Football: Errant boy intends to deliver

Andrew Longmore talks to the Bayern player earmarked for Roy Keane's attention
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ON THE other end of a telephone, Stefan Effenberg sounds extraordinarily like Boris Becker. The same measured tones, the same pronunciations. "Oh no," Effenberg says. "Boris's English is much better than mine." Like a lot of things about the controversial Bayern midfielder, it is not entirely true. He has never had real cause to learn the language but Effenberg's English is more than serviceable. It is purely an intellectual stretching exercise. He has a lesson once a week. Just in case the Premier League calls? He laughs.

"I have a contract at Bayern for another two and a half years and I'm happy here. But I have talked to Jurgen Klinsmann about playing in England and he was very positive, so it's possible. I like the soccer there and the fans. Maybe one day."

At the age of 30, time is starting to run out, but all eyes will be on Old Trafford this Wednesday when Effenberg enjoys a rare chance to display his talent on English soil. His last appearance here came in the colours of Borussia Monchengladbach, who won both legs of a Uefa Cup tie against Arsenal. At Highbury, Effenberg was outstanding and Alex Ferguson, the United manager, has already earmarked the blond playmaker as a suitable case for the Roy Keane treatment.

A convenient suspension - for five yellow cards - kept Effenberg out of the Bundesliga game against Bochum yesterday. He will arrive in Manchester fresh and determined, not a state of mind often associated with his chequered career. On his day, he boasts an imposing range of skills; on bad days, his diffidence drives coaches and fans to distraction. "I think my own people are beginning to understand me," he says. It is a forlorn hope.

Dubbed a rebel from his earliest days, Effenberg has spent much of an unfulfilled career extravagantly justifying the tag. An errant gesture to fans after a scrappy victory over South Korea in Dallas led to Effenberg's early departure from the German squad in the 1994 World Cup. The relationship with the national coach, Berti Vogts, already strained by Effenberg's refusal to play in defence, never recovered. He is defensive on the subject these days.

"That was many years ago when I had the 'bad boy' image," he said. "But not now. You learn in your life. I have three children now and I think I've gone beyond that stage. I believe my own people are beginning to understand me a bit better now." It is a forlorn hope. Having missed the World Cup in France last summer, despite a vacuum in the German midfield, Effenberg was rehabilitated with Vogts in the stormy aftermath of Germany's depressing campaign. The ever pragmatic Vogts swallowed his pride, but the truce was too delicate to last. Germany were abject in a friendly against Malta, Vogts went and though his replacement, Erich Ribbeck, immediately confirmed that Effenberg's muscular presence would be central to the new German team, another patchy performance against Romania brought his international career - most presume - to a characteristically tempestuous close. Effenberg said he did not want to play anymore for family reasons. Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Bayern coach, suggested that Effenberg had been more hurt than he cared to admit by the extent of the criticism.

"It was an error to play those two games," Effenberg said. "But I saw the error too late. I really didn't see much good fortune for the national team over the next couple of years, so I thought it would be better to concentrate on the League." The suspicion is that Effenberg's only motive in returning to the national team was to ensure the dismissal of Vogts. His eccentric behaviour has encouraged such rampant conspiracy theory. Being labelled "Franz Beckenbauer's favourite player" has not helped his popularity outside Bavaria. Beckenbauer regards him as the one class player in the country; to the majority, his arrogance far outstrips his ability. Germany, say his critics, won the European Championship without Effenberg.

What is unquestioned is his gift for putting people's backs up. Asked once whether he thought earning DM5m a year was right, Effenberg corrected the inquisitor. "Actually, it's DM5.5m." On another occasion, he listed his three main dislikes: 1) left-wing politicians 2) stupid questions and 3) the tabloid newspaper column of Paul Breitner. Effenberg has not yet mastered the art of winning friends and influencing people. So the general reaction to the man who once said "I have better things to do than run off to Armenia to play for Germany" is at best bewilderment, at worst disdain.

Germans like their footballers to be straightforward and blue collar. Effenberg has preached the philosophy of Tagore, the fashionable Bengali poet, from the pulpit of St Francis Church in Rheydt, making him the natural inheritor of the strain of German footballing intelligentsia which stretches back to Gunter Netzer through Beckenbauer and Breitner, the Bavarian Maoist, to the impossible Bernd Schuster.

Like Schuster, Effenberg has a powerful wife managing his affairs and an unnerving tendency to prize money above glory. When at Fiorentina, his best friend was Brian Laudrup; at Bayern, he is a staunch supporter of the mercurial Mario Basler. Effenberg, in other words, goes out of his way to find trouble.

None of these criticisms will concern Alex Ferguson as he prepares his side for a Wagnerian clash of titans. United have to win to ensure qualification for the quarter-finals of the Champions' League; Bayern, a point ahead in Group D, can afford to draw, a balance of power Effenberg feels favours the Germans. "When we played in Barcelona, they had to win, so we had a lot of chances to score. On Wednesday, it will be the same. Manchester must come to win and we have fast players who can exploit that. The difference is United's defence is better than Barcelona's." A draw would leave United on 10 points and sweating on a place as one of the two best group runners- up. Barring a grotesque error by Peter Schmeichel in Munich, United would be home and dry. But Bayern can point to an absurd defeat by Brondby in their opening match. "The best thing would be if both of us went through, then we could meet in the final." "Effe" must be calming down; that sounded like a compromise.