Over the years, Bayern Munich have been blessed with a litany of wonderful strikers: Gerd Müller lit up the 1970s with 508 goals for Die Roten, while Karl-Heinz Rummennigge, his striking partner for five years, ranks as high as any German football talent. Younger generations will be more familiar with Robert Lewandowski, Luca Toni and Mario Gómez, all of whom have scored plenty since the turn of the century.
For many, however, Giovane Élber’s name may not immediately spring to mind when discussing the club’s finest. Yet very few can rival what he achieved. Almost 150 goals in 266 games, four Bundesliga titles and a Champions League trophy truly puts him alongside the greats. This is the story of one of Bavaria’s favourite adopted sons.
Unlike most of his compatriots, Élber didn’t start his professional career in Brazilian football, instead choosing to move abroad at the first opportunity. After AC Milan were alerted to his talent, they snapped him up in 1990 aged just 18 from Londrina Esporte Clube. It represented a major leap in standard.
He spent just one year in Milan, in which he went unnoticed alongside a legendary array of talent. Competing with two-time Ballon d’Or winner Marco van Basten is difficult enough, but throw in Ruud Gullit, Daniele Massaro and Marco Simone and the task becomes all but impossible. Added to the restrictions on non-EU talent featuring in the first team, it meant Élber had to settle for a place in the primavera setup.
Swiss side Grasshoppers offered him his first chance in the professional game the following season, and he grabbed it with both hands. In just three years and 73 games in Switzerland, he scored 43 goals, winning the Swiss Cup along the way. Those performances, as well a strong showing at the 1991 Under-20 World Championship, in which he scored four times during Brazil’s run to the final, were enough to see German side VfB Stuttgart part with €1.6m to secure his services.
The goals kept on coming. Between 1994 and 1997, he would find the back of the net 44 times. Only eight came in 1994/95, but 16 and 20 would be the return in 1995/96 and 1996/97 respectively, highlighting his position as one of the game’s most underrated strikers. The latter saw his goals culminate in a second career trophy, the DFB-Pokal. He scored both in a 2-0 win against Energie Cottbus in the final.
In Stuttgart he formed a strong understanding with the great Krasimir Balakov and Fredi Bobic, as they enthralled fans up and down the country. The three would become known as the Magisches Dreieck – Magic Triangle – to this day remaining one of the great, yet least heralded, forward lines in modern Bundesliga history.
It wouldn’t be long before the trio would be broken up, however, and, as is often the case in the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich were the culprits. Their search for a consistent goalscorer led them to Élber, and they didn’t hesitate to pay the €6.5m that would take him to Bavaria.
His first season saw him hit the back of the net 21 times as Bayern won the DFB-Pokal, the third cup triumph of the Brazilian’s career, and from there he would go from strength to strength. That goalscoring haul would be repeated the next year as the Bundesliga returned to Munich in 1999. This would be the first of four league titles he would win with the club. But his and Bayern’s season would ultimately end in heartbreak as they threw away a one-goal lead in that unforgettable 1999 Champions League final against Manchester United at the Camp Nou. Sadly, a knee injury would prevent Élber from taking part.
The next season would see Élber register his worst goals-to-game ratio since joining the club, though he finished as runner-up in the golden boot award, scoring one more than teammate Paulo Sérgio’s 13 as Die Roten lifted the Bundesliga on goal difference ahead of Bayern Leverkusen.
For a club such as Bayern, Bundesliga success is the minimum expectation at the start of each season. It is the Champions League that is the true barometer of the side’s achievements, the trophy that is required to be truly remembered. The 1999 final was perceived as a tragedy, a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Bayern hadn’t won club football’s ultimate prize since 1976. When would they win it again?
They would not have to wait much longer. In 2000/01, Élber and his teammates put the nightmare of Barcelona to bed as they beat Valencia in the final in Milan. The Brazilian would play 100 minutes, with the score ending 1-1 as the game went to extra-time and penalties. Bayern, perhaps inevitably, won the shootout, cementing their status once again as the kings of Europe.
The game in Milan may not have been Élber’s greatest, but he more than contributed to his side’s European success. He scored six times on the way to the final, including two against Real Madrid in the semis. With Bayern winning another Bundesliga title, which was captured in dramatic fashion following a last-minute equaliser at Hamburg on the final day of the season, it would be his most successful campaign.
On a personal note, Élber was just hitting his stride. The next two seasons would be his most prolific in the famous red shirt. In 2001/02, he hit 24 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions. However, his goals would lead to just the Intercontinental Cup in what was a disappointing season for the club.
His final full campaign at Bayern was his crowning glory. As Bayern won the Bundesliga once more, Élber scored 21 goals in 33 league games. For the first time in his career in Germany, he ended the year as the division’s top goalscorer, alongside Bochum’s Thomas Christiansen. In all competitions, he would find the back of the net a career-high 31 times in 48 appearances, a spectacular return for any striker. “It’s incredible that I’ve done it now after almost a decade in the Bundesliga. The double, finishing leading scorer and then Player of the Season from the fans – it’s all wonderful and makes me very proud,“ Élber said.
In a twist of fate, that would effectively be the end of his career. not only at Bayern but in Germany as a whole, bar four appearances for Borussia Mönchengladbach between 2004 and 2006. After two goals in five games in the 2003/04 season, Elber moved to Lyon, replacing fellow Brazilian Sonny Anderson, who had left the Stade Gerland for Barcelona. Although he didn’t hit the same heights in France, he still won Ligue 1 on two occasions, scoring 17 times in 43 appearances along the way.
One goal in particular stood out. Lyon were drawn against Bayern in the Champions League in 2001. In November, as his side travelled to Munich, Élber scored the winner, securing a 2-1 win for OL. Despite sentencing his former team to defeat, Élber was still warmly received by the Bavarian faithful. Perhaps that is the greatest testament to his ability.
After 16 years away, he returned to Brazil in 2006. He would last less than a year at Cruzeiro before emotionally announcing his retirement following the death of his father. It would be a sad end to an illustrious career.
Whilst the stats show his ability to find the back of the net, it would be unfair to reduce his impact to numbers on a page. Élber was so much than just a goalscorer. Despite spending next to no professional time in his homeland, his playing style was true to his roots. He swaggered in the way that has become synonymous with Brazilian footballers: flair, passion and skill were just as important as his capacity to beat goalkeepers.
Success, however, would elude him on the international stage. He would play just 15 times for the Seleção, managing seven goals. It wouldn’t be enough for him to hold down a regular place, with his last appearance for the national side coming in 2001. It’s a similar story to another great Brazilian striker of the time, Márcio Amoroso. Like at AC Milan, it would take some of the world’s greatest talents in Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho to deny him a regular spot in the Brazil squad.
Following his exit from Cruzeiro, Élber has remained in Brazil with his family. As a fluent German speaker, he can sometimes be seen providing analysis during television coverage of international events in both Germany and Brazil. In January 2017, he became a Bayern ambassador; unsurprising when you consider he is often consulted when quotes are required in regards to stories concerning the club.
In his spare time, he also breeds cattle. Perhaps this illustrates that flying under the radar is exactly how he likes it. At Bayern, it seems that many former professionals enjoy speaking out. For the man who lit up the Bundesliga in the late-1990s and early-2000s, Giovane Élber has left his football to do the talking.
By Jon Radcliffe @jon_radcliffe93