He was one of the most iconic players of his generation, a brilliant, brazen, and belligerent Bayern Munich legend who experienced triumph and heartbreak during an inimitable 20-year career. Meet former Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn.
Kahn was born in Karlsruhe in 1969, and it was in his hometown in the state of Baden-Württemberg – around 40 miles from Stuttgart – that he took his first steps as a footballer. His father Rolf had played professionally for Karlsruher SC in the 1960s, and Kahn Jr. was on their books by the age of six. When he left the club for Bayern some 19 years later, he had emerged as one of the most talented young goalkeepers in the Bundesliga – although it was a twist of fate that resulted in him trying his luck between the sticks.
"The turning point was a present from my grandfather, a goalkeeping jersey," Kahn recalled. "A wonderful, yellow goalkeeping jersey embroidered with Sepp Maier's signature. At the time, in the mid-1970s, he was the best goalkeeper around. When your grandfather gives you a goalkeeping jersey, you have no other option but to put it on next time. So I did that and said, OK, I'll go in goal and do him a favour. Since then I've never played out of net."
Having spent his teenage years religiously following the Karlsruhe first team, both on the training ground and at the Wildparkstadion, Kahn eventually made his Bundesliga debut midway through the 1987/88 campaign, replacing the suspended Alexander Famulla in Cologne. The Billy Goats were unbeaten at their Müngersdorfer Stadion that term and inflicted a 4-0 defeat on Karlsruhe, but that didn't stop their ambitious young keeper brushing it off with what would become trademark candour.
"None of the goals were really saveable, although it was still a far cry from the debut I'd imagined," he said. "You can't be happy about conceding four goals, but then you have to look at how those goals came about. As debuts go, it was basically OK."
After a 2-0 loss at home to Werder Bremen the following week, Kahn dropped back into the reserves, with some observers questioning his ability to perform at the highest level. He would have to wait three more years to be made Karlsruhe's first-choice keeper, taking over from Famulla part way through the 1990/91 campaign. But there was no question of resting on his laurels.
"When I became first choice for the first team, for me that almost meant I'd achieved everything," he admitted. "But the more you work and the more you train, the more you realise you can always improve a little bit."
One of the 16 original members of the Bundesliga in 1963/64, Karlsruhe had spent most of the next three decades yo-yoing between the first and second tiers. But with inspirational coach Winfried Schäfer in the dugout and rising star Kahn in goal, they enjoyed one of the brightest periods in their history in the early 1990s. In Kahn's three full seasons (1991-1994) they finished eighth, sixth and sixth in the Bundesliga, having never gone higher than 10th in their 15 previous top-flight campaigns.
It was during Karlsruhe's remarkable UEFA Cup run in 1993/94 that Kahn first drew national and international attention, prompting his move to Bayern the following summer. The unfancied Baden-Württemberg side began by seeing off PSV Eindhoven, before destroying Valencia with a sensational 7-0 home win in the second leg; a game that came to be known as the 'Wonder of the Wildpark'. They then got the better of Zinedine Zidane's Bordeaux as well as Boavista before losing to Austria Salzburg on away goals in the semi-finals.
Kahn, who kept five clean sheets in the knockout stages, was soon on his way to Bavaria, following in the footsteps of former Karlsruhe teammate Mehmet Scholl. When he signed for Bayern in July 1994 he became the most expensive goalkeeper in Bundesliga history, coming in for the equivalent of around €2.5 million to replace Raimond Aumann.
"Plenty of Karlsruhe players had left for Bayern, and Uli Hoeneß had the great idea of calling me in late 1993 to ask if I could imagine going there," he explained. "The move didn't mean I'd achieved my goals. Plenty of people have gone to Bayern and said, well, I've done it all now. For me, the move from Karlsruhe to Bayern was actually the start of everything."
Then 25, Kahn was placed under the tutelage of the legendary Maier, the man whose shirt he had worn as a boy. Maier had won everything there was to win as Bayern's No.1 – four Bundesliga titles, three European Cups, four DFB Cups and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup – not to mention helping Germany triumph at the 1972 UEFA European Championship and the 1974 FIFA World Cup. Having already crossed Kahn's path with the national squad in 1993, Maier became Bayern's goalkeeping coach ahead of the 1994/95 campaign. Who better to mentor an ambitious young keeper who also dreamed of becoming the best in the business?
"I quickly said to myself, you think you're good? Forget it!" Kahn 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."
Just as it had taken him several years to become Karlsruhe's first-choice keeper, Kahn was forced to bide his time before tasting success with Bayern. A cruciate ligament injury ruled him out for five months of 1994/95, and it was not until his third season, in 1996/97, that the Bavarians found themselves in a position to land their 13th Bundesliga title.
Giovanni Trapattoni's side came up against VfB Stuttgart on the penultimate matchday of the campaign, knowing that victory would see them secure the Bundesliga crown for the first time in three years – an eternity for the record champions and their supporters. Kahn made a number of key saves as Bayern ran out 4-2 winners at the Olympiastadion, getting his sizeable hands on the Meisterschale for the first, and certainly not the last, time.
"Things never worked out at the start," Kahn acknowledged. "It was a strange phenomenon that accompanied me throughout my career. There were plenty of moments when I could have said, 'I think I'd prefer to give up' or 'this is all too much for me'. But the vision of maybe being one of the best goalkeepers always pushed me on, always helped me in those tough moments. It made sure I didn't lose perspective and always maintained that sense of desire."
A natural shot-stopper with outstanding reflexes, Kahn continued to improve and soon emerged as one of Bayern's leaders alongside established stars such as Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann. He helped the Bavarians win the DFB Cup in 1997/98 and the Bundesliga again in 1998/99, before providing the steely backbone for a remarkable run of success in the early 2000s.
The Bayern 'keeper also became renowned for his intensely competitive attitude on the pitch, with displays of what he termed "positive aggression" going down in Bundesliga folklore. In a 2-2 draw with Borussia Dortmund in April 1999, he squared up to Heiko Herrlich and appeared to nibble his cheek, before rushing off his line and only just missing Stephane Chapuisat with a wild kung-fu kick.
Watch: Kahn's temper gets the better of him
He also poked Miroslav Klose in the nose and grabbed Thomas Brdaric around the neck; the Bayer Leverkusen striker famously said he had "feared for his life", with Kahn wryly retorting that "football's a man's game". Even his own teammates weren't entirely safe, with Sammy Kuffour and Andreas Herzog among those subjected to Kahn's hairdryer treatment. Scholl once quipped that he was afraid of only two things in life: war and Oliver Kahn.
"I often use my body language to show my team 'complete presence' – and to instil respect, or even better fear, in my opponents," Kahn explained. "Goalkeepers need an element of insanity. Who else would stand there and allow people to shoot balls at their face or stomach, and still think it's great?"
A perfectionist obsessed with winning, Kahn often played like a man possessed, and his eccentricities divided opinion in German football. For Bayern fans he became a cult hero, earning nicknames like 'The Titan', 'King Kahn' or 'Vol-Kahn-o', but others made fun of his intense demeanour.
He was even struck on the head by a golf ball at a game in Freiburg in April 2000, a dramatic incident which helped to turn the tide of popular opinion in his favour. Bleeding from his left temple, a furious Kahn was stitched up by pitchside medics and played the last few minutes of a 2-1 win that put Bayern on course for the title. Freiburg had been playing with an extra man since the 17th minute, but they simply couldn't find a way past the visiting shot-stopper.
Kahn's glittering career stretched over two decades from the late 1980s until the summer of 2008, yet the heart of his sporting legacy is to be found in a rollercoaster three-year period between 1999 and 2002, when, by then the world's best goalkeeper, Kahn experienced triumph and despair with both club and country.
Few in Munich have forgotten the anguish of the 1999 UEFA Champions League final in Barcelona, where Bayern were just minutes away from being crowned kings of Europe for the first time since their glory days of the 1970s. It was not until injury time that Manchester United struck twice through substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to secure a historic treble and break Bavarian hearts. Kahn was just one of the many distraught figures strewn across the Camp Nou pitch as the English side celebrated their improbable victory.
"The sting was so deep, that for two years we overperformed until we finally won the title," he later recalled. Indeed, redemption came on 23 May 2001 at Milan's San Siro, after a Champions League showpiece that was dominated by penalties.
Having helped his side get past Manchester United – a measure of revenge for 1999 – and Real Madrid in the knockout stage, Kahn turned out to be the hero of the final against Valencia, saving spot-kicks from Zlatko Zahovic, Amedeo Carboni and Mauricio Pellegrino in the shootout to secure Bayern a long-awaited continental victory. As well as getting his hands on the Champions League trophy, Kahn was later presented with a UEFA Fair Play award for consoling opposite number Santiago Canizares after the shootout.
"I could really sense what he was feeling in that moment, because two years before I had lost a Champions League final and I know how a goalkeeper feels," Kahn explained. "He'd made two or three penalty saves, yet he was still on the losing side. I knew what he was going through."
Kahn himself would need consoling the following summer, as Germany were defeated 2-0 by Brazil in the FIFA World Cup final – one of the defining games of his career.
The Bayern stopper had become his country's No.1 after the 1998 World Cup, having sat on the bench as Germany claimed victory at UEFA Euro 1996. After a disappointing group-stage exit at Euro 2000, Germany were hardly expected to perform miracles in South Korea and Japan, but Kahn apparently hadn't read the script. The battle-hardened 33-year-old made stunning save after stunning save to help his side reach the final, not conceding a single goal between their second group game and the ill-fated showpiece.
"We've always known we'll need a fantastic Oliver Kahn to be successful and so far we have had that," explained Germany coach Rudi Völler. "Without him at his best we can't win."
The final in Yokohama was billed as the battle between Germany's Kahn, 'the man with a thousand arms', and Brazil's Ronaldo, 'O Fenomeno', who had already scored six goals at the World Cup. In the 67th minute, Rivaldo tried his luck from distance and Kahn made his first and only error of the tournament; the ball squirmed out of his hands and Ronaldo pounced to make it 1-0. Twelve minutes later the future Real Madrid man doubled up, and that was that. Brazil were world champions. Kahn was devastated.
"You can have 99 fantastic games but make a mistake in one and that is what you’re remembered for," he said. "It was 10 times worse than any mistake I've ever made. I already knew at that moment it would stick with me for the rest of my life."
The sight of Kahn slumped against his post at the final whistle was one of the iconic images of the 2002 World Cup, but there was a slim measure of consolation for the Germany keeper as he was named player of the tournament. He was also voted the world's best goalkeeper for the third time in 2002, having already won the accolade in 1999 and 2001.
Kahn would not get a final shot at glory with Germany when they hosted the World Cup four years later, having since been replaced by his long-standing rival Jens Lehmann. Still, the squad's elder statesman won over plenty of supporters with his commitment to the cause. The past friction between the two keepers was no secret, but Kahn still came on to psych Lehmann up before a key penalty shootout against Argentina in the quarter-finals. The latter made two saves and Germany advanced to the semi-finals.
"I heard what Kahn said," goalkeeping coach Andreas Köpke recalled. "It wasn't advice, it was encouragement. This gesture impressed me immensely. It was absolutely honest, absolute greatness. I bow before this sporting spirit of Oliver Kahn."
Above all, Kahn was a fierce competitor who went to extraordinary lengths to become the best at his craft and win football matches. In over 800 professional appearances he never actually managed to score a goal, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. The closest he came was in February 2002, when he had a late penalty saved by Tomislav Piplica in a routine Bundesliga win over Energie Cottbus.
In March 2001, Kahn famously came up for a late corner against Hansa Rostock and punched the ball into the back of the net, getting a second yellow card for his troubles ("I thought the goalkeeper was allowed to use his hands in the box," he deadpanned). Two months later, he also offered to take the last-gasp free-kick against Hamburg that would result in Bayern dramatically snatching the title away from Schalke.
"There was nothing holding me back, so I ran forward and said to Stefan [Effenberg], 'Stefan, let me shoot'," Kahn chuckled. "He then said, 'Are you mad?! Go away, we're letting Patrik Andersson shoot, because he's got the hardest shot'."
"Patrik smashed the ball into the net where a ball should never go in. That moment was the birth of the famous phrase 'weiter, immer weiter' – 'we keep on going'. We were all hugging and that was the exact moment when the phrase was uttered. I still get shivers talking about it now. It was just an unbelievable story what happened that day."
Watch: Patrik Andersson's title-winning free-kick
Kahn would go on to win a remarkable eight Bundesliga titles with his band of Bayern brothers, an all-time record that he previously shared with fellow club legends Scholl, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Franck Ribery but has since been surpassed. He made his 557th and final Bundesliga appearance on 17 May 2008, celebrating his swansong with a 4-1 victory – and another Meisterschale – before being given a standing ovation by the Allianz Arena.
He bowed out with a bulging trophy cabinet that also included six DFB Cups, eight German League Cups, the 1996 UEFA Cup and the 2001 Intercontinental Cup. He was named German Footballer of the Year in 2000 and 2001, and ranked third in the Ballon d'Or standings in 2001 and 2002. His record of 204 Bundesliga clean sheets stood until surpassed by Manuel Neuer - someone who has taken a few records off the Titan - a few years ago.
"I couldn't have asked for any more over the years," Kahn admitted. "I just feel grateful my body held out for so long, and I was able to celebrate so many great successes at a club like Bayern. There were so many emotional highlights but also some emotional lows. It's not always the really big titles that are linked with emotional highlights. Sometimes it's the smaller moments."
Since hanging up his gloves, Kahn has worked as a successful television pundit for German broadcaster ZDF, published several books, obtained a master's degree in business administration and pursued a number of other entrepreneurial and charity interests. He also worked as an ambassador for the Bundesliga, visiting numerous countries around the world to discuss German football.
In 2020, he joined Bayern's board with a view to succeeding Karl-Heinz Rummenigge as CEO, which he did in July 2021. However, his tenure lasted only until May 2023 when dismissed on the final day of the season and replaced by Jan-Christian Dreesen.
Watch: Analysing Kahn and Neuer
A world-class performer and one of the first to delve into the psychological aspects of the game, Kahn was undoubtedly the finest goalkeeper of his generation, and an inspiration for successors such as Neuer. Ferocious, fearless and almost fanatical in his devotion to the cause, he was truly one of a kind – a titan in every sense of the word.
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