Remembering the life of Austria legend Bruno Pezzey
By all rights, there should be somebody in Innsbruck, Austria, celebrating his 60th birthday on Tuesday. By all rights, famous football people from both Austria and Germany should be flocking to his house to wish him well. By all rights, they should be sitting around his table and reminiscing about the times when he was one of the best players not just in the Bundesliga but also on the entire continent.
But nobody will knock on the door of that house in Innsbruck, just as nobody did a year ago or in one of the many years before that. Because Bruno Pezzey, one of Austria's biggest footballing idols, hasn't been able to celebrate his birthday since 1994. On the very last day of that year, he suddenly broke down and died before an ambulance could arrive.
When the news of this unexpected tragedy made the rounds, many people were no longer in the mood to attend New Year's Eve parties. Austria's chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, said: "Pezzey's death is a huge loss not just for Austria but for the whole of Europe. He was always a role model for the young."
The country's national team head coach, Josef Hickersberger, said: "Next to Ernst Happel, he was the best defender Austria ever had."
Former national coach Helmut Senekowitsch said: "A legend of the game has passed away."
Across the border in Germany, the shock was felt almost as deeply. Werder Bremen's president, Franz Bohmert, said: "I'm shattered. I can't believe this. He was such an iconic figure."
Eintracht Frankfurt legend Jurgen Grabowski said: "Bruno was one of the greatest, yet he always remained the friendly person he was."
These two men represented the two German clubs for which Pezzey played. His was a career that took off in 1974, when Pezzey joined Wacker Innsbruck as a 19-year-old. Back when defenders tended to be rugged brutes, Pezzey was elegant and a gifted technician.
He also often played as a sweeper. That's why the media soon called him the "Beckenbauer from Lake Constance." (It's an unwieldy nickname only in English. The German word for Lake Constance is "Bodensee.") But unlike Beckenbauer, Pezzey could be tough as nails.
He never shied from a tackle and would later be suspended no fewer than 10 games for grabbing an opponent where it hurts most. Also, unlike Beckenbauer, he was excellent in the air. In June 1979, in a thrilling and famous friendly against England, he opened the scoring with a flying header and then forcefully headed home Austria's 4-3 winner from a free kick in the second half.
At that time, Pezzey was already a Bundesliga player. He was also a member of the legendary Austrian team that defeated West Germany 3-2 at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Oerformances at this tournament earned a few Austrian players a move abroad. Striker Hans Krankl was signed by Barcelona, while Herbert Prohaska and Walter Schachner would soon move to Italy.
Pezzey, meanwhile, joined Frankfurt. The story goes that Grabowski had watched him in Argentina and urged his board to sign him immediately. "A world-class player and a great stylist, although he's a defender," Grabowski reportedly enthused. However, Pezzey later said he agreed to join Frankfurt as early as May, three weeks before the World Cup began.
Pezzey, who had won the Austrian league twice with Innsbruck, wouldn't get to lift the Bundesliga trophy. As he said in 1982: "In the Bundesliga, it's all about power and strength. At Frankfurt, we have one of the technically most accomplished teams in the league, but that's probably the reason why we'll never win the title."
But he did lead Eintracht to the biggest success in club history, the 1980 UEFA Cup win. In the semifinals, Frankfurt met mighty Bayern Munich and were facing an uphill struggle after losing the away leg 2-0. The second goal had been given away by Pezzey when he brought Norbert Janzon down in the box, and Paul Breitner converted the ensuing penalty.
However, the Austrian more than made up for that in the return match. On the half-hour, Pezzey brought Frankfurt ahead when he knocked in a loose ball from close range. But then his team had to wait a long, long time for the second goal they needed. It came with three minutes left on the clock. Bernd Nickel took a corner, and Pezzey rose at the edge of the 6-yard box and headed home to take the game into extra time. Frankfurt eventually won the match 5-1 and defeated another Bundesliga team, Borussia Monchengladbach, in the two-legged final.
Later that year, Pezzey finished 14th on the Ballon d'Or ballot, level on points with Kenny Dalglish and ahead of players such as Francesco Graziani, Terry McDermott or Ruud Krol. It was the first of three consecutive top-15 showings for Pezzey at the European Footballer of the Year voting -- an outstanding run for a defensive player.
In the summer of 1983, after more than 140 Bundesliga appearances for Eintracht, Pezzey left Frankfurt for Bremen, where his chances of finally winning the league seemed much better. Upon signing the contract, he mentioned he'd had offers from Spain and Italy but chose Bremen because Werder was "more attractive from a sporting perspective." After protracted negotiations between the two clubs, Bremen paid Frankfurt 1.3 million Marks (roughly 650,000 Euros) for Pezzey's services.
The Frankfurt fans, acutely aware their club desperately needed the money, were sad to see him go but bore no grudge. When they voted on Eintracht's all-time All-Star XI in 2011, Pezzey made the team comfortably.
Although Pezzey did well in Bremen and went on to make 114 league appearances for Werder under coach Otto Rehhagel, things didn't quite work out as planned. A trophy eluded him, and it happened in painful fashion.
On April 22, 1986, the penultimate day of the season, Pezzey stood on Bremen's Weserstadion pitch and watched his teammate, Michael Kutzop, take a penalty against Bayern Munich. There were only two minutes left on the clock, and the score was 0-0. Werder were two points ahead of Bayern in the standings, which meant if Kutzop scored, they would have won the league.
Kutzop hit the post. It was the only penalty he ever missed. A week later, Bremen were beaten in Stuttgart, while Bayern defeated Monchengladbach to claim the title on goal difference.
Pezzey left Germany in the summer of 1987, at age 32, to see out his career in his native Austria, where he would win three more titles with Swarovski Tirol under Happel. The irony, of course, is that if he had stayed in Bremen for one more year -- which was a possibility, given he had started the preseason with Werder and appeared in the official team photo for the 1987-88 season -- he would have won the Bundesliga title he so craved.
Even without that trophy, however, he is almost as fondly remembered in Bremen as he is in Frankfurt. "If there had been a ballot for a Team of the Century in Bremen," his Werder teammate Thomas Wolter once said, "Pezzey would be in it."
From time to time, Pezzey suffered from blood circulation problems. He had once collapsed during training in Frankfurt, then again under Happel in Innsbruck. In January 1990, Pezzey's club took part in an indoor tournament in Bad Homburg, Germany. During a game against, of all clubs, Eintracht Frankfurt, the player suddenly lost consciousness and crashed to the ground. He swallowed his tongue, and only Tirol's team physio's presence of mind saved Pezzey's life.
After this incident, Pezzey underwent a series of medical tests. The doctors told him he appeared to have a minor heart issue but the matter didn't seem to be serious. Playing sports was no problem. Pezzey would finish his career a few months later.
On the last day of 1994, he did what he always did on Saturdays: play ice hockey with a bunch of pals. Five minutes before the end of the game, he came skating over to the boards. "I feel tired," he said. Then he collapsed.
While his friends called an ambulance and informed his wife and two teenage daughters, Bruno Pezzey was claimed by what is known as sudden cardiac death. Five weeks later, on Feb. 3, he would have been 40.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.