to his own tune, he had a domineering aura. Netzer was single-minded, opinionated and brash – a rock star. He excited and thrilled football viewers with his confidence and phenomenal free-kicks, but there was more to Netzer beneath the veneer of brilliance.

As a footballer, Netzer possessed an extraordinary repertoire of passing. Short, long and medium range made no odds. A YouTube compilation showcases Netzer’s unique ability to manoeuvre, manipulate and shape a pass in whatever direction he so desired. There is footage of him whipping pinpoint crosses onto forwards’ heads on the run, arrowing 50-yard cross-field diagonals and splitting defences like a knife dissecting a watermelon with threaded through-balls from deep into the feet of strikers.

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In the early 1970s, Gladbach were embroiled in a tit for tat rivalry with the giants of German football Bayern Munich. Between 1969 and 1977, the two dominated the Bundesliga, with Gladbach claiming five titles to Bayern’s four. Bayern also won three successive European Cups, but domestically they were inseparable. They traded championships and created a duopoly not witnessed again in Germany until Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund briefly challenged the Bavarians.

It was depicted as good versus evil, the demonic FC Hollywood against the loveable Foals, a nickname bestowed upon Gladbach due to the youthful profile of their squad. It was Netzer, Vogts and Heynckes versus Beckenbauer, Müller, Hoeness and Breitner. Uncertainty surrounds exactly where the disdain for Bayern initiated. A few accounts detail Bayern’s growing awareness of the technological advances in sport, coupled with the love of winning and money, as reasons for cynicism. Gladbach, by contrast, were perceived as innocent entertainers.

In his stunning historical book of German football Tor, Uli Hesse challenged the myth: “The problem with all this transfigured romanticism is that the naked facts don’t bear it out. The ‘pragmatists’ from Munich actually scored more goals than the ‘reformers’ from the Rhineland. They also conceded more, which means that over these nine seasons, attending a Bayern game was the safer bet if you wanted to see goals.”

Easier to decipher was the disparity in popularity between the two star players of both clubs. Everything came naturally to Franz Beckenbauer, blessed with supreme talent and instinctive genius. As Hesse pointed out, though, his nickname, Der Kaiser, suggested “aloofness” and “conservatism”. Netzer was the total antithesis of Beckenbauer. His first biography was titled Rebel am Ball (Rebel on the Ball), but his middle-class background belies any such tales. Still, his playing style endeared him to the masses.

The clash in personalities extended to the international arena. While there was never any palpable animosity between Netzer and Beckenbauer, there was reluctance on the part of West German coach Helmut Schön to play them together, despite the positional differences. Schön simply preferred Köln’s Wolfgang Overath to the Gladbach player.

Netzer played a vital part in his country’s European Championship win on English soil, but he only finished with a paltry 37 caps. In the 1974 World Cup, Netzer played just 20 minutes, and they came in the most infamous of West German defeats, a 1-0 reversal to their East German counterparts. Still, Netzer has two international medals to show for his troubles.

Netzer’s move to Real Madrid was a political one, as Los Blancos signed him alongside his old adversary Paul Breitner to counteract Barcelona’s purchase of Johan Cruyff (a trend that still continues in the second decade of the 21st century). He added two Copa Del Rey’s and a La Liga title to his collection during three years in the Spanish capital. Netzer’s time at the Bernabeu wasn’t as ordinary as it would later be suggested, but he would never be able to hold a candle to the legacy of Cruyff in Catalonia.

Netzer has developed into a mythical figure as the years have passed. In his post-football career, he became a well-respected television pundit, still clad with his distinctive long hair and sharply dressed. As a player, he is remembered for his marauding, carefree intent, but that shouldn’t discard Netzer’s desire to win. “There are 11 businessmen on a pitch,” Netzer said, “each looking after his own interests.” That was why Netzer was so special; the perfect blend of individualism, talent, expression and a cold-blooded thirst for victory.

By Conor Kelly. Follow @ConorPacKelly

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