Franz Beckenbauer: 'Players play for themselves, not the coach'

Germany's football ambassador spreads the gospel according to the World Cup hosts. Steve Tongue hears a passionate man make the case for England's quality
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Whatever the outcome might be, the Germans have, of course, already scored a notable victory in the contest to host this summer's finals. Strange - and rather alarming - to think at this juncture that the Football Association might have been fretting over whether Wembley, the centrepiece of their doomed bid, would actually be ready in time to stage a World Cup, or whether Cardiff would be on standby. But Germany it is, Beckenbauer's team on this occasion having defeated Bobby Charlton's (and, more controversially, South Africa's).

As president of the German World Cup organising committee, he is undertaking an exhausting round-trip of the 31 nations who will be competing alongside the hosts, which cynics have suggested is part of a campaign to become Uefa president in succession to Lennart Johansson. That hardly explains why anyone would want to clock up quite so many air miles going to and from Africa, Australia and South America.

Exhausted or not, on the London leg last Thursday the Kaiser looked as imperious as ever, even at 61 with grey hair and specs. He seemed genuinely to be enjoying himself, and in between lunch at 10 Downing Street and an evening reception at London's magnificent Gibson Hall in Bishopsgate, there was an enjoyable hour of remembrance of things past and reflection on things to come.

Preparations in Germany are well on track, he insisted, dismissing reports by a German consumer group about safety at some of the new stadiums as "a nonsense". It is the team's preparations he is more concerned about: "It's a young team with no experience and I'm curious to see how they will do. I really don't know in my mind what I'm expecting from the team. Playing two years of exhibition [friendly] games, it's OK whether you go out and win or lose, but to play a World Cup is tremendous pressure. They don't know anything about this yet. Some players don't talk to the press now because of a little bit of criticism. But in a World Cup it's totally different."

Pressure and World Cups this man knows about. In 1966, after scoring goals in the quarter- and semi-finals, there was a worry - it is often forgotten - about whether he would be banned from the final because of a second booking.

The Germans won a case of mistaken identity and their manager, Helmut Schön, hailed his young midfielder as "one of the greatest talents of Europe", which made it all the more disappointing that he should then be restricted to a marking job on Bobby Charlton; Beckenbauer said he was amused to learn years later that Alf Ramsey had instructed Charlton to do the same to him, with the net result that each cancelled out the other.

That strategy also inhibited his view of the game's crucial moment. "The taxi driver asked me today, 40 years later, was it over the line? I was too tired to see, because Bobby Charlton was running like a horse all the game. But England deserved to win."

It is a generous assessment, encouraged perhaps by "some quite nice memories" of future encounters. Like 1968, scoring the only goal in Hanover as West Germany beat England for the first time; 1970, scoring again to spark the astonishing comeback from 2-0 down in the World Cup quarter-finals; 1972 and the first, overwhelming, German victory at Wembley.

Two years later, with England absent this time, Beckenbauer was a World Cup-winning captain and the next epic meeting, the Turin penalty shoot-out of 1990, set him up to become the first man to win the trophy as player and then coach. His appointment as national team manager with no coaching licence or experience was a controversial one at the time, and echoes through to the present. Have Germany done the right thing in choosing a rookie such as Jürgen Klinsmann (who has further infuriated his detractors by continuing to live in California)? And what sort of experience is required at that level?

"It's helpful to have the international experience, maybe not as a coach but as a player. I did not have the licence but I had the name and was 20 years a professional football player, playing under the best coaches in Germany. So for me it was not a big change. When Jürgen took over he was very successful and no one complained about living in Los Angeles and coming once in a while to Germany. As soon as the team start playing badly and lose games, the criticism comes out.

"He spends time with the players at a training camp or before a game. It's good also that Jürgen is changing some old methods. The Americans are crazy for physical preparation and we can learn from different kinds of sports. But it's very simple: you win the games and play well, then you don't have criticism."

Nor does he find it a problem for England that the players know before the tournament that Sven Goran Eriksson has been bounced into leaving. Beckenbauer had announced seven months before the 1990 tournament that he was going. "They were happy to get rid of me! It's normal with a club or a national team, players play for themselves, their team, their families, not the coach. Also it gives the federation a chance to look for the new coach and talk to the best coaches in the country. In July, coaches are all under contract, so we were lucky to get Jürgen Klinsmann."

And with all that experience, who is he tipping this summer? "My personal top favourite is Brazil because of the way they play and the quality of the players. They are full of world-class players, all playing with the best clubs in Europe, and the way they finished the Confederations' Cup with a 4-1 victory over Argentina was very, very impressive.

"But I'm not so good at prognostications. In 2002 I said my favourites were France and Argentina, and after the group phase both were going home. Whoever is able to beat Brazil has a good chance. Then England, Italy, Germany, Argentina, maybe Spain, maybe Holland.

"England's defence is excellent, the best in the world, and Rooney was fantastic at the European Championship. I talked to Sven a few months ago and told him he had the best team in Europe. That was on a Monday; on the Wednesday they played Denmark and lost 4-1!

"But England is top favourite in their group. Then you can meet Brazil in the semi-final and that's very difficult. To be beaten by Brazil is not a disaster. If you get beaten by Trinidad and Tobago, it's a different story . . ."

Not that he is expecting any shocks along the lines of the last World Cup, especially given the results from the African Nations' Cup, which suggest that the best teams from that continent will not be at the finals. "My personal feeling is that it was an exception for the South Korean team in 2002, who played fantastic football in front of the home crowd, and that it won't happen again. It is a clever move from Fifa to stop all the leagues on 14 May so that all teams have time to prepare themselves.

"At the last World Cup, clubs played until almost a week before and then the World Cup started in Korea and Japan. You saw the result, for all the great players, it was a disaster. Now they have four weeks and it will help."

The other factors confirmed by Korea's success in reaching the semi-finals were his admiration for Guus Hiddink - "one of the best coaches in the world, he must be a genius to do a double job with PSV and Australia and be successful" - and an appreciation of football's power for good throughout the world. "Sepp Blatter's expression is: 'Football can make the world better', and it's true. We started this tour in Asia, in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and had a tremendous success. In Angola, civil war for 30 years, but football brings together these enemies. It was fantastic to see." Nearer home, too: "In Africa they asked why we want to host the World Cup again, after 1974. But that was a different Germany, a divided country, east and west. Now we have a unified country."

Spreading the gospel is clearly worth the jet lag. As for the summer: "My personal wish is that everyone should say Germany was a good host." And that if England meet up with them again, it should be as late as possible once more.

LIFE & TIMES

Born: 11 September 1945, Munich, West Germany.

Nickname: The Kaiser.

Position: Sweeper.

Club career: Bayern Munich 1958-77 (European Cup '74, '75, '76; Cup-Winners' Cup '67; Bundesliga '69, '72, '73, '74; West German Cup '66, '67, '69, '71); New York Cosmos '77-80, '82-83; SV Hamburg '80-82.

International career: 103 caps, 14 goals; World Cup winner '74 , finalist '66; European Championship winner '72, finalist '76.

Managerial career: West Germany 1984-90, World Cup winner '90, finalist '86; Marseille 1990; Bayern Munich 1994, '96.

Awards: European Footballer of the Year '72, '76.

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