Franz Beckenbauer: The effortless master
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Franz Beckenbauer didn't need the captaincy armband to be a true leader on the pitch. That much had become clear during the 1970 World Cup semifinal against Italy in Mexico City's Azteca stadium, a match that would later be widely described as "the game of the century" as well as "the most wonderful, dramatic and fabulous game of all time" by the Mexican newspaper Excelsior. Veteran striker Uwe Seeler, of Hamburg, was the official West Germany skipper during the tournament, but the elegant, effortless Beckenbauer had become the team's fulcrum at his second World Cup.
The Bayern Munich player, then still a central midfielder and only 24 years old, had suffered a dislocated shoulder after a foul from Italy's Pierluigi Cera in the 70th minute. Beckenbauer struggled on with his right arm fixed to his body by tape and his hand on the German FA badge just below his heart, through 50 more thrilling, exhausting minutes. The Azzurri ended up going through to the final, thanks to Gianni Rivera's goal in the 111th minute that clinched a 4-3 win, but Germany, and Beckenbauer in particular, had won many plaudits. London's Evening Standard praised him as a "wounded, beaten but proud Prussian officer." He had no time for the praise, however. The defeat had hurt too much.
Teams captained: West Germany, Bayern Munich.
Trophies won: Bundesliga (five times); DFB-Pokal (four times); European Cup (1974, 1975, 1976); UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (1967); Intercontinental Cup (1976); North American Soccer League (1977, 1978, 1980); 1974 World Cup; European championship (1972).
Four years later, the man dubbed Der Kaiser for his regal playing style on the pitch would lift the World Cup trophy as captain in his hometown of Munich. The 2-1 win over Johan Cruyff's Netherlands marked the pinnacle of a golden era for German football -- Beckenbauer's era. He had already led the national team to a first European championship win two years earlier and his club side Bayern Munich to the first of three European Cup triumphs in the 4-0 replay against Atletico Madrid in May 1974.
In the Munich final, Beckenbauer starred as "the rook in the battle," as the German TV commentator would have it. Playing as a sweeper, in a role that he had helped to revolutionise over the course of a few years -- he was a deep-lying playmaker rather than the last line of defence -- Beckenbauer even headed the ball out of his box a few times, despite a famous reluctance to do so that some (jokingly) ascribed to his being worried about his hair. But there was plenty of his customary skill on the ball, too, of course. "Beckenbauer showed his genius," wrote Italian newspaper Il Giorno after the final.
The World Cup win secured Beckenbauer's status as a bona fide superstar. "The white Pele," Kicker magazine called him. According to his West Germany teammate Gunter Netzer, however, Beckenbauer's most important achievement had occurred off the pitch. After the surprising 1-0 defeat by the GDR (East Germany) in the first group stage, team morale had hit rock bottom. Beckenbauer delivered a no-holds-barred speech in front of the team, singled out underachieving players and reshaped the lineup for the rest of tournament in conjunction with team manager Helmut Schon.
"Of all his attainments for German football, this was one was his biggest," said Netzer. "He took charge in this terrible situation, when the team was about to fall apart, protected Schon and rebuilt the team with him." Netzer was one of the losers in the reshuffle, along with Beckenbauer's club teammate Uli Hoeness, but both realised that The Kaiser had been right. "He was outstanding in every single game of the World Cup and showed leadership qualities that helped the team find its feet," Hoeness said.
Beckenbauer was not afraid to take on the German FA, either. Before the tournament, he negotiated a 70,000 DM bonus for winning the competition during an ill-tempered meeting that lasted until 5 in the morning. And a few hours after the win in the Olympic stadium, he ordered his players to boycott the German FA's victory banquet over their refusal to let the players' wives take part.
Taking the national team to another World Cup win in 1990 as team manager made him a veritable demigod in postwar German history; the successful bid and staging of the 2006 tournament with him as head of the organising committee confirmed his exalted position. Die Lichtgestalt ("figure of light"), they started calling him. To this day, his opinions on the game carry deep resonance, even if he's happy to revise them at the drop of a hat. "If Franz tells them the ball is square, they will believe it," joked Otto Rehhagel, the former Werder Bremen and Greece coach.
On the pitch, ironically, his incredible lightness of touch used to work almost against him, as far as the German public's appreciation went. Beckenbauer never seemed to sweat. He was effortless; he floated through games in an upright manner, freed from man-marking duties. He sprayed inch-perfect passes with the outside of his boot. "Every pass of his has eyes and finds his teammates, everywhere " said Vladislav Bogicevic, his midfield partner with the New York Cosmos.
Opposition fans found his excellence hard to swallow. They threw knives at him and his Bayern team in the mid-70s. Football was understood as a game of hard work, not artistry. "That's why the masses have had total respect but never loved him the way they loved [former greats] Uwe Seeler and Fritz Walter," wrote Kicker on the occasion of his last Bundesliga game in 1983.
Beckenbauer made things look easy. Too easy. But those closer to him understood that his imperious game was built on a strong work ethic. He grew up as the son of a postal worker in Giesing, one of Munich's poorest and most-bombed quarters after the war. He spent days on end hitting a ball against a wall in the backyard. "That wall was the most honest teammate," he explained later. "If you played a proper pass, you'd get it back properly." To this day, no one has played more proper passes than Beckenbauer in the history of football.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert. Follow: @honigstein