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Franz Beckenbauer: A groundbreaking centre-half and football’s finest thinker

Franz Beckenbauer lifts the World Cup in 1974
Franz Beckenbauer led West Germany to their second World Cup triumph as captain and third, 16 years later, as manager - AP

In the Monty Python sketch Philosophers’ Football Match, first broadcast in 1972, two sets of history’s great thinkers are pitched against each other in a battle of wits. There are the Greeks – Aristotle, Epicurus, Diogenes – against the Germans, who have in their team, lining up alongside Hegel and Nietzsche, a certain Franz Beckenbauer.

It was a joke, clearly, a comedy sketch satirising the self-importance of, among others, television commentators. Yet the inclusion of Beckenbauer in the line-up was telling. For Der Kaiser, as he was known, had a reputation among footballers like no other, certainly not any Englishmen, that spread well beyond the confines of the game. He was seen as a profound thinker, a tactical revolutionary, a moderniser; the first man to make it clear that the most important muscle available to any player is the brain. And with his death at the age of 78, the game has been deprived of the last of the generation of players who, as they came to prominence as the game was televised round the world, changed the way we respond to football for the better: Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Best, Charlton and now Beckenbauer are all gone. Though there is an argument that the most influential of them all was Der Kaiser.

None of the others, for instance, had the distinction of winning the World Cup as both player and manager. He also won the Bundesliga on the pitch and in the dugout. That is a club-and-country double that only Didier Deschamps can match. Plus, as chief executive of the German FA, he was pivotal in the behind-the-scenes dealing that brought the World Cup finals to his homeland in 2006. A little too pivotal as it turned out.

But more than anything, Beckenbauer personified the rebirth of his nation’s game, helping to turn it into the modern, innovative, creative footballing superpower of today.

He was born into the most humble of circumstance in the battered ruins of Munich in 1945. He joined Bayern as a junior in the early Sixties at a time when, hard though it is to believe now, they languished in the second tier of West German football. Initially a midfielder, he subtly changed his game as he developed physically to become a ball-playing centre-half. And as he did so he seized the tactical initiative, setting the playing agenda for his side: in many ways, he popularised the idea of the footballing quarter-back. The way he took possession of the ball from the goalkeeper, then strode forwards out into midfield, his passing shrewd and persuasive, may seem standard now, but at the time it was groundbreaking. Successful too. He captained Bayern not only to promotion, but quickly afterwards to four successive Bundesliga titles, not to mention three European Cups on the bounce.

Tall, elegant, infused with an indefinable hauteur, he had a confidence that was infectious. From the moment he made his international debut at the age of 20, scoring in a victory over Sweden in a qualifier for the 1966 World Cup, he appeared to have found his calling. In the 1966 final he was West Germany’s standout player, even as his team lost to the hosts. But he got his revenge four years later. Initially, in their quarter-final meeting, he and Bobby Charlton negated each other’s purpose, man-marking each other to distraction. But he got the better of his English counterpart by scoring the goal that started the German second-half recovery from 2-0 down. In the tournament’s semi-final he showed he was more than just a footballing thinker by bravely refusing to come off the pitch after dislocating his shoulder, and with his arm heavily strapped, battled through extra time in the attempt to outwit Italy in what has long been reckoned one of the finest World Cup tussles of all time. That he failed to do so did not diminish his reputation across the globe.

Nor was it the end of his influence. In 1972, he captained West Germany to victory in the European Championship. Then two years later in the home World Cup of 1974 he outsmarted his Dutch counterpart Johan Cruyff, the other great footballing brain of the time, to lift the trophy. It was some career he had with die Mannschaft: 103 caps he earned for West Germany, before retiring from the international game in 1977.

It was his stellar reputation that took him to the United States at the twilight of his time on the pitch. Encouraged to think he could affect a revolution in American sport – not to mention the added bonus of a $1million-a-year contract – he joined Pele at the New York Cosmos. On his debut, he played his usual game, sweeping up, extinguishing fires, prompting others. Steve Ross, the club president, was less than thrilled by what he saw. Midway through the half he summoned Gordon Bradley, the team’s English coach, to his box and demanded to know why the guy he was paying big bucks was “lurking around at the back of the team”. Bradley, like most Englishmen, was a man in awe of Beckenbauer’s talent. “It is the way he plays,” he replied. “No one does it better.” Ross was not impressed: “We don’t pay a million dollars for that. Tell him to get his ass up front.” Bradley dutifully complied and asked his superstar to play at centre-forward. Beckenbauer politely but firmly declined.

It was telling that while the English footballing establishment snootily – and shamefully – sidelined their own urbane stylist Bobby Moore, the German hierarchy warmly – and rightly – embraced Beckenbauer. On his return from his US sojourn in 1984, they reckoned him the man to rescue the national side from a period of comparative doldrums.

And they were right. He might not have had any coaching experience, he might have earned zero badges, but in a sense throughout his playing career he had long been setting the strategic agenda. He reorganised the side, laying down strict tactical guidelines. Under his clear-eyed stewardship West Germany reached the 1986 World Cup final, losing out at the last to a Maradona-inspired Argentina. But then, as he had done in 1970 after finishing second in ’66, he gained quick revenge, leading his side to victory over Diego and crew in 1990. It was the last game before reunification, the last game as West Germany. How appropriate that the country’s finest sporting ambassador should have been in charge.

Franz Beckenbauer
Beckenbauer was twice a World Cup runner-up as player and manager and twice a winner - Getty Images

There followed a brief spell managing Marseille in France (the fans took against him because, unable to speak French, he insisted on conducting press conferences in German) before Beckenbauer returned to Bayern, leading the club to the Bundesliga title in 1994 and the Uefa Cup two years later. He then had spells as president at Bayern and vice-president of the German Football Association.

And it was there that his determination to bring the 2006 World Cup to his homeland had an unhappy twist. The tournament itself was a triumph, even if the hosts were defeated in the semi-final. But nine years later, as part of their investigation into widespread footballing sleaze, he was questioned by Swiss prosecutors in March 2017 over suspected corruption linked to the bid. Nor, sadly, was it the first time he had been linked to such dodgy dealings. In 2014, he incurred a 90-day suspension from all football for failing to help an inquiry into alleged wrongdoing in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids, when he had been on the Fifa executive committee that had made the awards. The reputation for being part of Fifa rottenness that clung to him in his latter years proved a tougher opponent to shake off than even Cruyff or Charlton.

Yet at his death it is as one of the smartest footballers of all time that he should be best remembered. Ineffably calm, relaxed and dignified on the pitch, Monty Python had a point. He was football’s finest thinker, a true philosopher of the game.

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