We English are strangely fond of anointing people "England's favourite German".
The BBC's Gary Lineker has said it during this football World Cup, of the former Tottenham striker Jürgen Klinsmann, and at other times the sobriquet has been used to describe the tennis players Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, the comedian Henning Wehn, and even Franz Beckenbauer, the grand panjandrum of German football who is nicknamed "Der Kaiser" both in the Fatherland and here, and now finds himself cast as England's least-favourite living German.
In Germany, significantly, nobody ever talks about "Germany's favourite Englishman", perhaps because the very phrase implies distaste for all the others. It has to be said that they are rather less hung up about us than we are about them, and nothing emphasises this hang-up quite so much as an important, win-or-be-eliminated football match between the two countries, such as the one taking place tomorrow in Bloemfontein. Nor does anyone currently embody it quite as much as 64-year-old Beckenbauer, whose widely reported criticisms of our national team have caused such a stew of indignation.
For the record, Beckenbauer has asserted that the English under manager Fabio Capello play an unimaginative brand of kick-and-rush football. He has also reportedly accused our boys of being "tired and burnt-out", and branded them "stupid" for failing to top their comparatively unchallenging World Cup group.
It is England's second-place finish in Group C, behind the USA, that has yielded not only the early knockout match against Germany, but also, should the Germans be beaten, probably a quarter-final against the form team of the tournament so far and another perceived nemesis, Argentina.
By topping Group C, as they were widely expected to do, England would have had a much easier passage to the semi-finals. So, while "stupid" might be pitching it a little unkindly, it will be interesting to see what the newspapers and radio phone-in hosts who have reacted so histrionically to Beckenbauer's remarks will have to say about our boys should they be packing their Louis Vuitton bags tomorrow evening. "Stupid" will almost certainly look mild by comparison.
In other words, Beckenbauer is not too critical; he's just too German. If our footballers have to be lambasted for not living up to expectations, we prefer to do it ourselves. Moreover, when a fellow nicknamed "Der Kaiser" starts making provocative noises about the English, there's a subtext to our indignation that starts to appear as surely as if lemon juice had been rubbed over invisible ink. A Kaiser aiming both barrels at England? Haven't we been there before?
It's not as though the English need the slightest excuse for anti-German sentiment; it wasn't anything Beckenbauer said that inspired the Daily Mirror's "Achtung! Surrender" headline before another important England vs Germany game, in 1996, or the chant beloved of hordes of English football fans, "Two World Wars and one World Cup, doo-dah!". But if we have an apparently arrogant, seemingly bellicose Kraut to demonise, so much the better.
The inconvenient truth, however, is Beckenbauer's tone, if not his actual language, has been misinterpreted. He is a Bavarian, and even in Germany the Bavarians are considered a breed apart; hard-working, hard-partying folk with a wry – yes – sense of humour.
Before the 1990 World Cup, Beckenbauer, who was then coach of the national team, was repeatedly asked to predict what would happen in the tournament. Again and again he shrugged his shoulders and replied, "Schau'*mer mal" – essentially, we'll see – to the extent that it became a German catchphrase. And paradoxically, his cheerful refusal to make predictions made him look like a prophet. The Germans won, after beating England in the semi-final and Argentina in the final.
As for that nickname, it was conferred on him in the late 1960s in homage to his strength and influence as a footballer. By the time he captained West Germany, in West Germany, to victory in the 1974 World Cup, he was at his peak as an elegant defender of quite exceptional talent, and even now he can be expected to figure when anyone over the age of about 45 picks an all-time world XI.
The Kaiser was well named, and yet he was also named with a collective tongue in cheek. The Germans are very wary about overt shows of patriotism, knowing full well how fervent patriotism can twist into ugly nationalism. They weren't celebrating their imperial past by calling a footballer the Kaiser, indeed almost the opposite; they were embracing their successful present.
Today, the effortlessly charming Beckenbauer is unquestionably the most respected figure in German football, and one of the most respected in German life. Consider how venerated his friend Sir Bobby Charlton, one of our 1966 World Cup winners, is in this country, and then imagine if Charlton had landed us the World Cup three times.
That's how the Germans think of Beckenbauer, who not only lifted the coveted trophy as captain in 1974, not only coached them when they won it again in 1990, but also spearheaded the successful campaign to stage the great tournament on German soil again in 2006. Moreover, he is one of only two men – the other is the Brazilian Mario Zagallo – to win the World Cup both as player and coach. He is the only man to win it as captain and coach. He bestrides planet football like a colossus.
Like many a sporting colossus, he has humble origins. He was born, the son of a postal worker, just a few months after the end of the Second World War in a Munich devastated by Allied bombing. In 1954, West Germany won the World Cup, beating the then-mighty Hungarians in the final. It was one of those sporting events that utterly transcend sport, and in the same summer, coincidentally, something similarly momentous happened when Pakistan's cricketers drew a Test series against England, in England. For a young country still searching for an identity, this was a seismic occurrence, still considered the very making of the nation.
West Germany winning the World Cup in 1954 was seismic for different reasons, the moment when post-war gloom and introspection gave way to pride and optimism, a mood which inevitably infected the eight-year-old Beckenbauer. He resolved to become a professional footballer, and happily, his ambition was supported by his ability.
In June 1964 he made his debut for Bayern Munich, and by the time he played his last game for the club, in 1977, he had helped them to win three successive European Cups. He then signed for New York Cosmos, linking up with Pelé to become one of the linchpins of the burgeoning North American Soccer League.
Along the way he had transformed himself from a centre-forward into the very prototype of the modern sweeper, the versatile defender whose job is to turn defence into attack. Even now he is cited by approving pundits. "You know what," they say knowingly, "he reminds me of Beckenbauer." It is hard to think of anyone who has been so influential at every stage of his career in football.
Away from football, there has been the odd scandal. In 1963, when he was 18, it was revealed that his then-girlfriend was pregnant and that he did not intend to marry her. It wouldn't cause much of a kerfuffle these days, but back then it was considered such an outrage that Beckenbauer was briefly banned from playing for the West German national youth team. Decades later he was discovered to have fathered a daughter outside his marriage, but German attitudes to extramarital sex had rather softened by then and, in any case, the Kaiser had more than earned the right to public forgiveness. Whether he will ever gain the English public's forgiveness, and perhaps even be restored as England's favourite German, will not, one suspects, bother him one jot.
A life in brief
Born: 11 September 1945, Munich
Family: Second son of a postman and housewife. Married three times and currently lives with his third wife, Heidi Burmester. He has five children, one of whom, Stefan, was a professional footballer.
Career: Joined Bayern Munich in 1960, aged 14, and stayed for 18 years. His honours include: the European Cup Winners' Cup 1967; European Championship 1972; and European Footballer of the Year award in 1972 and 1976. Capped 104 times, he led the national team to victory in the 1972 European Championships and the 1974 World Cup. After a period playing with New York Cosmos and SV Hamburg, he retired in 1984. Managed West Germany to victory in 1990 World Cup. He is the only man to have won the trophy 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 the mythic status of Beckenbauer" Henry Kissinger
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies