Have you heard the one about the king and the emperor? It’s a football sliding doors moment, and one that shaped the history of Bayern Munich and German legend Franz Beckenbauer’s career.
The man who would later be nicknamed der Kaiser – the emperor – grew up in Giesing, a working-class district home to mostly Blues [1860 Munich fans] rather than Reds [Bayern supporters]. The son of a postal worker, Beckenbauer had grown up supporting 1860, and dreamed of playing for them.
He was all set to do so as well, but first he faced them in the summer of 1958 while still playing for local side SC 1906. The final of the U14 tournament was a keenly fought affair, and Beckenbauer – then playing as a centre-forward – was involved in a running battle with centre-half Gerhard König – whose surname means king in German.
The details of the match are sketchy, many decades on, but what is not in dispute is that at one point König aimed a slap at his opponent. It was seemingly after that incident that a 13-year-old Beckenbauer decided that he would join Bayern later that year, rather than 1860 as planned.
“It was just fate that we both came together, and that I became a Red and not a Blue,” Beckenbauer told Bayerischer Rundfunk, when the Bavarian radio station brought König and the Kaiser together again in 2010.
Beckenbauer’s decision would change the course of German football, although we weren’t to know that at the time. While he began working his way up through the youth ranks, after all, Bayern missed out on a place in the Bundesliga in 1963.
League authorities only wanted one Munich club to be part of the newly created top flight, and 1860 Munich got the ticket because they had won the 1962-1963 Oberliga Süd. That choice, it turned out, was a blessing in disguise for Bayern.
“The parlous state of the finances... forced the club to dispense with expensive stars and back players from their own youth team, as well as talented footballers from the Bavarian provinces,” the Bayern website says.
Among those young players were goalkeeper Sepp Maier and Beckenbauer, who made his debut – and scored – in a 4-0 win over St. Pauli in June 1964. Later that year Bayern pipped 1860 to the signing of Gerd Müller, too, and promotion soon followed.
More success did as well. Bayern lost their first ever Bundesliga game 1-0 against 1860 in August 1965, but while their local rivals won the league title, the Reds lifted the DFB Cup. Beckenbauer scored the insurance goal in the final against Duisburg to claim his first piece of silverware.
Later that summer, Beckenbauer – still only 20 – was one of the stars of the 1966 FIFA World Cup. His West Germany side went down to a cruel extra-time defeat against England in the final at Wembley, but the then-midfielder was named in the team of the tournament and took the best young player prize after scoring four goals.
There are conflicting reports as to how he became known as the Kaiser, but his elegant playing style – often playing as a libero and leading attacks from the back – certainly helped. Beckenbauer would gracefully move forward and casually ping passes to all corners of the pitch, later putting that skill down to having spent countless hours playing one-twos against the wall of his house.
“That wall was the most honest teammate you could wish for,” he declared. “If you play a proper pass, you’d get it back properly, without the need to run.”
Whatever the origin, Beckenbauer’s nickname stuck in the late 1960s, and that, incidentally, is when both he and Bayern began to hit new heights. Between 1966 and 1977, he won the Bundesliga and the DFB Cup four times each, and Bayern also won the European Cup three times in succession between 1974 and 1976 as well as the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1967. By then installed as both skipper and sweeper, Beckenbauer won both the 1972 European Championship and the 1974 World Cup – the latter played in his home city at Munich’s Olympiastadion.
That the four-time German Footballer of the Year became captain of club and country was no surprise, given his confident and often inspirational actions both on and off the field. After badly damaging his shoulder in the 1970 World Cup semi-final against Italy, for example, the player had returned after treatment in the 70th minute with his right arm strapped to his body and his hand resting below his heart. Italy would win a match known as the “game of the century” 4-3 after extra-time, but Beckenbauer’s courage – playing on in pain after his team had used their allotted substitutes – was widely praised.
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Geoff Hurst – the Germans’ nemesis in the 1966 final – summed the situation up nicely, over 50 years later.
“Beckenbauer showed his character, and still could probably play as well with one arm as most people could with two,” Hurst told Supersport.
In 1977, a star that German sports magazine Kicker dubbed “the white Pele” ended up playing with the legendary Brazilian – an idol of his since the 1958 World Cup – at the New York Cosmos. It was a fruitful time for both, as they won the North American Soccer League three times.
Although Beckenbauer played in front of big crowds in the United States, however, the European Footballer of the Year for 1972 and 1976 also enjoyed taking a break from the pressure and expectation he had had to cope with in his homeland. His decision to cross the Atlantic brought an end to his West Germany career, having scored 14 goals in 103 appearances.
“It was the best decision in my life to come to New York,” Beckenbauer told the New York Times in 1978. “Here it is so private. I go places without people recognising me.”
The veteran returned to Germany in 1980, however, and while age and injuries were catching up on him, he would win the Bundesliga for a fifth and final time during a two-year spell with Hamburg. Following 571 matches in German football – including 57 goals in 535 games for Bayern – Beckenbauer’s playing career came to an end after another brief stint with the Cosmos in 1983.
One of the greatest players in history, he was named in both the World Team of the 20th Century in 1998 and the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2002. England’s Bobby Charlton, whom Beckenbauer marked in the 1966 World Cup Final, also selected the German in his all-time top XI.
“He had a lot of the same qualities as Bobby Moore,” Charlton told FourFourTwo magazine, when naming Beckenbauer in his Perfect XI in 2007 alongside his former England teammate Moore. “Franz was a marvellous distributor of the ball, a great tackler, he always had control of a situation and never panicked. They were both extremely cool and never looked like they were at full stretch. Such a hard player to play against.”
Once Beckenbauer’s playing days were done, he set about adding to his legend by becoming a manager. Head coach of West Germany in 1984, no less, despite having no previous coaching experience.
Returning to Mexico – the scene of his bravery as a player against Italy in 1970 – the 40-year-old guided his country to the 1986 World Cup final, where they pushed Diego Maradona’s Argentina all the way before losing 3-2.
“It was a huge achievement,” Beckenbauer told Der Spiegel in 2006. “1990 was child's play by comparison.”
In the summer of 1990, with his homeland months away from reunification, Beckenbauer led West Germany to another World Cup final showdown with Argentina. With quality players like Jürgen Klinsmann, Rudi Völler and captain Lothar Matthäus in the side, Andreas Brehme scored the only goal from the penalty spot in Rome.
“Get out there, have fun, play football,” Beckenbauer had told his team. They did, and he had become the second man – after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo – to win the World Cup as both a player and as a coach.
“I had learned a lot,” he told Der Spiegel, when discussing what had changed since 1986. “In 1990 I only focused on the essential – the team.
“But the decisive thing of course was that a good team had grown. A perfect mixture of experience and youth, with guys who could sprint and guys who had stamina. It was a unit.”
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The former Bayern and Borussia Dortmund coach Otto Rehhagel – a Bundesliga winner while in charge of Kaiserslautern and Werder Bremen – neatly described the extent of Beckenbauer’s influence on German football.
“If Franz tells them the ball is square, they will believe it,” said Rehhagel, who also won UEFA EURO 2004 with Greece.
Beckenbauer had further short spells coaching Marseille and Bayern – winning the 1993/94 Bundesliga and the 1995/96 UEFA Cup with the latter. He then served as president of his first club for 15 years, before becoming a much-loved pundit on German television.
“Success is like hunting a shy deer,” he once said. “The wind has to be right. The scent, the stars and the moon.”
Talent helps too, of course. And as both a player and a manager, Beckenbauer had that in abundance.