Farewell Franz Beckenbauer, the last of football’s immortals

Franz Beckenbauer really was one of those players who could talk with his feet, although there were some during his later life who felt his legacy would have been grander if he restricted himself to that.

No one was considering such controversies when the German great surged forward from defence in the manner that became his signature; there was only the purity of the play. One of his esteemed contemporaries, Gerd Muller, was meanwhile only considering what Beckenbauer wanted next. He would tell him with the type of pass played. If it was sharp, it meant Muller had to do something with it himself. If it was soft, it meant Beckenbauer wanted it back for the trademark one-two move that dictated and decided so many big matches.

It was the constant threat of this that settled one of the biggest ever West Germany-England matches, which was a rematch of the 1966 World Cup final that came four years later in the quarter-final. Beckenbauer’s surges wreaked havoc and inspired a 3-2 comeback from 2-0 down. The Germans went on from there through a historic 4-3 semi-final defeat against Italy considered the greatest game ever played, to become one of the greatest ever international sides. Led by Beckenbauer, that West Germany were the first to hold the European Championship and World Cup at the same time, as they did across 1972 and 1974.

There was for a time a sense of frustration about that within England, since it had been Sir Alf Ramsey’s surprising decision to take off Sir Bobby Charlton at 2-0 in 1970 that freed the space for Beckenbauer. The two were so often intertwined internationally, both because of their positions and their profiles in their teams.

It is almost sadly fitting that they have passed so close together, but it also reflects one of the more resonant meanings of Beckenbauer’s death at 78. An era has really passed, too. Der Kaiser, as he became known for the regal elegance of his play, was considered one of football’s “immortals”. This was an elevated group of players who reached their prime during the classic television age between the 1950s and late 1980s, that marked the first true internationalisation of the game. It is little coincidence that to shine in this new era of technicolour was also to colour the game’s formative collective consciousness. It wasn’t just how they triumphed, but that they transformed and transcended the game.

Beckenbauer was an innovative defender, whose role transformed with time (EPA)
Beckenbauer was an innovative defender, whose role transformed with time (EPA)

Those that did it most, from the global perspective of an audience watching World Cups and European Cup finals, were probably Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, George Best and Beckenbauer. Others of course have a claim to that, including Charlton.

The more profound reason for sadness here is that all of these are undisputed and, with Beckenbauer’s passing, all are now gone. That is something that should be reflected on. That sadness is all the more acute because of the glory, and the happiness they created for their supporters.

Beckenbauer’s very success even played into why both of his main teams, West Germany and Bayern Munich, became two of the most disliked but feared in the game. He often combined immense success with both.

Beckenbauer is one of a select group of players to have won both the European Cup and World Cup in the same year. That annus mirabilis of 1974 came right at the centre of West Germany’s run of international glory and Bayern’s historic run of three European Cups in a row. The latter is a feat that has still only been managed by four different club sides, and wasn’t replicated for 42 years after Beckenbauer’s team completed it in 1976. It remains a gold standard in club football.

Beckenbauer is one of just three figures to have won the World Cup as a player and coach (Bongarts/Getty Images)
Beckenbauer is one of just three figures to have won the World Cup as a player and coach (Bongarts/Getty Images)

Such feats didn’t quite mean Beckenbauer was ever considered the equal of Pele or Maradona, but his on-pitch legacy is arguably deeper. At a time when “Total Football” was altering the parameters of how the game was played, and how it didn’t need to be so fixed, the German was an immense influence on this. He was a notional defender who constantly went forward. This was almost never done, at least in such a high-profile way, and it transformed the very space of the pitch.

Beckenbauer gave the game the “libero”, in its most widely understood sense. It freed him to win virtually every major trophy as a player. He remains the only defender to win the Ballon D’Or twice, if he can even be called a defender.

And that was only one part of his career.

He later became just the second of three football figures to win the World Cup as a player and a manager. There was another historical echo in how the first of those, Brazil’s Mario Zagallo, died at the weekend. It is now only Didier Deschamps left.

As regards the discussion Beckenbauer leaves behind, it was always much more complicated than just celebrating his football greatness. There was plenty of controversy during his career, and biographer Uli Hesse described a “love-hate relationship” that Germany had with “its greatest ever footballer”. Even as early as the 1970s, coverage of his shock move to the North American Soccer League brought accusations that he was simply running from many issues, including the tax authorities and a disintegrating marriage.

Beckenbauer in Berlin, ahead of the 2006 Fifa World Cup in Germany (EPA)
Beckenbauer in Berlin, ahead of the 2006 Fifa World Cup in Germany (EPA)

This all reached a nadir in the last two decades of his life. If Beckenbauer came to define an era of how the game was played, he also came to define how it was governed. As a member of Fifa’s ExCo responsible for voting for the hosting of the World Cup, he ended up facing separate investigations over the immensely controversial bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups as well as his role in Germany’s pitch for 2006. The global body’s investigatory chamber concluded in 2016 that Beckenbauer had broken the organisation’s rules on bribery and corruption for 2006, but the ethics committee ruled the charges were time-barred. He had already stood down, denying wrongdoing.

The one-twos and surges into other areas of the pitch now almost symbolise how the lines were blurred, how there was always another side. Those moments on the pitch will still dictate most of the discussion now he has passed, though. With Beckenbauer, an entire era of the game has gone.