Franz Beckenbauer (1945-2024): How ‘The Emperor’ defined the beautiful game

From Libero legend to World Cup winner, the footballing visionary leaves an untouchable legacy.

Published : Jan 12, 2024 15:12 IST - 12 MINS READ

One of the giants of the game, Beckenbauer was instrumental in helping Germany win the FIFA World Cup of 1974.

One of the giants of the game, Beckenbauer was instrumental in helping Germany win the FIFA World Cup of 1974. | Photo Credit: AP

The history of football abounds in heroes, legends, fools, and villains, each in his own time leaving behind his footprint on the pitch, and stories of triumphs, despair, and follies. Each in his own way contributes to the greater glory of “The Beautiful Game”—the one whose exploits for club and country are still sung by football minstrels, and also those slowly fading in some neglected corners of public memory. Then there are the immortal ones—a handful of players who transcend the boundaries of era, nationality, and clubs, and who, by dint of their genius and achievements, stand not just to represent the game but to define it as well. Franz Beckenbauer, “Der Kaiser”, as he was universally hailed, was one such being whose skills uplifted the game, and whose vision took football to its next stage of evolution.

Beckenbauer was one of only three players to have won the World Cup as a player and later as a coach, the other two being Mário Zagallo and Didier Deschamps. He was not just arguably the greatest defender that ever lived, but also the creator of a new position, libero, which became the modern sweeper, and thereby revolutionised the way football was played.

Apart from the two World Cups, Beckenbauer, with Bayern Munich had won three consecutive European Cups (1974-76), a total of four Bundesliga titles, including a hattrick between 1972 and 1974, four DFB-Pokal (German Cup) between 1965-1970, two Ballon d’Ors (1972 and 1976), and a host of other honours as a player. At the very end of his playing career, he won his fifth Bundesliga title in 1982 with Hamburg FC.

As a player, he represented his country 103 times and was named “German Footballer of the Year” four times. As a coach he guided Olympique de Marseille to League 1 Championship (1990-1991), Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title (1993-94), and the UEFA Cup (1995-96), and of course, West Germany to the FIFA World Cup in 1990.

However, records are bound to be broken; achievements are eclipsed; and trophies and medals inevitably gather dust in the cabinets; but what endures in football is the magic one brings to the game; the stories that are passed from one generation to another, gathering embellishments on the way, and ultimately assuming mythic status. Beckenbauer was one such magician of the game. He changed the game forever when he made the defence a launching pad for attack. He irreversibly altered the role of the defender by freeing him from the shackles of his traditional position, and introduced new dimensions in game tactics.

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Eduardo Galeano, in his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow wrote of Beckenbauer: “In the back, nothing escaped him: not one ball, not a fly, not a mosquito could get through. And when he crossed the field he was like fire.” In a sweat-soaked, grimy sport of scraped knees, bruised elbows, and sometimes, bloody noses, Beckenbauer, right from the start, cut an elegant, suave figure on the pitch. On his first appearance for West Germany in the 1966 World Cup, Galeano observed that the 20-year-old Beckenbauer “was already playing in hat, gloves, and cane”. He was like a serene chess grandmaster, organising the pieces from the back, setting up positions for attack, and suddenly launching a strike with devastating speed and precision. He anticipated the opponent’s moves and pre-empted counter-attacks as though he could read the mind of the opponent team’s coach.

“That is why he never really needed to tackle. Nearly always, simple interception was enough,” writer and former professional football player from England, Jimmy Hill had written. Beckenbauer was the first of his kind—a playmaker from behind; a midfielder under the cloak of a defender. A seemingly simple attack led by one of his surges down the pitch would leave the opponent team in a state of utter disarray, and he would know the exact moment to strike, to catch the opponent by surprise and shatter their rhythm.

Elegance personified

According to the legendary German striker and Bayern Munich icon, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Beckenbauer was “the perfect player”. He was the greatest defender of all time, who was also one of the most astute playmakers, and a lethal goalscorer. The fact that he had played in all the positions (except goalkeeper) at some point in his life—a centre forward as a boy, a midfielder in his early years as a professional, and later a libero—probably accounted for his versatility and fluidity in moving from one position to another.

On the pitch, he was elegance personified. His effortless control of the ball, his unerringly accurate long passes, and his ability to find gaps in the opponent’s game structure, often resulted in an apparently seamless attack, reducing the opponent to a helpless state. With Beckenbauer, it all appeared so simple and smooth that often the “spectacle” of footballing went unnoticed by the spectators. He could do it all—dribble, tackle, pass, score from a “set piece”, assist, set it up, and fall back in the blink of an eye—without even breaking a sweat. As Galeano had written: “Bucking the trend toward a soccer of sheer panzer-style strength, he proved that elegance can be more powerful than a tank and delicacy more penetrating than a howitzer.” His immaculate presence and graceful movements often belied a dour resilience that refused to accept defeat. One of the enduring World Cup images of all time is that of Beckenbauer playing against Italy in the 1970 semifinal, his arm in a sling after a brutal attack by an Italian player had dislocated his shoulder. He had refused to retire from the game.

Bayer’s icon

Born on September 11, 1945, in Munich, Beckenbauer grew up in a desolate country ravaged by the Second World War and badly in need of heroes and glory. West Germany’s dramatic giant-killing act against Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final, provided the youth of the land with hope and heroes. The seemingly invincible “Mighty Magyars”, with legends like Ferenc Puskas, Zoltan Czibor, Sandor Kocsis, and others, went down to West Germany 2-3. The victory played a key role in nudging the 8-year-old Beckenbauer to his ultimate destiny. The same year, he joined FC Munich 1906, a football club just across the road from where he lived. Right from the start he stood out with his skills and talent. Five years later, when he was 14, Munich 1906 dissolved its youth team, and young Beckenbauer, instead of joining the club he used to support, Munich 1860, decided to go to Bayern instead.

There is an interesting story behind the teenager’s decision that throws light on his personality and the importance he gave to personal dignity from an early age. In one of his last matches for Munich 1906, against Munich 1860, young Beckenbauer was punched by his marker. “At the end of the game I told my teammates, ‘You can all go to 1860, I am going to Bayern’.” Thus began one of the most legendary associations in the history of football clubs.

Beckenbauer holds his trophy as he attends the opening gala for the Hall of Fame of German Football at the German Football Museum in Dortmund on April 1, 2019.

Beckenbauer holds his trophy as he attends the opening gala for the Hall of Fame of German Football at the German Football Museum in Dortmund on April 1, 2019. | Photo Credit: Ina FASSBENDER / POOL / AFP

Beckenbauer quickly made it to the senior team in Bayern; and recognizing his talent, Zlatko “Tschik” Cajovski, the legendary Croatian coach of Bayern took him under his wing. “Tschik was like a father to me. He let us play like a father would let his children play,” Beckenbauer had once said. With Beckenbauer in the team, along with rising stars like Sepp Maier and Gerd Muller, Bayern, a second-tier club at that time, was promoted to the Bundesliga in 1965.

After winning the Bundesliga in the 1968-69 season as captain, Beckenbauer led the club to three more consecutive wins (1971-72, 1972-73, and 1973-74); four DFB-Pokal titles; a hat-trick of European Cup titles (1973-74, 1974-75, 1975-76), and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (1966-67). In 1993, Beckenbauer was made the coach of Bayern, and, after a gap of three years Bayern won the Bundesliga again, and in 1996, the UEFA Cup.

His former teammate and ex-president of Bayern, Uli Hoeness, said after Beckenbauer passed away: “Franz Beckenbauer is the greatest figure FC Bayern has ever had. As a player, coach, president, man—unforgettable. Nobody will ever equal him. People can say that they watched football in the days of Franz Beckenbauer.”

The World Cups

By the time he was 20, Beckenbauer was selected to the national team of West Germany, and he made his international debut as a midfielder in a crucial World Cup qualifier match against Sweden. The captain Uwe Seeler (West Germany international from 1954-70) remembered the coach, Helmut Schon, asking him whether he should play Beckenbauer or not. “There is no one better,” Seeler had said. West Germany beat Sweden 2-1 and qualified to play in the World Cup that was to be held in England in 1966.

Beckenbauer’s World Cup debut was against Switzerland. West Germany won 5-0, with Beckenbauer scoring twice. He scored again against Uruguay in the next match, which West Germany won 4-0. Against Russia, with the game tied at 1-1, Beckenbauer scored the clincher, beating Lev Yashin, the dreaded “Black Spider”, arguably the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game. West Germany was through to the finals to meet England, the host nation, and Franz Beckenbauer was already the star of the team. With coaches of the two sides assigning the two best players—Bobby Charlton for England and Beckenbauer for West Germany—to mark each other, neither could display the full range of their respective powers when it mattered the most. Though England won 4-2, the tournament saw the birth of one of the greatest stars of the game. By 1968, with his stardom on the ascendant, he was hailed by fans and sports writers as “Der Kaiser” or The Emperor.

West Germany faced England again in the quarterfinals of the 1970 World Cup of Mexico. This time West Germany won 3-2, with Der Kaiser bringing his team back into the game by scoring when England was leading 2-0. The next game against Italy is considered one of the classic football matches of all time. An ugly foul dislocated Beckenbauer’s shoulder, but he continued gamely. The match was tied at 1-1 before it went into extra time, and in the next 30 minutes 5 more goals were scored, and Italy won a dramatic 4-3 victory against West Germany. Soon after the 1970 World Cup, Beckenbauer was made captain of the national team. Under his leadership West Germany won the 1972 European championship, where it beat Russia 3-0.

With an ageing Pele on the last lap of his glorious career, football in the mid-1970s was dominated by two immortals of the game—Beckenbauer, and the Netherlands’ Johan Cruyff. Their stature was practically identical. Cruyff had done for AFC Ajax and Dutch football what Beckenbauer had done for Bayern Munich and West Germany. The 1974 World Cup final in Munich set the stage for a much-anticipated contest between two of the greatest footballers in history. Strong as the West German team was, with players like Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner, Gerd Müller, Uli Hoeness, Jürgen Grabowski, and others, the Netherlands, with its mesmerising “Total Football” was the favourite to win the cup.

The Germans were facing problems right from the beginning of the tournament. An issue relating to payment almost led to 80 per cent of the German team walking out, but ultimately they decided to stay together. After beating Chile and Australia in their first two group matches, they lost to East Germany 0-1—a defeat that was both humiliating for Beckenbauer’s team and one that had political and social repercussions. In the ensuing chaos, Beckenbauer decided to take matters into his own hands. It is believed that he practically took over the reins from Helmut Schon and assumed the role of the manager as well. “I was the captain... the captain’s armband has a meaning, a value—it means you’re the right hand of the coach, and this was the first time that I had to play this role,” Beckenbauer remembered years later.

The immediate decision he took was revamping the team, even if it meant dropping an established star like Uli Hoeness. The move proved effective as West Germany convincingly beat Yugoslavia 2-0, and then went on to defeat Sweden and Poland, to face the Netherlands in the finals. Cruyff and his Dutch team had come up imperiously without losing a single match, and beating the defending champions, Brazil 2-0 in the semi-finals. “The Dutch team were favourites at the start of the tournament, but by the time we reached the finals, we were at the same level,” Beckenbauer recalled. In a hard-fought match, West Germany edged past Netherlands 2-1.

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A seemingly invincible Beckenbauer then went on to win two more European Cups as Bayern’s captain, before retiring from international football in 1977. Following in the footsteps of the great Pele, he crossed the Atlantic and signed up with the New York Cosmos where he had Pele as a teammate. Talking about their time together Pele had said, “I was lucky enough to play alongside him... We played against each other for so many years, but for the last two years, we played alongside. We became champions together.”

Interestingly, Beckenbauer realised that the game in the US was not developed enough for him to play in the libero position, and he had to go back to being a midfielder. After four years in the States, Beckenbauer decided to return to his country and retire from there. But instead of joining Bayern Munich, he signed up with Hamburger FC, from where he finally hung up his boots. Two years later, Beckenbauer was selected as the manager for the national side. He guided the team to the runner-up position in the 1986 World Cup final and then won the cup in 1990. He then had two short but successful stints as Bayern’s coach, during which he won a Bundesliga title and the UEFA Cup in 1996.

Beckenbauer’s career as an administrator, however, was mired in controversy. Several allegations of financial irregularities, and a 90-day ban by the FIFA Ethics Committee, tarnished his impeccable reputation. However, these controversies and allegations could do little to diminish his stature as one of the greatest football players that ever lived; nor could it dilute the intensity of the adoration of millions of football lovers across the world.

Der Kaiser is dead. There can never be another.

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