Football: Beckenbauer the bid meister

'I meet many old friends, like Bobby Charlton. But the World Cup is not life or death, is it?'

HIS RETREATING hairline and professorial spectacles apart, Franz Beckenbauer retains all the youthful lines and unassuming grace of the player who inspired West Germany on the pitch and off it to become a legendary figure in World Cup football. Yes, the hair has gone elegantly grey, too, but it hardly matters. As the only man in the history of the game to have captained and coached different German teams to the ultimate triumph, he will remain forever worthy of our respect and our attention.

Hence, in Cannes last week, there was an orderly queue to stop and chat with the erstwhile Kaiser as he played his new role as a roving ambassador for Germany's bid to host the 2006 World Cup finals at a modest trade stand in the bowels of the Football Expo fair. The famous old film festival, for just a day, was forgotten.

Beckenbauer, of course, has won and lost in World Cup finals, experiences which, in truth, put the sole shaft of English glory involving our footballing knights and 2006 envoys, Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Geoff Hurst, in the shade when it comes to that age-old final test: put your medals on the table. A losing player against England in 1966 and losing coach against Diego Maradona's Argentina in 1986, he tasted triumph, on the pitch, in 1974 against Johan Cruyff's Netherlands and, on the bench, in 1990, against the same chunkier Maradona's men.

"There is, really and truly, a lot of money in football today and that is the most striking thing," he said. "But in Germany, we are working to preserve the game as a sport, to ensure it is not overtaken entirely by business and the financial needs of the owners. This protection of our sport is important to us. Just look at the English Premiership. There, it seems, the business side of everything seems to have taken greater and greater importance than before. The clubs, some of them anyway, are quoted on the stock market. My club, Bayern Munich, is still only a private sports club with a committee."

Quietly, without drinks, canapes, gimmicks or razzmatazz, Beckenbauer exuded the softly, softly approach that he and the Germans believe will, eventually, bring the 2006 finals to Deutschland. The local paper Nice- Matin called him an ambassadeur de charme and could not resist talking of his legendary class. Others may have been buttoned up tight in double- breasted suits, but Beckenbauer was at ease in a sports jacket and a smile.

"I have always been easy- going, but that does not mean I am not working hard," he said. "I am enjoying this job, of course. I am the president of our 2006 World Cup bid. That means I meet many old friends, like Bobby Charlton. But it is not life or death, is it? It is a sport. For pleasure." Gliding imperiously through a minefield of questions, he was as much in control as ever, admitting he was pleased to see more attacking play now.

"Some of the games I see today are superb at club level, just as they were at the World Cup last summer where, in my opinion, France deserved to be the champions. They were the best team overall with the exception, sometimes, of Holland.

"I cannot argue, either, with Zinedine Zidane's claims to be the best player in the world. He was the No 1 at the World Cup. I like his artistic style. He would be a good player for Bayern alongside Lizarazu... another really super professional with great mental, physical and technical ability. These players show the level at which the modern game is now played. The speed of the game means that players must be in peak condition all the time."

While Germany goes quietly about the business of persuading the world that the gentleman's agreement with Sir Bert Millichip should have been respected, Beckenbauer presents a warm front and absorbs all the chill winds emanating from the fall-out of the Fifa-Uefa power struggle and the residual denials of any previous accord from the English Football Association and its representatives. "I think most of the issues are clear when you consider the candidates for 2006," he said. "Germany is in the heart of Europe, possesses all the necessary infrastructure, has a stable economy and a stable political system and everything in place and ready for hosting the tournament. I would say that if we were asked to host the World Cup tomorrow, we are ready to do so.

"Of course, every country has a chance. All the African nations, Brazil and England. The most important thing is not the words and the messages now, but convincing the 24 members of the Fifa executive committee who will make the decision. We have, at this Exposition, chosen not to hold a presentation event or a conference. Our style of campaign is non-aggressive. There is no point in being drawn into arguments now or getting anxious too soon. The decision, after all, is not being taken until March 2000, is it?"

Back on a subject close to home he was more passionate - Bayern and their hopes in the Champions' League. "It is going well," he grinned. "I enjoyed the matches with Manchester United. And we are on top in the Bundesliga, too. I feel the team has a new energy now, this season." With another smile for the omnipresent flashbulbs, he proved such difficulties are unlikely to cramp his progress. Germany, with Beckenbauer, are back on the move in the global game.

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