FC Bayern Munich’s fulminating rise to the pinnacle of the world game in the late 1960s and ‘70s would, in a nutshell, have been almost unthinkable without the contribution of their legendary last line of defence, Sepp Maier. Possessed of an uncanny agility, he earned the nickname ‘the Cat from Anzing’ - the small Bavarian municipality where he spent part of his youth. In addition to his superb reflexes, Maier’s anticipation of the game marked him out as a pioneer of modern goalkeeping, often charging off his line to suppress danger at source.
His list of honours is imposing: Four Bundesliga titles and DFB Cup wins apiece, three European Cup triumphs and one Intercontinental Cup, all with FC Bayern. Maier also got to lift the FIFA World Cup with West Germany in 1974, and in his home stadium at that, two years after winning the European Championships.
“I’ll give up playing football when there’s moss growing on my knees”, Maier once said and had it not been for a cruel twist of fate, he would likely have stood between the posts for the Reds for far longer than proved to be the case. As it was however, a serious car accident in 1979 forced him to hang up his gloves for good, putting paid to the challenge of career longevity he had set himself.
At the height of his powers in the 1970s, Maier was first among equals in the pantheon of world keepers. On top of his ability, it was also his personality that endeared him to fans, teammates and the press alike, and he was never averse to a spot of winding-up. “I once told a journalist I would be wearing contact lenses for a game against Real Madrid”, he said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung to mark his 60th birthday. “I can still see the headlines now.”
And the anecdotes don’t stop there. “Another time I said we always drank a shot of schnapps at breakfast, and it came out in the papers as, “FC Bayern to tank up on whisky against Glasgow Rangers”. Then I started a rumour on the team bus that Dean Martin would be paying a visit to our Säbener Straße training ground. And what happened? A host of camera teams turned up there, hoping to see him. We all had a great laugh about it!”
Many more examples of his humour abound, but one sticks in the memory for being both downright bizarre and archetypically Maieresque. On 15 May 1976, in the middle of a game, a duck found its way onto the pitch, prompting Maier to temporarily ignore his goalkeeping duties in an attempt to catch the animal. He welcomed the opportunity for something to do, it being an otherwise fairly humdrum encounter with VfL Bochum – and the duck ended up running between his legs, comically adding to his popularity.
After ending his playing career, Maier set about finding his own successor, both for FC Bayern and the German national team. As a goalkeeping coach he helped a Germany now in the process of reunification lift a third World Cup in 1990, with a European Championship title following in 1996. Maier held the same role at Bayern between 1994 and 2008, a period which saw the Bavarians win no less than 22 trophies, including a fourth European crown in 2001.
For all his affability on and off the pitch, it is for his footballing ability that he will be first and foremost remembered. 473 Bundesliga appearances for FC Bayern, including an incredible 442-in-a-row sequence – and 95 for West Germany, making him the nation’s most capped goalkeeper. And club and country alike have never had a custodian quite like, either before or since ‘the cat’ made his final leap.
Johannes Fischer and Bernie Reeves