Maverick, Maoist and great pretender: the life and times of Paul Breitner

Maverick, Maoist and great pretender: the life and times of Paul Breitner

THE DATE IS 7 July 1974 in a packed Olympiastadion in Munich. With the scoreboard showing 1-0 in favour of the dominant Total Footballers from the Netherlands, Bernd Hölzenbein latches onto the ball at around the 23rd minute and goes on a weaving run deep into the Dutch half. Hölzenbein skips past three defenders and is about to shoot when he is brought down and referee Jack Taylor awards a penalty to West Germany.

An Afro-haired man with lamb-chop sideburns steps up to the penalty spot and coolly dispatches the ball past Dutch keeper Jan Jongbloed. He raises his hands in celebration before promptly trotting back to his position on the pitch. His name is Paul Breitner and, after the final whistle, he would be lifting the World Cup.

Born in 1951 in Kolbermoor, Bavaria, Breitner made his debut for Bayern Munich in 1970 at the age of 19. In his first spell with the Bavarian giants, he won a hat-trick of National Championships from 1972 to 1974 and scored 17 goals from 109 appearances in the process. The early peak of his career came in 1972 as part of the West German side which earned the title of European champions.

Two years later, Breitner laid his hands on the newly designed World Cup trophy. He partnered with Berti Vogts and Franz Beckenbauer at the back to form a slick and seemingly impenetrable defensive unit throughout the tournament and managed to stifle the generally rampant Dutch attack.

The 1970s were the glory days of German football as much as it was the Golden Age for the Dutch. Although Ajax would overshadow Bayern in the early 70s, and several of Bayern’s wins would be dismissed as Bayern Dusel (Bayern Luck), the Bavarian side were champions in their own right. Bayern Munich won the European Cup for a consecutive three times between 1974 and 1976, becoming only the third club to achieve the feat.

While the Netherlands would dazzle the world in the 1974 World Cup, the West German side they finally lost to was by no means inferior, quite unlike what is often claimed by romantics. The Germans had Sepp Maier between the posts, Beckenbauer and Vogts at the back, Günter Netzer and Wolfgang Overath in midfield, and arguably the best clinical finisher of all time up front – Gerd “Der Bomber” Müller. In this team, the young Breitner held his own.


The “Red Paul” years


This was also the time of culmination of the zeitgeist that was being spearheaded in West Germany by the 68ers. The 68er Bewegungm, as it was called, was a series German student protests – sometimes ending in violent clashes with the police – against increasing authoritarianism of the government of the Federal Republic, poor living conditions for students and the working-classes, and the rise in popularity of the newly-formed right-wing National Democratic Party.

The protests of 1968 marked a decisive moment when youth politics in Germany shifted to the left and led to the formation of radical organisations like the Red Army Faction. By the 1970s, the movement had spread from politics to other spheres of life. While the sexual revolution had Uschi Obermaier and the communards of Kommune 1 as its heroes, football had Paul Breitner.

“At the age of 16, the death of Che Guevara had a great impact on me. That was a very important stage of my development,” Breitner once claimed. He often replied provocatively to questions posed to him by reporters.

Breitner made it to the German under-18 team as a 17-year old, while playing with ESV Freilassing. On his debut, after scoring the only German goal in a 4-1 defeat to Yugoslavia, he went back to the dressing room expecting praise, but was instead ordered to get a haircut. This was the beginning of his tempestuous relationship with the management of the German Football Association, the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB).

“I was educated to ask questions,” he said once. “When I started in 1970, footballers had to do everything the managers and trainers told them to do. Nobody asked ‘why’ or said ‘no’. It was a shock for the club, the people and the press. The image started there, but I was part of ‘the 68ers’ in Germany. There was a revolution in the minds of the students and I felt like part of them. And so I was interested in the ideas of Mao and Che Guevara.”

Breitner would infamously claim that national anthems before international matches were boring and “ruins the concentration”. Fans of opposing sides would often call him “Maoist! Communist!”, not realising that he took these names as compliments.


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In 1970, Breitner moved to Bayern Munich. That same year, a draft notice was issued calling him to report for military service. When he failed to turn up and the military police came looking for him, he hid in the coal-cellar of his apartment building while his friend and team-mate Uli Hoeneß tried to turn them away. This went on for a few days until he finally gave in when there was talk of putting up “wanted” posters all over the city.

He spent a year cleaning military toilets while his team-mates took the field in the Bundesliga. Provocateur par excellence, “Red Paul” as he was popularly known, did not back down. Much to the dismay of the Bayern management, he got himself photographed sitting on an armchair reading a copy of Peking Review with posters of Chairman Mao and Che Guevara on the wall behind him. That same year, the New York Times hailed him as the “newest hero of the German counter-culture movement”.

After starting off as a striker, Breitner made his name as a full-back, perhaps fittingly on the left. Blessed with powerful legs, he was a strong shooter and a hard tackler. In 1972, Breitner powered the Munich outfit to the Bundesliga title – the first of three consecutive championships wins. That same year, he featured in the German side that would go on to win the Euros – a side that is often regarded as the greatest to ever grace the competition.

Two years later, Breitner would be one of the stars to take the field for Germany in the 1974 World Cup on home soil. In their first match against Chile, in an otherwise lacklustre performance from the European champions – which would end with the fans booing the team off the pitch after the final whistle – Breitner fired in the ball to the top corner of the net from 25 yards out, winning the match and saving German blushes. In the second round of group matches, he scored the opener against Yugoslavia – a thunderous strike from 30 yards.

Breitner wasn’t even supposed to take the shot for what would be one of the most important goals of his career – the penalty that would equalise the score for Germany in the final against the Netherlands in 1974. The designated penalty taker was Gerd Müller. But Breitner, erratic and impulsive as he was, decided to grab the ball ahead of Müller and take the penalty himself.

However, speaking to Die Ziet sometime in the early ‘70s, he seemed annoyed at having to lead the life of a football star. He described international tournaments as “just airport, hotel, airport”. In 1974, it was Breitner who led the players’ agitation against the DFB management in their demand for better wage bonuses if they won – a dispute that could have led to the first-choice German squad refusing to play in the World Cup.

Red Paul didn’t like playing for Bayern either it seemed. He described the club as a “nouveau rich money-based aristocracy” and went on to say: “The Bundesliga is big business. Almost everything revolves around money. There is no room for socialism. The whole business of transfer fees is unlawful, it’s contrary to human rights and basic human dignity.”


Red no more


Post-World Cup, however, he abruptly brushed aside his leftist leanings. While Johan Cruyff had publicly declared that he would never play for a team associated with General Franco, Breitner yearned to play for the Madrid club and signed the transfer documents in 1974. Playing alongside fellow German Günter Netzer in midfield, Breitner had a successful career with Real Madrid, appearing for the team 84 times and scoring 10 goals. He won two La Liga medals and one Copa del Generalísimo (now called the Copa del Rey).

He developed a taste for big houses and expensive sports cars, and when he was not able to take his favourite sports car with him to Madrid, he declared that that was the “saddest thing” to have happened to him. In 1977, he was sponsored by a tobacco company and was driving around Munich in a Maserati.

For leftists of those times, it was difficult to digest that a person who they thought was on their side had shed all the principles he had previously been so outspoken about. He had become the hated capitalist sellout. Just before the 1982 World Cup, he accepted a 150,000 DM contract from a cosmetics company and shaved off his beard – the beard he had grown to assert his leftist leanings. “The beard is not something that’s very important for me. I just have it because my wife likes it,” he said. He would also feature in advertisements for American fast-food chain McDonald’s.

Fittingly, in 1976, he starred in a film called Potato Fritz – a Western about some Germans stumbling upon a gang of gold thieves. “I gave them something to write about, and they left me alone,” he would explain later, adding that people and their views often change over time and that that was the sign of a mature person. “The money itself is a means to an end,” he declared. Although he maintained that he wanted to establish a school for child welfare, the alienation between him and his erstwhile cult following was now complete.

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After the World Cup, Breitner had proclaimed: “I don’t feel German at all, and I certainly don’t feel Bavarian.”

In Madrid, however, he was more Bavarian then ever – he had sausages shipped in from Germany every week and after just three years in Spain, and longed to return home after Madrid hit a bad patch. In 1977 he moved back to Germany and signed for Eintracht Braunschweig, then owned by Jägermeister tycoon Günter Mast. He was, however, frustrated with what he labelled as the “amateurish attitude” of his team-mates and likened the team to “a village shop where everyone just gibbers about horses and apples”.

In the summer of 1978, Breitner moved back to Bayern, who were going through a period of transition. The next year, with Uli Hoeneß as Business Manager, Pál Csernai as coach and Breitner as club captain, Bayern would begin its revival, winning two Bundesliga titles and one German Cup. Breitner had now evolved into a box-to-box midfielder. With Karl-Heinz Rummenigge up front and Breitner marshalling the midfield, Bayern, now nicknamed ‘FC Breitnigg’”, packed a formidable one-two punch that defenders dreaded.

His performance on the pitch was inspirational and he gradually became the most influential player in the Bayern locker room. In 1981, after he and Rummenigge were sent off in a Trofeo Santiago Bernabéu game against Real Madrid, Bayern decided to abandon the match in protest. It was Breitner who was apparently responsible for this decision despite the fact that manager Csernai wanted his team to play on.

Breitner’s second spell at Munich proved to be his most successful – a time when he reached his peak, scoring 66 goals in 146 appearances. He was named Germany’s Player of the Year in 1981 and finished second to Rummenigge in that year’s Ballon d’Or.


The shame of Gijón


In 1980 West Germany won the European Championship with Barcelona star Bernd Schuster playing in the centre. However, two years later for the World Cup in Spain, Schuster was injured and head coach Jupp Derwall, under the insistence of Rummenigge, had to pick Breitner instead.

The 1982 World Cup marked Breitner’s return to the national squad after six years. The DFB had pardoned him for a dismissive remark about it, which Breitner retracted. They also decided to overlook the fact that he had publicly insulted Derwall a few years earlier, calling him “linkmichel” (‘link’ meaning ‘to screw over’ and ‘Michel’, a stereotypical name for a country simpleton).

The amicable Derwall had no real say in a dressing room full of hardened veterans and it was Breitner who was virtually the coach of the team. Breitner informed Derwall that the squad should be “kept on a long leash”. Breitner was known to be a bad trainer but he was a consistent performer on the pitch and Derwall relented, thinking Breitner would lead from the front.

The European champions, however, spent their days at the training camp drinking, playing high stakes poker games and indulging in sexual shenanigans through the night. Derwall later admitted that his players would’ve laughed at him if he had tried to show them footage of the opposition teams.

Germany’s first match was against underdogs Algeria. The over-confident German side did not even consider them to be a real opposition. “We will score four to eight goals to warm up,” predicted goalkeeper Harald Schumacher. “If we don’t beat Algeria I’ll take the next train home,” Derwall was reported to have said before the match. In a rare case of poetic justice in the real world, the Germans were beaten by Algeria 2-1. Derwall didn’t keep his promise.

The previously flamboyant and outspoken Breitner had now become bitter and it was apparent that his cynicism was affecting the whole side. In the last round of the group games, Algeria beat Chile 3-2 while Germany prepared to take on Austria. Knowing fully well that a narrow defeat for Austria would see them qualify with Germany to the next round while Algeria would be eliminated, the two sides took the field in a match that would come to be known as the ‘Shame of Gijón’.

In front of a huge crowd expecting to see a replay of the ‘Miracle of Córdoba’ from the previous World Cup in which the Austrians had beaten Germany in a tightly fought match, Horst Hrubesch of West Germany scored the first goal at the 10-minute mark. The remaining 80 minutes were spent by the two teams passing the ball around aimlessly with no intention of attacking.

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As they realised what was happening, supporters of both teams turned against them. Chants of “Algeria! Algeria!” rang out and some German fans burned their national flag in protest. German commentator Eberhard Stanjek at one point refused to comment on the game any further and Robert Seeger actually asked his viewers to turn off their television sets. What made it worse was the absolutely unapologetic attitude of both sets of players after the match. A local paper, El Comercio, printed the match report in the crime section and in Algeria, to this day, it is referred to as the Anschluss.

West Germany managed to qualify to the semi-finals of the tournament where they met Michel Platini’s French side. The thrilling encounter which would come to be known as the ‘Battle of Seville’ was again marred by a dark incident. With the match poised at 1-1, things started to turn sour. As the French sought to fluidly move the ball around and weave their poetry on the pitch, the dogged Germans fought back and harried and pressed them aggressively.

At the 60th minute, came another of the most infamous events in World Cup history. Platini looked to deliver a fine, penetrating pass from the left to Patrick Battiston. German goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher, probably seething with anger at the taunts from the French fans in the stands behind him came charging out with no apparent intention of going for the ball and crashed into Battiston. Battiston collapsed to the ground clearly unconscious. It would later be reported that he had lost two teeth, broken his ribs, and damaged his vertebrae.

As the team physio ran up to him, the French players gathered around the figure and Platini clearly feared the worst. “He had no pulse. He looked so pale,” he would later recount. Due to mismanagement on the part of the organisers it would be a full two minutes before a stretcher was finally brought around. Strangely, no foul was given and throughout this period Schumacher looked on calmly and waited to take the goal kick. It would take a whole hour before Battiston would finally be revived again.

The match went to extra time but this time, unlike in the game against Algeria, there was no poetic justice for the French. At the end of extra time the scoreboard read 3-3. West Germany beat France 5-4 on penalties and qualified for the World Cup final against Italy. When he was later told about how Battiston had lost his teeth, Schumacher sarcastically remarked: “I will pay for the crowns.”

In a poll conducted in France after the World Cup, Schumacher was voted the second-most hated person in the country, second only to Adolf Hitler.

So to 11 July 1982. In front of a capacity crowd at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, Breitner picked up a loose ball in the 83rd minute and volleyed neatly past Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff. Breitner had scored in a World Cup final again. However, unlike the much-romanticised occasion eight years earlier, it was merely a consolation goal. Italy had already scored three. Breitner raised his hand in acknowledgement and trotted back to his position. There were no celebrations this time.

When the West German squad returned to their country expecting to be treated as the second-best team in the world, they were greeted by outright disgust. The events of the 1982 World Cup had constructed a stereotype of the German Panzer – a team willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if those means were grossly unethical. This stereotype would haunt German teams for decades until it was finally brushed aside for good after a young German side under the tutelage of Joachim Löw made magic on the pitch in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

A few weeks after the 1982 World Cup final, Breitner announced his retirement from international football. Arrogant even in defeat, he wrote: “There will never be a Paul Breitner with the German eagle on the national team dress again.”

Nearly a year later, the 31-year old midfielder suddenly stopped playing altogether after being criticised during half-time of a friendly that Bayern Munich was playing in Bangkok by his friend and Bayern’s General Manager, Uli Hoeneß.

Post-retirement, his tempestuous relationship with the DFB and the Bayern management would continue. In 1998, however, he would be appointed the head coach of the national team of the now-unified Germany. It did not last long though – after disagreements with several officials, he reconsidered after only 17 hours in charge. Today, he is a newspaper columnist and TV pundit and occasionally plays for the Bayern Munich All-Stars in charity games.

If one were to point to a rebel without a cause in the footballing world, it would be Paul Breitner. Always changing his allegiances and supposed “beliefs”, the only thing he can be credited to have done consistently off-the-pitch is show disdain for the management.

By Shirsho Dasgupta  @ShirshoD

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