Franz Beckenbauer: The Kaiser
'This will be my sixth World Cup. Three as a player, two as a coach and now as head of its organising committee'
Saturday 03 June 2006
When the curtain goes up on the World Cup show in Munich next Friday it seems certain there will be more than a little jousting on the dais. This is because officials of football's ruling body Fifa are alarmed that their boss, Sepp Blatter, the game's ultimate politician, is facing his most serious challenge in eight years of rule as a president capable of cashing favours in every corner of the world game.
They fear Der Kaiser is coming, not just as a legendary figure passing through a burst of the spotlight afforded to the organiser of the greatest sports spectacle on earth, but a man who has seized his moment - and possibly the future.
The Kaiser - for the benefit of those who proudly declare total ignorance of the world's most popular game - is Franz Beckenbauer, a German national hero of stunning accomplishment as a player, coach and administrator and an urbane style that would make him a focal point of any gathering, however high-powered.
Such natural distinction, the 70-year-old Swiss career football bureaucrat Blatter worries, is likely to carry Beckenbauer, who is 10 years his junior, into a still higher profile - and the status of most dangerous rival for football's top job in elections next year.
It has made inevitable the in-fighting over Beckenbauer's profile at the opening ceremony - an extension of friction already created by the president's criticisms of the committee's ticket distribution policy, which has made a priority the needs of the "German football family". The sport's worst-kept secret is that Blatter was pained when Germany snatched this World Cup out of the hands of South Africa and denied the president his most striking political coup.
Now there is a powerful sense that it is time for the Kaiser's big push for football power - and an influence that has long been granted to him in Germany as the nation's most distinguished football son. He declared this week, "This will be my sixth World Cup - three as a player, two as a coach and now as head of an organising committee. But I have no doubt this is the most important. As soon as Blatter opened the envelope and announced the winner is Deutschland, I said, 'It is a gift of heaven.' There have been times when I have thought, 'What have we got ourselves into?' But of course this World Cup offers the unique chance to improve the country, its infrastructure and above all its image in the world. We want to be good hosts who realise football has an incredible power beyond sport."
It is a power that Beckenbauer has conjured consistently, and apparently effortlessly, through a life that started in Munich among the dislocations of war in 1945, the second son of Antonie, a worker who like so many of his compatriots had no reason to feel the uplift of optimism. Yet if you wanted a symbol of a renascent Germany under chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Allied occupation, it is hard to find a better candidate than the young, handsome Bavarian who at the age of 14 joined the great club Bayern Munich as a player of startling promise. At the age of 20 he was an astonishingly mature talent, duelling with Sir Bobby Charlton in the key battle of the 1966 World Cup. Charlton, and England, won, but by the barest margin and Beckenbauer's name was already made.
The rest of his story, which in some ways will reach a perfect climax in Munich next week, is of virtually untrammelled success, but also many other things: a natural hauteur, a confidence that made him not just a great player but a revolutionary, a coach of instinctive touch and acumen and also, in the faith that has bestowed upon by his German football, a terrible rebuke to his nation's great rivals England.
While the English Football Association has one nominal professional presence in its hierarchy, Sir Trevor Brooking - whose influence was recently seen to be sadly negligible in the largely risible pursuit of a successor to coach Sven Goran Eriksson - Beckenbauer has been an almost permanent presence at the heart of his nation's football affairs. His friend the late Bobby Moore, England's captain in the 1966, was never invited into the inner counsels of the FA, and finished his days working for a London radio station, having resisted the need to sell his winning medal. Beckenbauer by comparison was given, almost, a working enshrinement. It was fortunate for both Germany and himself that he was more than equal to the challenge. Indeed it was accepted as both an honour and a birthright.
His pursuit of the World Cup as a player was an epic of relentless ambition and application. In 1966 he was obliged to bend his knee in midfield to Charlton, the great English player of his generation, but he did it with both honour and the narrowest of margins, and four years later in Mexico his revenge was dramatic in the quarter-final game. Sir Alf Ramsey withdrew Charlton in withering heat with the score at 2-1 for England. Ramsey was assailed for his decision, but it is largely forgotten that Beckenbauer had already undermined England with a goal that broke the confidence created by a two-goal lead. When Charlton left, Beckenbauer's influence soared. He was beaten in extra time in the semi-final against Italy, but he remained defiant, having challenged the Azzuri with his arm in a sling.
Four years later we saw the fulfilment of Beckenbauer as the leader and play meister. He overcame the threat of the great Dutchman Johan Cruyff in the final in his native Munich, patiently rebuilding his side after the shock of Holland's almost instant success from the penalty spot.
After winning three European Cups with Bayern Munich, he signed for New York Cosmos in 1978. It was the one time in his life when Beckenbauer was less than rooted in some implacable destiny. Cosmos, owned by the Time-Warner company, had paid more than a million dollars for his services and there was, it seemed up in the directors' box, less than certainty about quite what they had bought.
Beckenbauer played his usual game in his debut at the Giants stadium, which is to say he was the sweeper at the back who ventured forward only at propitious times. The club president was less than thrilled. He summoned the coach and demanded to know, "Why is this guy we have paid a million dollars for playing at the back of the team?" The hapless coach replied, "It is the way he plays. No one does it better." The coach was told, "We don't pay a million dollars for a guy who lurks around at the back. Tell him to get his ass up front." Beckenbauer declined. He also turned down Germany, for the only time, in his life when they reviewed their decision to ban all foreign-based players from the national team.
Beckenbauer recalls, "There had been two defeats in friendly games and the coach, Helmut Schön, called me at 4.30 in the morning to ask me if I would return to the team. The problem was that the German FA mishandled with Cosmos. They sent the secretary of the US federation, and he didn't get past the doorman." Without coaching badges, Beckenbauer would have been considered unemployable today, but in 1986 and 1990 he performed prodigiously as the new coach of Germany, taking an injury-raddled side to the final against Argentina in Mexico City, and failing 3-2 only because of one sublime moment, a killing pass, from Diego Maradona, and four years later, in Rome, he reversed the result in another final.
Though Beckenbauer officially downplays his ambition to lead world football, for many it seems the last and natural development of his extraordinary career. His insistent belief is that teams have to be built on confidence and understanding - a formula which many observers in England have despaired of since the days of Ramsey, and briefly, Terry Venables in the mid-1990s. He remembers wistfully those days when his only responsibility was to himself.
"I enjoyed taking a back seat in that first World Cup in England all those years ago. I could play with complete freedom and lean on players like Uwe Seeler, Willi Schulz and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger. Those were real guys, they were confident and successful. These days who can a young player lean on? He'll fall over."
The other day an interrogator of Der Spiegel, unconvinced by Beckenbauer's declaration that he would not be hunting down Sepp Blatter's job, said, "Whenever you announce that you're going to start taking it easy it turns out to be an empty promise." Beckenbauer replied, "I've been working for the World Cup for nine years now. Of course I'm looking forward to great football in great stadiums in a great atmosphere, but I'll be happy when it's over and I've got my peace and quiet. Look, I've got five children. I had the first three from age 23. I didn't see them grow up. I was focused on football. I totally neglected my duties as a father. Now I've been given the gift of two more children. If I neglect them I will have done something wrong."
It's a fine sentiment but Beckenbauer's interrogator was right to question his ability to stay away from the game that has so dominated his life. Yes, he can coddle his young children. He can ski in his lodge in the Alps. But the great world game will roll on and it is hard to believe he will not listen to its next call. Passionately, he speaks of the potential of his World Cup. He sees the Brazilian Ronaldinho as its likeliest star, a man who can remind the game once again of all its inherent beauty. "Ronaldinho will tell us again what a World Cup is all about. It's about great players defining the game," he says.
But then who better to protect its ambitions and its purpose than Der Kaiser - one of the greatest of them all and, maybe more than any other, one whose value has never been doubted by his own people. It would probably take several divisions to keep him off the dais when Munich celebrates the great tournament - and the latest triumph of its favourite native son.
A Life in Brief
BORN 11 September 1945 in Munich.
CAREER Joined Bayern Munich aged 14. Played first game for German national side in 1965 and in the 1966 World Cup. With Bayern, honours included the European Cup Winners' Cup 1967; European Championship 1972; and European Footballer of the Year award in 1972 and 1976. For the German national side won 104 caps, becoming captain in 1971 and leading the team to victories at the 1972 European Championships and the 1974 World Cup. Moved to New York to play in the North American Soccer League in 1978. Retired in 1984. Appointed manager of the German national team and coached the team to victory in the 1990 World Cup, becoming the only man to have lifted the World Cup as both captain and manager.
HE SAYS "The trouble for today's footballers is they have too many distractions. We used to get our old players coming to watch training with football magazines in their hands. Now, more often than not, they are checking the share prices."
THEY SAY "No other soccer figure, except possibly Pelé, has ever reached the mythic status of Beckenbauer" - Henry Kissinger
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