Uwe Seeler: the humble Hamburg and Germany hero


The former Bundesliga top scorer and West Germany captain will be remembered for his loyalty, modesty and spectacular goals.

The Bundesliga is renowned for its exceptional strikers and Hamburg and West Germany legend Uwe Seeler - who died at the age of 85 on 21 July 2022 - was certainly one of those. bundesliga.com reflects on the popular one-club man who was the league’s leading goalscorer in its inaugural season.

The Seeler name will always be remembered at Hamburg, given that Uwe’s father Erwin (1938-49) and older brother Dieter (1955-65) also had long associations with the senior team.

Both Dieter and Uwe joined the club as children but the latter - who was born in November 1936 and registered by his father with Hamburg on April 1 1946 - is the more famous of the two.

Seeler started as he meant to go on by scoring in his first league match in August 1954, and he was responsible for ending a 32-year wait for his local club. The small but deadly forward scored twice in the 1960 German championship final win over Cologne as Hamburg finally landed their third title.

Seeler in action for Hamburg against Stuttgart. - imago sportfotodienst/imago/WEREK

That success earned Hamburg a place in the 1960-61 European Cup, and Seeler’s fifth goal of the competition - in the second leg of the semi-final against Barcelona - looked set to seal a place in the decider. The German side were denied, however, when the Catalans struck in the final minute.

Known from a young age as “the fat man”- partly down to a thick neck that aided his aerial ability - Seeler finished third in the voting for the 1960 Ballon d’Or prize. It was as a result of those exploits that Inter Milan - cash-rich and set to win two European Cups that decade - came calling in 1961.  Modest and comfortable in his surroundings, however, the well-liked local hero decided to stay in his homeland.

“Inter Milan was second to none and they had some cash - and their offer went up every day,” Seeler told bundesliga.com many years later. “But I made a gut decision to do something else. Thank God I don’t have to regret that today.”

Plenty of opposition defenders would have regretted coming up against Seeler over the years. Despite being short and stocky, he was remarkably good in the air. He scored plenty of headed goals over the years, and was also famous for more spectacular scissor kicks and overhead kicks.

Powerful enough to hold off defenders and quick enough over the first few yards to get away from them, the Hamburg No. 9 had all the ingredients required to be a top striker.

And that’s what he continued to be for a long period of time. Seeler got a hat-trick against Borussia Dortmund in the 1963 DFB Cup final as Hamburg - captained by his brother Dieter - won the competition for the first time in their history.

When an organised national league and professional era began with the creation of the Bundesliga, Seeler became one of its star players along with contemporaries like Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller.

Seeler (r.) with Fritz Walter (l.) and Franz Beckenbauer (c.) in 1981. - IMAGO/WEREK Pressebildagentur/IMAGO/WEREK

At the end of the Bundesliga’s first-ever season in 1963/64, he finished top of the scoring chart with 30 goals. Hamburg, who finished sixth that season, managed 69 in total.

The goals continued to flow, but in February 1965 came a huge blow. In snowy conditions during a match, Seeler went down in agony with no one around him. Approaching 29 and with medical care not as advanced as it would be now, his career was under threat after it was revealed that he had ruptured his Achilles tendon.

With typical determination, however, the Hamburg star worked his way back to fitness faster than anyone could have expected. In time, as it happened, for a crucial FIFA World Cup qualifier in Sweden. Having been held by the Swedes in Berlin, West Germany needed a win to be sure of booking a ticket to England the following summer. Seeler duly obliged, poking home the winning goal in a come-from-behind win in September 1965.

“I played with special boots for two years,” Seeler said many years later of his recovery from injury. “I said ‘I won’t go away that easy.’”

Seeler (l.) scored 43 goals in 72 senior appearances with West Germany. - SVEN SIMON via www.imago-images./imago images/Sven Simon

Seeler was instrumental at the tournament itself too, with the captain getting a late winner against Spain to ensure his side went through as group winners before adding another goal in the 4-0 victory over Uruguay in the last eight.

West Germany eventually lost 4-2 to England after extra-time in a controversial final at Wembley, but - like many of his teammates – Seeler had no complaints.

“The English team was exceptional and worthy of the title,” he told Uli Hesse thirty years later in the latter’s book Tor! The Story of German Football. “We accepted the outcome the way good sportsmen should do, and the whole tournament was fantastic for us all.”

Seeler had his share of fantastic experiences at international level. He never got closer to being a world champion than in 1966, finishing third four years later in Mexico when he found the net three times. He did become the first man to score in four World Cups, however, and got 43 goals in 72 caps for his country between 1954 and the 1970.

That was the year - at the age of 34 - that Seeler was voted Germany’s Footballer of the Year for the third time in his career. He also picked up the award in 1960 and 1964.

Along the way Seeler was a DFB Cup runner-up in 1967, and the following season his competition-high eight goals in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup got Hamburg to another final - where they lost out to AC Milan.

He eventually retired in 1972, having scored 137 goals in 239 Bundesliga matches across nine seasons. True to form he got 11 league goals in his final year - the eighth time he had got into double figures in the German top flight.

Including a decade playing for Hamburg in the pre-Bundesliga era, Seeler recorded 507 goals in club games across all competitions - a goalscoring haul only bettered in Germany by Bayern legend Gerd Müller (531 goals).

There was to be one last sighting of Seeler as a player though. In April 1978 - through his work with adidas - the-then 41-year-old and his former Hamburg teammate Franz-Josef Hönig lined out for Irish side Cork Celtic in what he thought was an exhibition game.

Seeler in Hamburg in 2013. - Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images

The German star was surprised to find out, then, that there were points at stake in a 6-2 defeat against Shamrock Rovers on what turned out to be the final day of the season. League of Ireland sides had a habit of bringing in guest stars around then - George Best and Bobby Charlton among them - and Seeler did not disappoint.

He scored two outstanding goals, one of which - naturally enough - was a bicycle kick. As local paper the Cork Examiner put it, on the day “the genius of Uwe Seeler transcended all else”.

Seeler himself described it as “a nice experience”, something his talent brought him a lot of during his career. It’s clear, however, that he was always grateful for the opportunities the game gave him too. Seeler’s autobiography, after all, was titled Danke, Fußball! (Thank you, football!).

Seeler gave back to the club he loved as well, serving as Hamburg president between 1995 and 1998. But he also did his best for people less fortunate than him. He set up a foundation in his name for that purpose in 1996, with a quote on the home page of its website summing up his philosophy: “Anyone who owes so much to sport and is on the sunny side of life should give something to those who never had the chance to be so lucky and are on the dark side of life.”

Hamburg, who unveiled a giant bronze monument of Seeler’s right foot outside their Volksparkstadion in 2005, were also keen to highlight their favourite son’s humble nature when news of his passing broke on July 21 2022.

"Uwe Seeler stands for everything that characterises a good person: down-to-earth, loyalty, joie de vivre - plus he was always approachable,” said board member Jonas Boldt. “We will never forget him and will always cherish him.”

The same goes for those who follow in his footsteps with the national team. German Football Federation (DFB) president Bernd Neuendorf said Seeler had been “a true role model”.

Legends in conversation: Lothar Matthäus (l.) and Uwe Seeler in 2010. - Joern Pollex/Bongarts/Getty Images

“Many of his goals will forever be remembered, such as his legendary backheader in the 1970 World Cup quarter-finals against England,” he said. “But Uwe Seeler made such an impression off the pitch as well. Everyone will remember him for his down-to-earth nature, his humility, and his bond with his hometown of Hamburg.”

The current Germany head coach Hansi Flick was another to recognise the influence of a man who was affectionately referred to as Uns Uwe (Our Uwe).

“Uwe Seeler was a role model for generations of Germany internationals,” the ex-Bayern player and coach said. “He won so many hearts with his humble and down-to-earth approach and his name is synonymous with loyalty.

“He played at four World Cups himself, going on to accompany us at tournaments as honorary captain and part of the DFB delegation - like at South Africa in 2010.  We always enjoyed having him around - he inspired us. All of us in the national team and at the DFB will miss him deeply.”

A long-time skipper of Hamburg and a man who wore the armband for his country 40 times, Seeler was made an honorary captain of West Germany in 1972. In 2003 this most unassuming of stars was made an honorary citizen of his hometown.

“I’m no better than anyone else - I’m just a normal person,” Seeler is widely quoted as saying. “I just played football.”

Eighth on the all-time list of German goalscorers at international level - Thomas Müller overtook him shortly before he died - Seeler is still one of the top 25 goalscorers in Bundesliga history.

The Seeler family tradition continues through his grandson. Former Germany U21 international Levin Öztunali was in the Hamburg youth academy for many years but now plays with Union Berlin. Like anyone else who wants to make the most of their time in football and in life, he would do well to consider what his grandfather once suggested worked for him.

“I have fun and I enjoy myself,” Seeler once told bundesliga.com. “I think that’s the most important thing if you want to be successful.”

Mark Rodden