Follow the line of great Germany and Bayern Munich goalkeepers back from Manuel Neuer and Oliver Kahn, and you reach Sepp Maier. One of the nation’s golden generation alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, the ‘Cat from Anzing’ was a goalkeeping pioneer across the 1960s and 70s.
As is seemingly the story for many goalkeepers, Josef Dieter Maier – known simply as ‘Sepp’ – started out as a striker at youth level when playing for TSV Haar, to the east of Munich. He used to play in goal on occasion “as a joke”, but injury to the team’s usual goalkeeper saw him take up the position full time and eventually catch the eye of Bayern, whom he joined at the age of 15 in 1959.
In 1963/64, with the Munich club now in the second-tier Regionalliga after missing out on a place in the inaugural Bundesliga campaign, Maier became Bayern’s No.1 in a team that included fellow local boys Beckenbauer and Müller. They earned promotion in 1965 and never looked back.
Maier won the Bundesliga and DFB Cup four times each, the 1967 European Cup Winners’ Cup and then the hat-trick of European Cup triumphs in 1974, 1975 and 1976. The ‘Cat from Anzing’ – so called for his famous reflexes, agility and speed – made a total of 473 appearances in the Bundesliga, which was a record until 1981.
Amongst those 473 matches was a remarkable run that saw him appear in 442 Bundesliga fixtures in a row for Bayern between August 1966 and June 1979. And within that, Maier didn’t miss a single minute of action between April 1972 and June 1979 – a sequence that covered 245 matches and is again still a Bundesliga record.
It was ultimately a car accident in summer 1979 that brought those runs, and subsequently his career, to an end at the age of 35. And it was only thanks to friend, former teammate and recently appointed Bayern general manager Uli Hoeneß that he survived, after he got club doctors involved to order life-saving surgery upon seeing the extent of his injuries.
At international level, that career included 95 caps for Germany – a record for a goalkeeper for some four decades until surpassed by Neuer – saw him go to four World Cups, win it on home soil in 1974, and also be crowned European champion in 1972.
A total of 137 clean sheets in his 473 Bundesliga appearances (29 per cent) underlines his credentials in goal, but Maier was often ahead of the curve as a goalkeeper. He was one of the first keepers to wear the oversized gloves we now regard as normal, working with manufacturer Reusch to develop soft-grip goalkeeping gloves, and would often charge off his line in a manner again seen as the norm these days.
One incident of coming off his line now holds a place in footballing folklore, but not quite in the way you’d expect. The ‘Cat from Anzing’ was adept at saving shots and plucking balls out of the air, but on 15 May 1976, the cat was given the runaround by a duck.
With Bayern already champions and 2-0 up in a routine game against Bochum, and with Maier having had next to nothing to do, he left his goal with the action going on at the other end to attempt to catch a duck that had waddled onto the pitch. The sight of the duck evading the flailing goalkeeper and running through his legs induced hysterics among the crowd and further endeared Maier to the fans.
It was a place he had long secured among the German footballing public. As well as his on-field exploits for club and country, Maier was equally famous for his personality and love of a wind-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.”
“Another time, I said we always drank a shot of schnapps at breakfast, and it came out in the papers as, ‘Bayern to tank up on whisky against 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!”
Maier has been the source of many more notable quotes, especially regarding goalkeeping. He’s been known to say: “You need to be insane to do this job willingly” and, “A keeper should give off a sense of calm, and not fall asleep while doing so”.
After retiring with a club record 706 competitive appearances for Bayern, Maier turned to helping the next generation of “insane goalkeepers”. He was Germany’s goalkeeping coach from 1988 until October 2004, while also holding the same role at the only club of his career between 1994 and 2008, during which time he developed a young Kahn into German football’s next great goalkeeper.
"I quickly said to myself, you think you're good? Forget it!" the Titan admitted, after a demanding early training session under Maier. "There was another level of goalkeeping that you could reach, and Sepp Maier quickly explained that with his drills and made clear what I needed to realise: there was a lot of work to be done."
Work that every subsequent goalkeeper, whether with Bayern, Germany or any team for that matter, has had to do to get close to the level the ‘Cat from Anzing’ leaped to with such grace during his playing days.
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