Cologne - Playmaker and playboy, rebel and realist, multi-faceted businessman and prize-winning television pundit: Günter Netzer, the first true Bundesliga superstar, turns 70 this Sunday.
Spearhead of a golden Foals generation
Two German titles with Borussia Mönchengladbach at the start of the 1970s, two Spanish ones with Real Madrid in the middle of the same decade and a UEFA European Championship winner's medal as West Germany's creative linchpin in '72 provide the bare statistical bones of a playing career that still resonates down through the decades. Netzer was, and remains, one of a kind.
As a youngster playing for hometown club 1. FC Mönchengladbach, Günter's precocious talent for combining football and finance came back to haunt his father, with whom he had agreed a five D-mark bonus for every goal he scored. After one particularly productive outing, Netzer later recalled, his dad insisted on a renegotiation of terms. “I could certainly see where he was coming from. Five marks multiplied by 28 goals was a fairly gigantic sum back then.”
At 19, he penned his first professional contract at Borussia Mönchengladbach and by the time the club made the leap from the Regional League to the Bundesliga two years later, in 1965, Netzer was already running the show in the middle of the park. Alongside the likes of Berti Vogts, Herbert Laumen and Jupp Heynckes, the loping general with the trademark blonde mane and unmatched skillset was a key player in the original Foals side which rapidly rose to co-dominate the domestic scene for the greater part of a decade, playing out an epic rivalry with an FC Bayern München team boasting their own impressive array of world stars. “For me, it was heaven,” he says, “to have the opportunity to help build up something like that in my own back yard.”
Help he certainly did. “Günter was a footballing genius,” says fellow Mönchengladbach native and Borussia's all-time top scorer Heynckes; “A great midfield strategist who made the telling pass and delivered fantastic free-kicks and corners.” As his on-field fame grew, so his off-field interests expanded. As well as opening a disco in the city and satisfying his penchant for Ferraris, Netzer enjoyed mixing with Germany's artistic community, noting with fascination “the crazy way they go about their business, and how they compare with footballers.”
Anything but your average footballer himself, the playmaker general bowed out at Gladbach in unforgettable fashion in the 1973 DFB Cup final. Having been controversially left out of the starting XI by head coach Hennes Weisweiler, he took the liberty of subbing himself on in extra time, before promptly drilling home a spectacular winner against 1. FC Köln. With that, he was off to Real Madrid and further title success.
Highs and lows
Netzer's finest hour with the national team came in 1972, when his inspirational midfield displays helped a West Germany team widely considered most exciting of the pre-reunification era to European Championship success. A first-ever victory over England at Wembley in the quarter-finals helped pave the way for a one-sided demolition of the USSR in the final.
By the time the 1974 FIFA World Cup swung around however, national team coach Helmut Schön had reverted to Wolfgang Overath as his playmaker of choice and Netzer barely featured as the hosts marched through to their second world title. He duly picked up his winner's medal but, true to character, admitted that he “never really felt like a world champion.”
Bundesliga now at the 'absolute summit'
His fame nonetheless continues to precede him like few other members of that triumphant class of '74, and that is doubtless down to subsequent high-profile ventures into management and above all television punditry. In that capacity, Netzer was an unsurprisingly trenchant critic of substandard football, although without ever being inclined to wallow in any perceived golden age from his own playing days. Reflecting on the Bundesliga's 50th anniversary, on the back of the first all-German UEFA Champions League final between FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund in 2013, he noted, “We're at the absolute summit, with records falling left, right and centre. On a sporting level, it can hardly get any better.”
For the national team, itself very much a child of the Bundesliga, it did indeed get better and Germany's spectacular ongoing football renaissance is a source of no little satisfaction to the man who himself wrote one of the most colourful chapters in the league's distinguished history. Together with long-standing co-analyst Gerhard Delling, he was incidentally awarded a national media prize for language in 2008; first and foremost, though, Günter Netzer is remembered to this day for his eloquence out on the pitch, and as the exceptional football talent who broke the Bundesliga mould.
Date of birth: 14.09.1944
Bundesliga Appearances: 230
Bundesliga Goals: 82
German Champion: 1970, 1971
DFB Cup Winner: 1973
Season, Club, Appearances/Goals:
1965/66 M'gladbach 31/13
1966/67 M'gladbach 31/11
1967/68 M'gladbach 34/13
1968/69 M'gladbach 27/10
1969/70 M'gladbach 29/6
1970/71 M'gladbach 32/9
1971/72 M'gladbach 28/17
1972/73 M'gladbach 18/3