One of the most naturally talented players of his generation, 'Super' Mario Basler was also among the most divisive. "Fifty percent of players hate me," he once told Der Spiegel. "It's the same with the fans. Half of them would like to send me to the moon without a return ticket."
A chronic smoker who had no interest in training, he engaged in innumerable spats throughout his career and, shortly before he left Bayern Munich in 1999, club president Franz Beckenbauer described him as "incorrigible". He won the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal twice, and was a member of Germany's Euro 96-winning squad, but it might be considered a meagre haul for a man of his ability. "Sure, I could have achieved more," he acknowledged in 2001.
He scored a number of memorable set-pieces, not least his Olympic goals for Werder Bremen, but he was much more than a mere set-piece specialist. Swift, precise and endlessly creative, he was, in Ottmar Hitzfeld's view, a genius.
Born in December 1968 in Rhineland-Palatinate, Basler joined up with the Kaiserslautern youth team in 1984 and was promoted to the senior squad for the 1987-88 season but, having failed to break into the first-team, he decided to move on in the summer of 1989 to 2. Bundesliga side Rot-Weiss Essen. Even then, he was unable to cement a first-team place. Later asked whether the experience had prompted any doubts over his future, he said: "Never. I know what I can do, and I've always known that someday I would play for the national team."
He began to make headway in the 1990-91 campaign, with coach Hans-Werner Moors putting greater emphasis on youth, and scored six goals in 34 appearances. It was not such a positive season for his club: they were relegated, despite finishing 15th, as financial problems saw their licence revoked for the second time in seven years. Basler moved on to Hertha Berlin, freshly relegated from the top-flight, and would spend two years there.
In the 1991-92 campaign, Hertha finished third in the second tier. The coach that year, Bernd Stange, used Basler largely as a defender and had reservations about the youngster, once describing him as world-class up to his neck but non-league above it. When Gunter Sebert replaced Stange in August 1992, though, Basler was moved into the midfield, and his performances - and 12 goals - were sufficient to convince Werder Bremen to take a chance on him at the end of the season for a reported 2,000,000 DM (£800,000).
It was something of a surprise switch. Werder, the German champions, were under the charge of renowned disciplinarian Otto Rehhagel; Basler, already known as something of a renegade, did not appear an obvious fit. Yet Rehhagel, like so many successful managers, was willing to indulge players he deemed worthy, and Basler was effectively given free rein. "I'm just responsible for brilliant passes, build-up play and shooting," he said. Even more tellingly, Rehhagel allowed him to determine his own training plan, and after the coach suggested he would prefer that Basler followed his team-mates' schedule, Basler told Der Spiegel: "He knew what he was buying. Maybe I am a little difficult, but that was already known."
The interview, conducted in May 1995, revealed much about his relationship with Rehhagel. "I have to be me, so take me as I am. The coach knows this and leaves me alone. He doesn't seem like a strict coach to me. He knows what I need to be good on the field."
The approach reaped dividends. Basler scored on his first start in a 3-1 win over Leipzig, and in November he netted a spectacular goal to settle a Champions League qualifier with Levski Sofia, ensuring Werder became the first German side to qualify for the competition's group stage. He ended the year with success in the DFB-Pokal, helping Bremen to a 3-1 victory over former side Rot-Weiss Essen.
He had established himself as one of the finest players in Germany in his first season, even if he was sent off twice. The second red card came after just 26 minutes of a 2-0 defeat at Bayern Munich at the start of March, but less than three weeks later Germany boss Berti Vogts handed him his international debut when he came off the bench in a friendly victory over Italy, and he was expected to confirm his status as a world-class talent at the 1994 World Cup.
In the eyes of some, at least. Germany had many options in midfield - Andreas Moller, Thomas Hassler, Mattias Sammer and Stefan Effenberg among them - and Vogts had said ahead of the tournament: "We have the best midfield Germany has ever taken to a World Cup." As one editorial written shortly before the tournament noted, "newcomers like Basler, Wagner or Gaudino are at the bottom of the pyramid".
Basler's case was not helped when he suffered an injury in the country's final warm-up game against Canada and, while he was deemed fit for the opener and came off the bench for the final 30 minutes as Germany beat Bolivia 1-0, he made little impact that day and played no further part in the tournament.
Germany eventually exited to Bulgaria at the quarter-final stage, and in the 1994-95 season Basler did much to suggest that Vogts had erred in neglecting his talents. In 33 games, he scored 20 goals and provided 12 assists. Two of the goals were particularly noteworthy: he twice scored directly from corners. The first was the opener in a 2-0 win at Duisburg in September; the second was the opener in a 5-1 win at home to Freiburg in March. The goal was commemorated at the Weser Stadium, with a statement in the lounge reading: "When you do it in a really super way, you can score direct from a corner. This is what Mario Basler did with his goal against Freiburg, which was the start of a clear 5-1 home victory here in the Weser Stadium on 10.03.1995." The text is printed across the corner of the wall, leaving text on one side reading only: "Super Mario was here."
Basler's efforts would not be rewarded with the title, as a 3-1 defeat to Bayern Munich on the final day saw Borussia Dortmund finish a point clear, and the following season the cracks were showing. Rehhagel had been replaced by Dutchman Aad de Mos and Werder's performances dropped. There was plenty of speculation over his future - Juventus, Parma and AC Milan all held talks over his transfer in the early part of the season. In September, he made an offensive gesture towards the fans during a 1-1 draw at home to Kaiserslautern and then labelled them "clueless". As he recently explained: "I once flipped the Werder fans the bird. It was when we were leading 1-0 with ten men and still got booed." Nonetheless, he issued a written leaflet to apologise to the fans and try to build bridges.
By the end of the 1995-96 season, Basler had scored 11 goals but Bremen had finished ninth and, though he was contracted to 2000, he moved to Bayern Munich in a reported £3.5 million deal. "Fifteen out of 20 players at this club are glad to see me go," Basler said, and it's likely he would have counted Andree Wiedener among the 15 - he had labelled the defender an "anti-footballer".
He would have had mixed feelings about the summer. He was a member of Germany's Euro 96-winning squad but sustained an ankle injury in training during the group stage and ended up playing no part in the tournament. "There is no point in staying," he said. Nonetheless, he managed to enjoy himself. As he later told Playboy magazine, the players were allowed to have sex during the tournament, and he regularly drank and smoked.
Having collected a European Championship winners' medal as part of the Germany squad, Basler set about playing an active role in Bayern's push for silverware. Under new manager Giovanni Trapattoni, he made 27 league appearances, contributing eight goals and ten assists as Bayern won the title for the first time in three years. The following campaign was less successful: Bayern lost the title to newly promoted Kaiserslautern, led by Rehhagel, and Trapattoni's faith in Basler was deteriorating.
In fact, towards the end of the campaign, the problems at the club known as FC Hollywood had become startlingly public. On March 10, having incurred the wrath of Basler and Mehmet Scholl when the duo were dropped to the bench amid a run of defeats, Trapattoni launched into a furious tirade at a press conference. "These players were like an empty bottle!" the coach shouted in broken German, his passion overriding syntax. "I am tired of being the father of these players and defending these players. I am always blamed."
When the Bild newspaper ran a front-page story on April 1, 1998, reporting that Bayern had hired a private detective to follow Basler around, it had been assumed by some to be an April Fool's joke, yet Bayern pretty much confirmed it, even if they insisted it was a club employee rather than a sleuth. Uli Hoeness, the general manager, said: "Sometimes young people have to be looked after. I don't regard this as an unusual measure." Basler also seemed unperturbed. "That was not a problem," he said. "While he was around, I always went to bed at 11pm."
Basler was at least able to offer Trapattoni a parting gift before the Italian's departure that summer: the midfielder scored the winning goal in the 89th minute of the DFB-Pokal final against Duisburg, curling a free-kick home, albeit with an element of fortune.
On the international front, there was yet more disappointment as a knee injury ruled the 29-year-old out of the 1998 World Cup but, at club level, things appeared to be looking up. Bayern appointed Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Champions League-winning coach with a reputation for taming troubled stars. Indeed, it would seem he relished it, for he made the notoriously volatile Stefan Effenberg one of his priority signings in his first summer; along with Basler and Lothar Matthaus, FC Hollywood assembled "le trio infernal". Scepticism was inevitable but, for a time at least, Hitzfeld's man-management appeared to have triumphed.
Basler had certainly not settled down. In November, when recalled to the Germany team by new coach Erich Ribbeck for a friendly with Netherlands, Basler is reported to have drunk, smoked and gambled until 6am on the day of the game. While he did start the match, he was ultimately substituted and left out of the squad for the subsequent meetings with USA and Colombia. Some bitterness followed, with Ribbeck cancelling a clear-the-air meeting because, he said, he "read in the newspapers [Basler] requires this as a pre-condition for his comeback". In March, when Basler was not given a call before a Euro 2000 qualifier against Northern Ireland, he replied: "I'm very angry I wasn't even in the pre-selection squad and it seems recent performances do not count. It seems it goes into personal things. He possibly needs players who say yes to everything and he has got his team now."
His international career was over.
Though Bayern were at that top of the league and cruising to the title, had booked their place in June's DFB-Pokal final and were still in contention for the Champions League, Basler was falling out of love with the game. He appeared to have been buoyed by a meeting with Hitzfeld in April, and scored a stunning goal against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League semi-final second leg to secure a 4-3 aggregate victory. "I'm pleased for him," Hitzfeld said afterwards. "He's had a difficult time but he scored a dream goal."
For Basler, though, the malaise continued. "If they cannot accommodate me, let them say how they see the future and we will have to part," he said. "I told the coach it cannot continue like that, I have no more confidence in myself, I am broken. To play at a better level, I must have the confidence of the club."
Basler's problems did not derail Bayern, though, as they won title on May 9 with three games to spare, and they had looked set to add the Champions League to their trophy cabinet; the final against Manchester United at the Camp Nou should have been the crowning moment of the midfielder's career. He curled home a free-kick six minutes into the game and proceeded to dominate the final, yet the injury-time collapse provided the most devastating defeat yet seen in the competition. Basler reacted, he later revealed, by going out drinking and dancing on a table. "The 1-2 for me was forgotten," he told Die Zeit.
A miserable end to the season was complete when Basler was shown a second yellow card for wrestling with an opponent in the 115th minute of the DFB-Pokal final. Werder Bremen ultimately defeated Bayern on penalties.
The following season, Basler appeared intent on destroying his career. He had rejected a new contract in August, demanding that he be given the same wages as Effenberg, the captain. He was fined for attending a nightclub in the early hours two days before the third game of the season against Unterhaching, prompting a dispirited Hitzfeld to say: "I thought he understood the rules of this game. I can't identify with these players." The final straw came when, during rehabilitation from injury, he and team-mate Sven Scheuer were involved in a restaurant fracas, which saw the pair hauled in by police in October. Basler had, it was reported, attempted to balance a bottle of wine on his head while sitting on a chair placed on top of a table, and then apparently became angered when a fellow diner attempted to take a photo.
Bayern announced that Basler would be suspended, and Uli Hoeness criticised his lifestyle, saying he was "a nice guy until he's had a drink in the pub". Basler was unimpressed. "What am I supposed to say when I hear such bullshit? My lifestyle has never been okay. Why did they even offer me a new contract?" He also pointed the finger at team-mates, saying they were not without sin either, which upset Lothar Matthaus: "You can't get your colleagues in trouble to save your own skin. He tried to get himself out of a hole but just dug deeper and deeper."
Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer said Basler was "incorrigible", that he had "told him a hundred times to change his lifestyle"; it was clear that his time at Bayern was over. Offloading him was not easy - he was, after all, voted by some distance the stupidest player on the national team by an Emnid public opinion poll - and an editorial in Kicker was titled: "No one wants to sign Basler!" Nonetheless, talks took place with Atletico Madrid before he was sold to Kaiserslautern for 1.5 million DM in November.
His form in the second half of the season had prompted talk of a Germany recall (Basler suggested his omission was down to the fact Ribbeck "has no character and is a double-crosser") but it was not to be, and his time at Kaiserslautern saw the player attract less attention outside the FC Hollwood glare. In 2003, after a season battling relegation, Kaiserslautern decided not to renew Basler's contract, and in May he signed for Qatari side Al Rayyan on a €2 million one-year deal, two weeks prior to the DFB-Pokal final defeat to Bayern. In February, he showed his passion had not dimmed as he earned himself a six-match ban when he was sent off against Al Wakrah Sports Club before verbally abusing the referee. At the end of his contract, he retired from football.
He has remained a controversial figure in German football, ever ready to express a controversial opinion despite having taken several coaching jobs, and he has the knack for getting under people's skin. "Instead of drinking five half-litre bottles of beer and smoking a pack of Marlboros in ten minutes, he would have been better off listening to what trainers had to say now and then," Germany boss Rudi Voller said in response to a jibe in 2003. "He got far too little out of the talent that God gave him."
Basler has always been unrepentant. "I provide entertainment," he said in 1999, "and the audience wants to be entertained."