No one has played more games in the 60-year history of the Bundesliga: Karl-Heinz Körbel. “Charly,” as everyone at Eintracht Frankfurt called him, played an incredible 602 Bundesliga games.
“Charly” played his final game on 8 June 1991 in a 1-1 draw away at St. Pauli. The 36-year-old defensive specialist, known for his aggressive playing style, was denied a farewell in Frankfurt since a yellow card, his fourth of the season, meant he was suspended for the 34th and final matchday. “I was angry like never before - angry, angry, angry,” said Körbel in retrospect.
While it was a “run-of-the-mill foul” for Körbel, former referee Michael Prengel said that he should have shown a red “according to today's standards or instructions.” Either way, Körbel was only allowed to watch at the Waldstadion in Frankfurt on Matchday 34 of the 1990/91 season when Eintracht ensured their qualification for the following season's UEFA Cup with a 4-0 win over VfB Stuttgart.
In 2013, when the Bundesliga turned 50, ARD brought Körbel and referee Prengel together to watch the scene again: “In hindsight, I have to say it was a clear red,” Körbel admitted. He collected 52 yellow cards in his Bundesliga career but never got a straight red.
Born in Dossenheim, Körbel, who is now 68, cannot really answer how he managed to play for a single club for 19 years, racking up an incredible 602 Bundesliga games in the process.
In 17 of his 19 Bundesliga seasons, the defender played at least 30 games - quite unusual for a time when things were sometimes rougher on the field of play. Körbel was simply never injured. Even at an advanced age, he still regularly plays: for example, at the “Champions for Charity” benefit game, which is organized by basketball legend Dirk Nowitzki. The game was in honour of Formula 1 racing driver Michael Schumacher, who himself played passionately and organised annual benefit matches. Normally, a selection of F1 drivers and pro football players play in the game.
In 2016, Nowitzki revived the game for a good cause. In Mainz's Mewa Arena, the 2011 NBA champion played with former professional footballers and other sporting celebrities against a selection of drivers led by Schumacher's son Mick. In this game, as is often the case in charity matches, there were numerous and lively exchanges. However, one player stood firm for the entire 90 minutes: “Charly” Körbel. “I have no idea how he can get through it at that age. I was completely exhausted after my first sprint,” said “Dirkules” after the game when he was asked about the man nicknamed “horse lungs” Körbel.
In 2017, 2019, and 2022, Nowitzki brought Körbel back for his team. The Eintracht legend was perhaps no longer quite as tough as when he was a pro, but he could still shut down his opponents at an advanced age.
Körbel had succeeded in his Bundesliga debut against the “Bomber der Nation”. “You must have no physical contact against Gerd Müller. He tried to cling to you over and over again. But he couldn't cling to me. It drove him crazy,” he said of his first Bundesliga appearance, in which he was able to play right away against the game's pre-eminent goalscorer. “He always tried to turn into me, but I wasn't there at all. I always kept a distance of one metre and the balls went loose. That's how I upset him a bit.”
“For me, that was a unique start for my career,” Körbel states. With Frankfurt, the defender won the DFB Cup four times, and also the UEFA Cup in 1980. “Loyal Charly” also made it into the national team. Between the 1974 World Cup and the 1976 European Championship, Körbel played six games for his country. Despite his defensive strengths, Körbel was also a threat at the other end of the pitch. He scored 45 Bundesliga goals, with 10 of them coming in the 1974/75 season.
The last player to get close to Körbel's 602 Bundesliga matches in recent decades was Oliver Kahn. The former Bayern goalkeeper, who ended his career in 2008, made 557 appearances - the third-most in league history behind Manfred Kaltz (581) and Körbel. The current player with the most Bundesliga games is Manuel Neuer (478 for Schalke and Bayern). Whether the 37-year-old goalkeeper has time to overtake Körbel remains to be seen.
“I don't think that a player will reach this mark again, certainly not with a single club,” thinks Körbel, who continues to act as an advisor to the Frankfurt board and as head of the SGE soccer school.
Perhaps it was fitting, meanwhile, that Körbel also had a hand in Eintracht's UEFA Europa League final victory against Rangers in 2022.
“We were 1-0 down," he recalled. "And a Scottish player fired the ball into the stands in a high arc - right at me. I caught it and I had it in my hands. As everyone around me jumped up, our CEO Axel Hellmann grinned and shouted: 'Charly has the ball - now the game is over!'
Eintracht managed to win the match on penalties. Afterwards Körbel said to himself: “My European Cup mission is over.”
With his club, Eintracht. After over half a century there, Körbel has a significant slice of Bundesliga history.