Football has been an unfair sport. Always rewarding goals, dribbles and offensive plays and leaving in ostracism those who avoid or interfere in these virtuoso actions. The defenders always so criticized, so defenestrated and so in the eye of the hurricane for being the main impediment for the stars to shine. Never being able to get rid of the premise of questioning his technical conditions and his quality with the ball at his feet. It was always like that until he came along and changed everything. The Kaiser of Germany. The Emperor of European football. Franz Beckenbauer. The most complete defender in history. And one of the greatest players of all time.
He started out as an outstanding striker. He reinvented the libero position in Munich, giving the centre-back a new dimension. He became the team’s most outstanding and dominant player from one of the positions furthest from the opposition goal. He transformed a mid-table team into the biggest team in Europe. From Munich to the almighty Bayern Munich. He led his team to reign supreme in Europe and the world twenty years after the Miracle of Berne, an event that impressed little Franz. His European rivalry with Johan Cruyff marked a before and after in football. And his image in that 1970 World Cup semi-final with his arm in a sling is the stuff of sporting history. For all this and for his incredible achievements, Franz Beckenbauer left an indelible mark and a historic legacy on the sport.
When Pele – Brazil’s own legend, rival and team-mate – has gone so far as to express his admiration and consider the German’s play to be unmatched in terms of footballing ability then we know that player must have been something very special.
The origin of the Kaiser
Year 1945. Four months after the surrender of the German troops and the Allied victory in World War II, Franz Anton Beckenbauer was born in the massacred city of Munich on 11 September. Little Frank grew up and started kicking a ball around in the rubble of a ruined city and a depressed post-war society. Franz’s world, and that of all the children raised and born at that time, changed after the milestone of his national team in the 1954 World Cup. Germany beat Puskas’s all-conquering Hungary 3-2 in a final that became known as the Miracle of Berne (the Germans had been beaten 8-3 by the Hungarians in the first round) to become world champions for the first time.
The German victory healed the wounds of German society a little and opened a new path full of hope for the children raised after the Great War. Everyone wanted to be like the heroes of Bern. They wanted to be footballers. Franz’s dream of becoming a footballer overcame the opposition of his father, a post office manager, who refused to allow his son to pursue a career in the beautiful game, and the youngster began his career with the city’s top club, Munich 1860. And he started it playing and standing out…as a striker.
He stayed in that team until he was 14 years old due to a surprising decision, and that is that the Munich team decided to close most of its lower divisions which gave Franz the choice of joining the second team of the city, the 1906 Munich or the modest Bayern Munich, which, at that time, was wandering around the lower positions of the classification. The German genius chose Bayern. One of the decisions that would change the fate of the Bavarian club. The German city’s second team became Germany’s first, then Germany’s biggest and eventually one of the giants of European football.
In the 1964/65 season, after five years in the Bavarian club’s youth academy, the German midfielder made the step up to the first team under Yugoslavian coach Zlatko Cajkovski. He had already made his debut the previous season, but it was in 1964 that he established himself in the Bayern midfield. At the age of 19, he was already a key player in that season’s promotion to the newly created Bundesliga.
In that first season, the world would begin to talk about this young German who was beginning to dominate his country’s league showing innate talent and qualities. That boy had everything leadership, command and character, as well as showing control and technique with the ball that was unheard of at the time.
The explosion of the emperor and the creation of the ultimate libero
The 1966 World Cup and the arrival of Branko Zebec on the Bayern bench marked a turning point in Franz’s life. At just 20 years of age, two seasons in the German league and after winning his first German Cup title, Beckenbauer was called up by coach Helmut Schön for the 1966 World Cup. Anyone who thought that Franz was going to be a youngster on British soil would be very wrong. At the age of 20, Beckenbauer was a key player in the German national team’s midfield.
In that tournament, Pele’s Brazil were knocked out in the group stage by Portugal in a match in which O Rei was forced to retire injured in the face of Portugal’s toughness. North Korea surprisingly reached the quarter-finals where, after a 0-3 lead, they ended up being defeated by the whirlwind led by Eusebio, the great dominator of that World Cup wearing the famous PUMA Wembley shoes . Eusebio and his Portugal side looked to be on their way to the final but they came up against Sir Bobby Charlton’s England, who knocked them out in a historic match. England awaited an opponent in the final…and that opponent was the Germany of a surprising Beckenbauer who had excelled throughout the tournament, scored four goals and would later win the award for best young player of the World Cup.
Germany lost in that final with the most controversial goal in the history of the World Cup but it lit the fuse of what would be the great dominator of Europe and the world in the 70’s with Beckenbauer as the spiritual and football leader of that generation.
Bayern began their winning run, even with Cajkovski on the bench, with their first international title: the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1967. In that team alongside Beckenbauer were Sepp Maier, the legendary goalkeeper, and Gerd, the torpedo, Muller. Those who would become the backbone of Bayern and the German champions. After the Cup Winners’ Cup Cajkovski left and his place on the Bayern bench was taken by Branko Zebec. The Zagreb-born player, despite only spending two years there, was of vital importance to Beckenbauer and to world football: it was he who positioned the German genius at the heart of the defence. A reinvention that gave us a glimpse of a legend and unleashed the German’s true potential.
From there a new footballer was born. Different from the rest, with the pose of a general on the field. Always with your head up knowing what to do at all times. There were no nerves in this kid who was barely in his twenties. His style of play earned him the nickname Der Kaiser (‘The Emperor’). Elegant and fine but at the same time forceful and effective. Fast and impassable. And with a vision and tactical intelligence far superior to the others. Franz Beckenbauer proved to the world that defence was not at odds with creation and that they could and should coexist.
The titles were falling as Beckenbauer and his Bayern team made the front pages of the big German newspapers. It was the prelude to the German era in Europe and the world. The beginning of the 70’s or what is the same: The duel between the total football of Johan Cruyff and the sobriety and technique of Beckenbauer.
Frank Beckenbauer’s winning cycle and his rivalry with Johan Cruyff
The decade of the 1970s began with one of the most important football events of all time and one that crowned the best of the best: Pele’s Brazil won its third World Cup. In Mexico in a tournament that would go down in the annals as one of the most important in the history of football. It was there that Beckenbauer once again left an image to remember and enhanced his status as a footballer in that semi-final between Germany and Italy. Perhaps the greatest match in World Cup history.
That match ended 4-3 in favour of the Italians and was known as the “Match of the Century”. But beyond the breathtaking exchange of blows, the unpredictability of the game’s outcome in a five-goal extra time, the drama of Gianni Rivera’s goal and the all-out battle, the image that has gone down in posterity from 17 June 1970 at the Estadio Azteca is that of Franz Beckenbauer with his arm in a sling.
After a collision with Giacinto Facchetti in extra time, the German libero dislocated his shoulder, the pain was visible on the German’s face but Beckenbauer refused to leave the field, asked the doctors to bandage his arm and continued on the pitch leading his team-mates only to leave his team with ten players. The image of the German driving the ball up the pitch with his arm in a sling would become footballing history. He led his team to the last drop of sweat in that match of the century. Germany landed on its feet. I already had a new emperor.
After the disappointments of the two World Cups, the 1970s was the most prolific decade in the history of Germany and Bayern with Beckenbauer at the helm. The German national team put an end to their bad fortune in international tournaments and won the 72 European Championship in a tournament where they were clearly superior to all their rivals and where Gunter Netzer stood out in midfield.
Bayern continued their winning run in Germany but in Europe, despite having one of their best generations of players, they were unable to match the total football coming out of Amsterdam. Johan Cruyff’s Ajax won the European Cup three times (from 70 to 73) and massacred Beckenbauer’s Bayern on 7 March 1973 with a 4-0 thrashing. Something Franz was not about to forget, and he was soon to exact his revenge on football’s greatest stage. In that 1974 World Cup.
Before that World Cup, Bayern would also dethrone Ajax and end their reign in Europe. The Bavarian club would finally win their first European Cup in a final that had to go to a rematch against Luis Aragones’ Atletico Madrid. After the conquest of Europe, Beckenbauer, now captain of Germany, set his sights on conquering the world. And the goal was clear: the World Cup to be played in his country in 1974.
In that World Cup, Germany, without making much noise, and with a less virtuous football than in Euro 72, reached the final. On the other side, the Clockwork Orange’s all-out football annihilated any opponent in front of them, including reigning champions Brazil. It seemed a foregone conclusion: Franz Beckenbauer’s Germany (and Bayern) against Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands (and Ajax). The king and the one who wanted, and had already succeeded, to dethrone him in Europe. The duel of duels. And Beckenbauer was victorious. He finally lifted the coveted World Cup twenty years after Fritz Walter did it in Bern.
“Johan was better but I won the World Cup.”Frank Beckenbauer
After the World Cup, Beckenbauer continued his winning streak with two more European Cups, a Ballon d’Or (he already had another one after his excellent Euro 72) and several German leagues. In 1977, after winning everything a player could win, he decided to go to the United States with a clear intention: to play with the best, to play with Pele in the NY Cosmos. After several years in the United States where he continued to win and a new adventure in Germany with Hamburg, the Kaiser of German football retired in 1983.
The Kaiser’s legacy
Not even a hanging up his boots Franz Beckenbauer failed to win. Only a year after hanging up his boots, the German took over the office of the Federal Republic of Germany. After reaching the World Cup final in 1986 and the semi-finals of the European Championship in 1988, the German reached the pinnacle of coaching at Italy 1990. His team became world champions, sixteen years after he himself lifted the last trophy in Munich. He, Didier Deschamps and Mario Zagallo are the only three people to have won the World Cup as coach and player. He also won the Bundesliga and the UEFA Cup with Bayern.
The ‘Kaiser’ made an indelible mark at both club and international level, even inventing a position that was unpopular at the time, that of libero. He made the defender a dominant position in football and gave this position the relevance and importance it deserves in the beautiful game.
Franz Beckenbauer became a figurehead, a legend who transcended everything. These great stars have the power and ability to change the dynamic of a club and a national team and mark an era in world football. They can turn a modest team into a world superpower. The big names in the sport have that power. And the great merit of the Kaiser is that he did it from the most complicated position of all: the defense.