Illustration by Federico Manasse
President, manager, local organising committee chairman, captain, ambassador; when it comes to summing up Franz Beckenbauer’s career, it might be easier to list what he hasn’t done. His influence on and off the pitch spread far beyond his own country, and while he has been involved in his fair share of controversy, his status as a leading figure in the history of the game can never be disputed.
Although there were late periods with the New York Cosmos and Hamburg at the back end of his playing career, his connection to Bayern Munich is by far the strongest and deepest – but it could so easily have been very different. His club as a boy was cross-town rivals 1860 Munich, but after a mass altercation between his youth team and their 1860 opponents, a 14-year-old Beckenbauer decided to join Bayern instead.
At the end of the 1950s, Bayern were far from the behemothic beast that now breathes over all of German football. In the early days of his senior career, Beckenbauer was indirectly handed the best opportunity to develop when 1860 were invited to join the inaugural Bundesliga in 1963 at their great rival’s expense. Bayern were forced to offload their best talent, with the lure of full-time professional contracts too great to resist for many of them, leaving the club no choice but to blood the younger generation.
In the second of the two seasons spent outside the new top flight, the teenage Beckenbauer scored 17 goals in what was his first full campaign and never looked back. Initially used as a midfielder, intelligence and awareness were his tools as he elegantly dictated matches, but as his career moved onwards, he was used further back to control play in a different way.
Original Series | The 50
Leadership was something that came entirely naturally to Beckenbauer. After only three years as a regular starter, he had already come within moments of being crowned a world champion as a crucial part of the national team’s system, and even had a direct hand in designing the first line of Adidas training gear.
His relationship with the sports company would continue for decades in one form or another, as would his relationship with leadership – after hanging up his boots he would win titles with Marseille, Bayern and West Germany before becoming Die Roten’s club president and eventually the architect behind the successful 2006 World Cup bid. His legacy has come under threat somewhat for his alleged involvement in tax avoidance and cash for 2006 votes, but he has always maintained his innocence.
One of his most enduring legacies to the game was his pioneering of a new approach to defending – the libero position. While others had been employed in a free defensive role, such as Ivano Blason in Helenio Herrera’s infamous catenaccio-inspired Inter Milan side of the 1960s, none were as graceful and visionary as the man who imperiously strode forward in possession. That he earned the title of Der Kaiser was entirely fitting for his style and personality.
As the centrepiece of a world-class Bayern team, he won four Bundesliga titles, four DFB-Pokal trophies and three European Cups, as well as being crowned European and world champion with the national team, before heading stateside on his glamorous sojourn with the mythical New York Cosmos. He even added another Bundesliga title to his collection at the age of 36 when he returned to Germany with Hamburg.
Football in Germany cannot be spoken of without considering the phenomenal impact of its most natural leader. “He’s the hero of our nation,” former teammate Günter Netzer said a few years ago. “It hasn’t happened by chance, he’s earned it by hard work.”
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint