There were big boots to fill when Franck Ribery joined Bayern Munich 12 years ago. A record signing at the time, the Frenchman has coped with the pressure of succeeding a club legend to become all but irreplaceable himself.
It was a symbolic substitution. As the fourth official raised his board after 53 minutes of the inaugural Franz Beckenbauer Cup match in August 2007, he indicated that the No.7 would be replaced by… the No.7.
The glamour friendly fixture – now discontinued – was doubling up as a chance for the Bayern Munich support to bid farewell to two popular players. Dutch striker Roy Makaay, who scored 102 goals in 178 games for the record German champions, wasn’t playing, but he still got to say his goodbyes to the crowd.
The day was really about Mehmet Scholl, however, who was afforded one last chance to line out in a Bayern strip to mark his retirement from professional football. Fifteen of his 17 years as a first-team pro had been spent in Munich, and early in the second half the 36-year-old made way for Ribery – the French international who had been signed to replace him.
“Ribery now has the No.7,” Scholl had said in the build-up to the match. “The type of footballer I could imagine as my successor.”
The new No.7
The pair embraced as Scholl went off, and Bayern ended up losing 1-0 – with a rising star called Lionel Messi scoring a stunning volleyed winner for the visitors. Ribery, though, would waste little time in endearing himself to the locals.
The 24-year-old had already netted three goals in the now-defunct German League Cup when - a couple of days after the Barcelona friendly - he scored in his second Bundesliga appearance. Ribery dinked a penalty home in the 4-0 win over Werder Bremen, suggesting he had both the talent and the confidence to take over from Scholl.
That was something that current Bayern president Uli Hoeneß had predicted too. A board member at the time of Ribery’s arrival, he knew a thing or two about good wing play. He was a pacy attacker in his playing days and a European champion and World Cup winner with West Germany. Hoeneß also won the European Cup three times in a row with Bayern in the 1970s – scoring twice in the 1974 final victory over Atletico Madrid as his club won the trophy for the first time. He had been forced to retire due to injury at 27, and Ribery would need to be very special indeed if he was to match his record of 86 goals and 53 assists in 250 Bundesliga games.
The man whose boots he filled
In time, of course, Ribery would prove to be a sensational signing, but not everyone was sure that the man purchased from Marseille would be a guaranteed success. Soon after his debut goal, for example, a columnist in Die Welt said it was too soon to praise Ribery as highly as the man he had replaced. Scholl, after all, had been a crowd favourite in Munich – and had the medals to back up his talent.
A cultured attacking midfielder, the ex-Germany international won eight Bundesliga titles – which was at one stage more than any other Bayern player had managed. Comfortable with the ball on either foot, the Karlsruhe native was well able to dribble past a man, as well as being a capable finisher and a free-kick specialist.
Having joined Bayern as a 21-year-old in 1993, he netted 11 times in his second season as former Bayern captain Beckenbauer returned as manager to help the club pip Kaiserslautern to the league.
Beckenbauer was drafted in as manager again shortly before Bayern reached the final of the 1995/96 UEFA Cup. Scholl scored in both legs of a 5-1 success against Bordeaux, who were captained by future Bayern full-back Bixente Lizarazu and had a young Zinedine Zidane trying to turn the tide in the second match.
Scholl had a direct hand in 32 goals for Bayern that season, and eight weeks later he would be hoisting silverware once more. The playmaker was a key part of a German side that knocked out hosts England before beating the Czech Republic in the final of UEFA Euro 1996 at Wembley.
From German genius to French flair
Like Ribery, he would suffer injury problems and UEFA Champions League heartache before hitting the pinnacle of his club career. After coming on as a substitute in the 1999 Champions League final against Manchester United, Scholl hit the woodwork with a delightful chip when his side were leading 1-0 late on. Two years after what ended up being an agonising defeat, he finally became a European champion at club level. Bayern beat Valencia in a penalty shootout in the final, although only after Scholl had an effort saved.
The former Karlsruhe player finished with a goal in a victory over Mainz in his final competitive match as a player in May 2007. That brought his final tally for Bayern to 117 goals and 105 assists in 469 games in all competitions.
Ribery, though, was determined to leave his own stamp on the club. In his first season in Bavaria, he scored 11 goals and had eight assists in the Bundesliga, helping his side to win a league cup and double. The winger was further rewarded by being named Footballer of the Year in Germany in August 2008 – only the second foreign player to win it – and claimed the French Player of the Year prize to boot.
The former Metz and Galatasaray man’s invention proved vital for his new club and became all the more dangerous when Arjen Robben joined him in Munich ahead of the 2009/10 season. While Ribery had become known as ‘Kaiser Franck’ – a nod to ex-European Footballer of the Year Beckenbauer – together with Robben they were referred to as ‘Robbery’. The pair became a devastating double act, with one on either wing, and were particularly deadly on the counter-attack.
Hard knocks and unbeatable highs
Bastian Schweinsteiger had often been utilised as a wide midfielder before their arrival, but under Louis van Gaal there was clearly no need – and the future Germany captain operated permanently from central midfield from then on. A young attacker named Thomas Müller also began to thrive, while learning all the time from the French wing wizard.
Domestically Bayern would soon be challenged by a brilliant Borussia Dortmund side, but Ribery was busy driving them to the top in Europe. How different things might have been, had he not been suspended for the 2010 Champions League final against Inter Milan.
Ribery then scored three goals and got five assists in another European campaign where Bayern came up just short – this time against Chelsea in the 2011/12 season. They also lost the league to Dortmund that year – despite their No.7 getting 12 goals and 21 assists – as well as the DFB Cup final.
Ribery, though, was used to overcoming setbacks, having spent time working as a labourer alongside his father and playing in the French lower leagues before getting to this point. Finally, in 2012/13, he and Bayern had the unforgettable year they had earned. The club claimed the treble – beating Dortmund in the Champions League decider - and their unbreakable French star was one of the main reasons they did so.
One of four times he hit double figures in a Bundesliga season, Ribery had 10 goals and 16 assists in just 27 league games that season. He also played a direct part in six goals in the Champions League. Those exploits saw him named as the UEFA Best Player in Europe prize winner for 2012/13, and he finished a narrow third behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi in the voting for the Ballon d’Or award, which recognised the world’s best player in 2013.
The unstoppable force
Injuries began to slow Ribery down thereafter, but he kept bouncing back and refining his game – in later years forming a potent partnership with David Alaba on the left side of Bayern’s attack. Be it Luca Toni, Miroslav Klose, Mario Gomez, Mario Mandzukic, Robert Lewandowski or indeed Robben, your chances of getting on the scoresheet were dramatically enhanced if Ribery was on the field too.
The Frenchman’s own numbers have also continued to stack up, and he has netted in each of his 12 seasons at the club. By the end of January 2019, he had played 409 games for Bayern, scoring 122 goals and making 180 more. He has also surpassed current Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic to become the foreign player to have made the most top-flight appearances for the club.
This season too, Ribery has been decisive, scoring four goals in December – at a time when Bayern were in need of some inspiration.
“There are no old players – only good and less good players,” Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said after the veteran struck a double in a 3-0 win at Eintracht Frankfurt. “As we’ve seen this week, Franck is still a very good player.”
Like Oliver Kahn, Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm before him, Ribery has now joined Scholl as an eight-time Bundesliga winner with Bayern. One of the club’s greatest ever players – and great No.7s – will turn 36 in April. If this is to be his final season in Germany, he will be desperate to pass out his illustrious predecessor by getting one last league winner’s medal before he goes.