The wagging finger, affairs and rare class of Stefan Effenberg

The wagging finger, affairs and rare class of Stefan Effenberg

It is 27 June 1994 in a sweltering Dallas. Germany are taking on South Korea in a World Cup group match. With 15 minutes remaining the Germans are looking to protect a narrow 3-2 lead, with Berti Vogts deciding to bring on Thomas Helmer. His number 5 is held aloft for the 64,000 inside the Cotton Bowl and millions watching across the globe. Next to it is the number 20, who, having performed below expectation, is jeered from fans as he exits the field. In response, the blonde figure holds his middle finger aloft in salute.

Born in Hamburg in 1968, Stefan Effenberg is the perfect encapsulation of the enfant terrible. Blessed with such phenomenal passing range, stamina and vision that he was an undisputed starter for his first club Borussia Mönchengladbach at the age of 20, this was meshed with a series of off-field incidents which the player summarises by describing himself as “never being an angel”. 

Effenberg began his career in the academy of local side Bramfelder SV, before being picked up by Victoria Hamburg aged six. He would spend a dozen years honing his craft in their academy prior to moving to Gladbach after being spotted by assistant Wolf Werner. Promoted to head coach following club legend Jupp Heynckes’ decision to move to Bayern in 1987, Werner wasted little time bringing Effenberg into the first team.

Handed his first start in a late-November 1987 win over Kaiserslautern, Effenberg quickly became one of the first names on the teamsheet. Alongside his technical ability was an indefatigable will to win and physical streak, with Effenberg picking up the first of his 121 Bundesliga cards in just his third appearance, away at Bayer Uerdingen.

Effenberg would enjoy three seasons as an undisputed starter at Gladbach, and with hindsight it’s clear where such ability would end up. In the summer of 1990 such premonition came true, with ‘Effe’ following Heynckes to Bayern for a fee of approximately £1.4m.

Kicking off matters in the best possible circumstances in a dominant 4-1 DFB-Supercup win over Kaiserslautern, this would prove to be a false dawn. Effenberg would win no further silverware in his initial two-year spell at Bayern, ending a runner-up in his first season before a disastrous 10th-place finish the following year that represented Bayern’s lowest league position for 14 years.

Following Germany losing in the final of Euro 1992 to Denmark, Effenberg hopped on the bandwagon of Serie A. Then the world’s elite league, Fiorentina brought in the midfielder and his Bayern teammate Brian Laudrup. It would, however, prove a tumultuous campaign for La Viola, with four different coaches as they succumbed to relegation for the first time since 1938.

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Remarkably, Effenberg stayed on in Florence, playing 26 games in Serie B alongside Gabriel Batistuta as Fiorentina unsurprisingly won the league. Following that he was off to the World Cup in the USA, tasked with forming a formidable midfield alongside Matthias Sammer for the 1-0 win over Bolivia and 1-1 draw with Spain. The final group match, the aforementioned South Korea game, saw one of the most significant events in Effenberg’s career.

Known back home as Der Stinkefinger, the incident served to further polarise opinion of Effenberg. Vogts promptly sent him home, refusing to consider the player for national action for the following four years, meaning he missed the victorious Euro 96 campaign. The decision proved a two-way street: many believed Effenberg was needed on the pitch in the US for his leadership and undoubted quality.

Nevertheless, the scope of what may have been in football is frequent and vast. What can be stated with certainty is, following his disgraced arrival home, Effenberg returned to Gladbach. He would help his first club to fifth in the Bundesliga, also guiding the side to the DFB-Pokal final. Effenberg would dominate the Berlin showpiece, scoring the second in a 3-0 triumph over Wolfsburg.

There was little alternative for the fearsome warrior – this was his style. Of particular note was a UEFA Cup tie with Arsenal in 1996, with Effenberg involved in all three goals in the victorious second leg. He would also routinely walk into Bundesliga teams of the season, featuring in all four during his second spell with Gladbach. Unfortunately, this didn’t correlate with league finishes, with the end result being 11th in 1996/97, descending further the following year to avoiding relegation on mere goal difference. Aged 29, his was fast becoming a career passing the man known as Der Tiger by.

In another case of déjà-vu, in the summer of 1998 Effenberg once again swapped North Rhine-Westphalia for Bavaria. New boss Ottmar Hitzfeld arrived concurrently, tasked with repeating his Champions League heroics with Borussia Dortmund. In his mind, there was little doubt who he wanted to pave the path there. A fee of around £4m got Hitzfeld his man, and it is during this second spell that Effenberg established himself as a legend.

Effenberg’s first Bundesliga was captured in that maiden campaign, with Bayern running away with the league to finish some 15 points ahead of Bayer Leverkusen. Effenberg would score both in a 2-0 win on his return to Gladbach in December 1998, finding the net on 16 occasions in all competitions. Despite missing a penalty in the cup final shootout to hand Werder Bremen the Pokal and the crushing disappointment of the 1999 Champions League final, at last, aged 30, Der Tiger was beginning to earn his stripes.

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Meanwhile, there was a return to the international fold, with Vogts relenting to recall Effenberg for his final two games in charge. In typical style, Effenberg decided to throw this gesture back in the DFB’s face by announcing his international retirement soon after. Not that this brought added maturity, with the latter years of Effenberg’s career bringing further eccentricities.

Take his romantic life. Effenberg once describing himself as “every mother-in-law’s worst nightmare”, a fact justified given he had a well-documented affair. From the age of 22 he was married to Martina, however, in 2002 he announced their separation before divorcing in October 2003. He’s not the first nor last footballer to cheat, but this was a little more complicated than just that.

The woman he had been eloping with, and eventually left his wife for, was the partner of former club and national teammate, Thomas Strunz. He had played with Effenberg for several seasons, placed in a prime position on the bench for the Stinkefinger incident. Strunz discovered the affair through a text on his wife’s phone, but now the boot was on the other foot. In a time before Mauro Icardi was getting Maxi López’s children tattooed on his bicep, Effenberg was publishing erotic photos of his friends’ ex-wife in his autobiography.

Released in 2003, I Showed Them All laid bare a number of situations, featuring more than a smattering of alcohol, drugs and sex. The book also escalated a rift between Effenberg and his teammate Lothar Matthäus. The libero was termed “a big mouth and a quitter” in reference to his decision to withdraw ten minutes before the end of the 1999 Champions League final owing to tiredness. Effenberg stated that if it were him, he would have broken his leg to stay on the pitch and win, dedicating a later chapter to his foe. Entitled ‘What Lothar Matthäus knows about football’, it was followed by a blank page.

Aside from the book, the player was frequently in the headlines. In August 2001, Effenberg settled out of court for 125,000 DM after being accused of hitting a woman in a Munich nightclub. There was also an interview with Playboy in April 2002 that landed him in dispute with several trade unions, after Effenberg claimed unemployed people received too many benefits to make finding a job worthwhile.

This opinion saw him briefly dropped from the Bayern squad, but his club were a far better side with Effenberg leading it. Handed the captaincy in 1999 following the departure of Thomas Helmer, Effenberg displayed passion and commitment that showed why he carried such a moniker. The Bundesliga was retained in a last-gasp final day draw at Hamburg that saw Schalke crowned champions for four minutes. Bayern also won the Pokal after exacting revenge over Werder.

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Having possessed all the mental and technical qualities to be an elite footballer, Effenberg finally had the honours to back up his famously outlandish views. One such incident came in the 2000/01 season as he faced off with Nationalmannschaft nemesis Vogts, now coach at Bayer Leverkusen. Prior to the league game, Effenberg went over to wish him all the best for his new job, before adding “I hope you finish second again”.

This campaign has huge significance in Effenberg’s career. He led a combative Bayern all the way to the Champions League final against Valencia. Inside a packed San Siro, the Spaniards took an early lead through Gaizka Mendieta’s penalty, although through Effenberg Bayern quickly sought to level terms. Santiago Cañizares would, however, save Mehmet Scholl’s penalty. Awarded another spot-kick early in the second half after a handball by Amedeo Carbone, this time the captain would take the lead. 

If one incident epitomises the best of Effenberg, this is it. Ice cold, he strokes the ball into the bottom right corner to put Bayern back on terms. In celebration, Der Tiger lets out a roar into the face of Sammy Kuffour. He raises a single finger, although this time his index, pointing to his half prior to pumping his arms to garner crowd support. Effenberg would be required to take another spot-kick, with the same outcome as Bayern returned to Europe’s summit for the first time in 25 years. In the wake of this he was crowned as the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year.

It is hard to summarise the career of Effenberg without factoring in all the off-field melodrama, but for a moment one must try to focus on the quality he gave when on the pitch. A good judge on this would be two-time European champion Hitzfeld. “Effenberg leads the team, many of my players come to life when he’s around. He instils confidence; when others are looking for a hiding place, that’s when Effenberg steps forward.”

Of the many accusations that can be levelled at him, shirking responsibility is not one of them. “I’ve always gone my own way, always swam against the tide, and I think I’ve reaped the benefits of this,” he stated. Such flow would see him give one more season to Bayern, before being given a hero’s send-off in summer 2002 after the Bavarians relinquished their title to Dortmund.

Effenberg would spend one more season in the Bundesliga, captaining Wolfsburg where he clashed with coach Jürgen Röber, before bringing the curtain down at Qatar’s Al-Arabi. A final farewell would come in Mönchengladbach, with a testimonial organised in the city where Effenberg claims his heart is.

Having emigrated to Florida following football with his second wife Claudia, he returned in October 2015 to manage Paderborn. Fighting a losing relegation battle, he was sacked after five months – not that it would have bothered him. “Of course, I made mistakes in my life, that’s only human, you can only learn from them. I have no regrets.” Given his mindset and what he achieved, that comes as little surprise.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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