If there was a player who owned and mesmerized the 70s, if not for the gifted intervention of Pelé or Cruyff, it was Franz Beckenbauer. They say each generation births its unique talents, but Beckenbauer was from the future. When his managers or co-players struggled to assign a position for him due to his overflowing talent, the man invented a position for himself and the sport: the libero, aka sweeper.
Beckenbauer was a fine defender who could cut through the midfield to the final third in a blink and create or avail opportunities that sank, that too when no one would ever expect.
But that wasn’t all; there’s always more to him. Unlike legends such as Pelé, Maradona, Messi, or Charlton, who won coveted prizes, including the World Cup, Beckenbauer went further, achieving victory both as a captain and a coach. He was the second player in history to achieve this feat. Mario Zagallo and Didier Deschamps were the other two. The former of whom is no longer with us. Neither is Beckenbauer. Both passed away within the gap of just two days.
Beckenbauer was 78 when he departed, but his legacy is destined to endure. The Bavarian from Giesing will linger in the hearts of millions, of which I am privileged to be a part. Therefore, this humble attempt to unveil and celebrate a facet of his brilliance and warmth. In the transient nature of life, his influence becomes timeless, echoing through the beautiful game’s philosophy and the human spirit.
The slap that changed history: Munich to Munich
Beckenbauer was not a defender throughout his life, nor did his roots begin in ‘the Munich’ as we identify it, which is Bayern. Rather, he started as a centre forward, then a midfielder for 1860 Munich as a teen, the prominent side in Munich back then. Deployed in midfield for the most part, he skillfully controlled games with his intelligence and awareness, showcasing an elegant style. Things were going well with the Bavarian until one summer in 1958. Until Gerhard König, a fellow teammate, delivered a slap at him.
History took a new turn that day. The happy teen who weaved dreams with 1860 switched to the Bayern side as a sad and hurt kid. Bayern wasn’t the team that they are now, then. But things were to change. “The good Lord decides everyone’s path”, he later said about this story.
Luckily, the relationship with Bayern progressed as the years went by. Beckenbauer switched between midfield and defence as per the changes in the team. Although he excelled at both, libero was the role that stayed close to his heart. Finally, the moment he was waiting for came: the 1966 German Cup final against SV Meiderich. Beckenbauer, the sweeper, aced the midfield like a crafted playmaker and ran up to the final third, bagging the net in the match. That unforgettable goal solidified his timeless and legendary status as an indomitable sweeper, ensuring his everlasting place in its hallowed history.
Furthermore, teaming up with Georg Schwarzenbeck, an essential yet often overlooked stopper, Beckenbauer played a pivotal role in Bayern’s success throughout the 1970s.
The Beckenbauer Era: the 1970s
Eras define players, and at times, players define eras. Beckenbauer undoubtedly epitomizes the latter part. Bayern suited him like bread with butter. A mediocre club with little affection towards silverware tilted towards a new romantic affair. Formerly blank trophy shelves finally saw three trophies lined up next to each other, a hat-trick of Bundesliga titles from 1972 to 1974.
More remarkable tales were penned with the national jersey, too. The journey with the DFB started in 1965 and steadily took off to its peak. Even though his role with the national side was initially a bit contested, ranging from a midfielder to a centre-half and finally to a libero, his performances showed no hesitation. The iconic 1966 World Cup final, where he engaged in a famous showdown with England’s Bobby Charlton, marked his debut ascent onto the national stage. The defender was the 3rd highest goal scorer of that World Cup.
In 1971, he assumed the captaincy and 1972 and 1974 witnessed Germany soaring to the pinnacle with resounding triumphs in the Euro and World Cup under his leadership. There and then, in the blessed decade of the 1970s, football witnessed the birth of an emperor.’
Der Kaiser: The Majestic Wrap-Up
In Germany, there were those who proposed that Beckenbauer’s impact and influence transcended even his achievements in the field. Yet, the compelling blend of his character and talent made him genuinely captivating. An alluring combination that gave him the name ‘Der Kaiser’.
Beckenbauer was a player of ‘effortless elegance’ as Jonathan Wilson described. The witnesses admit that a certain regal aura transcended the pitch when he came on. Wilson notes further that This grace also enraged those who believed the game was all about industry, sweat, and hard work.
Trophies were a natural byproduct of that elegance, and so were individual awards and records. Beckenbauer, a triple European Cup-winning captain, shares this illustrious record with Sergio Ramos. He earned the title of Germany’s Footballer of the Year four times and secured the Ballon d’Or multiple times, a remarkable accomplishment unparalleled by any defender in football history.
“Put in the work, believe in yourself, and the rest will follow” may be a quote that he had hung up on his wall; I doubt it.
Before retiring from the game, he ventured to MLS, where he shared the field with legends such as Pele and Giorgio Chignalio as part of the New York Cosmos team, embracing the rich tapestry of his career journey. A romantic stay that saw him inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame. He was the first German to enjoy this honour.
His short time at Hamburg FC towards the end also brought titles, signalling the end of a remarkable playing career as retirement called in 1983, marking the beginning of a new chapter of equal significance.
The Coach and the Caretaker: The Tail End
A year after his retirement, changes were afoot at the DFB headquarters. Little did anyone know that it was the butterfly effect of yet another grand tale. It was September 12, 1984. Jupp Derwall, the coach, stepped down, moving away for an electric phase in German Football. Beckenbauer stepped up, and two years later, Germany found themselves in the World Cup final, the epic Mexico WC of ’86.
Germany did well, but the last laugh wasn’t theirs, for no power on Earth could surpass the enchanting prowess of Diego Maradona’s romantic squad. Four years elapsed, and the debt was duly repaid, filling the void left by that defeat. Under Kaiser’s leadership, Germany ascended to the pinnacle of the world, triumphing over the very same adversary, Argentina. This time, Maradona shed tears while Beckenbauer beamed with delight. Poetic justice had been served.
That victory also marked the end of his managerial career on the national stage. Later developments saw Beckenbauer have a brief stint at Marseilles FC and then Bayern, where he managed to win a couple of trophies along the way.
Beckenbauer soon grew tired of coaching and instead chose to take on the caretaker role at Bayern FC, his beloved hometown club, where he dedicated an impressive 19 years of his life, concluding in 2009. Concurrently, he also served as the vice president of the DFB administration from 1998, making him a prominent figure throughout Germany.
Teaming up with the largest tabloid in the country, Bild, and making regular appearances on TV also kept him in the spotlight, making him one of Germany’s favourite figures.
As Andrew Flint observed years before, “When it comes to summing up Franz Beckenbauer’s career, it might be easier to list what he hasn’t done.” Wherever he went, Beckenbauer was always there on the biggest stages, the guy who always succeeded and the majestic presence who was always at the top. But the same guy wasn’t without his downsides.
Beckenbauer’s once impeccable legacy took a hit in his later years when his involvement in Germany being awarded the 2006 World Cup was questioned. In 2016, FIFA’s Ethics Committee began looking into a questionable payment of €6.7 million ($7.45m), supposedly approved by Beckenbauer, to sway votes on FIFA’s Executive Committee.
Regardless of the accusations, Beckenbauer will still be recognized as one of football’s legends. As Raphael Honigstein notes in The Athletic, “Beckenbauer was the most beautiful and important footballer Germany ever produced. No one will ever get close on either count.” His extraordinary career, akin to the likes of Pele, Maradona, and a select few others, marks the end of a legendary era and leaves a legacy that will forever captivate and inspire generations to come.
Rest in peace, Der Kaiser.