Franz Beckenbauer obituary: Footballer who radiated an iconic status

The German became the kind of central defender that football had never seen before

Born: September 11th, 1945

Died: January 7th, 2024

In July 1986, days after the World Cup in Mexico had ended, West Germany’s manager, Franz Beckenbauer, sat down with a journalist to look back over his team’s performance at the tournament. Minutes into the conversation, however, he burst into helpless laughter. When the journalist inquired what was so funny, Beckenbauer replied: “Can you believe we actually reached the final with these players?”

The exchange said much about the high standards upheld by Beckenbauer, who has died aged 78: that West German team contained legends of the game such as Lothar Matthäus, Andy Brehme and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Yet he radiated an iconic status that none of them ever emulated. He wore his lifelong sobriquet of Der Kaiser with pride, and rarely has an athlete been more aptly nicknamed. Imperious and stylish, he conquered the world of football first as a player, then as a manager.

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Beckenbauer was born four months after the end of the second World War, in the Munich suburb of Giesing, to parents Franz snr and Antonie. His footballing talent was apparent from an early age, and it was planned that he would join 1860 Munich. Instead, he signed for local rivals Bayern Munich: a possibly apocryphal story claims he rejected 1860 after one of their players struck him during a youth match.

If true, it was the slap that echoed around the world, or at least around the European game. Swiftly developing into the kind of central defender that football had never seen before – an elegant sweeper who effortlessly carried the ball far upfield to create opportunities for his midfielders and strikers – Beckenbauer became a natural leader in a Bayern team that grew to dominate German and European football, winning three consecutive European Cups between 1973-74 and 1975-76. In his career, he averaged a goal every seven games, a remarkable figure for a defender.

Beckenbauer evolved so rapidly as a footballer that, by 21, he was the cornerstone of West Germany’s defence. When manager Helmut Schön tasked him with marking Bobby Charlton in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley, he won the duel but not the match as England controversially prevailed 4-2 in extra time. Four years later, captaining West Germany at the 1970 finals in Mexico, he played with a dislocated shoulder in a sling as his country lost a thrilling semi-final 4-3 to Italy, again in extra time.

Beckenbauer, and West Germany’s, crowning glory came when they won the 1972 European Championship and 1974 World Cup in succession. In the final of the latter tournament, they overcame a gifted Netherlands team in Munich. When referee Jack Taylor awarded the Dutch a penalty in the first minute, Beckenbauer angrily yelled: “Taylor, you’re an Englishman!” But the Germans came back to win 2-1, and Beckenbauer was now a footballing immortal.

A year after West Germany lost the 1976 European Championship final to Czechoslovakia on penalties in Belgrade, Beckenbauer abruptly quit international football and signed for New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. Enthusiastically embracing the city’s nightlife, he stayed for three lucrative seasons. A stint with Hamburg and a brief return to the Cosmos brought down the curtain on his playing career.

In the summer of 1984, he abruptly ascended to the job of West German national team manager when the Deutscher Fußball-Bund couldn’t get hold of their first choice, Helmut Benthaus, who was holidaying in Canada. Despite alienating some of his squad by calling them “the dregs of the Bundesliga”, Beckenbauer dragged them to the final of Mexico 86, where they lost to Diego Maradona’s Argentina.

At Euro 88, he was expected to steer West Germany to glory on home soil. Instead, they slipped to a last-minute defeat against the Netherlands in the semi-final. Enduring some scalding criticism from the German media, he stayed on until Italia 90, where he got all the big calls right and took revenge on Argentina in a bad-tempered final in Rome, becoming only the second man to lift the World Cup as a player and a manager (the first being Mário Zagallo of Brazil).

Quitting while he was ahead, Beckenbauer headed for Olympique de Marseille, but resigned after four months following a player revolt. All that remained were two caretaker spells at his beloved Bayern; during the second, he guided them to victory over Bordeaux in the 1996 Uefa Cup final.

Beckenbauer spent the next two decades as a globe-trotting football bureaucrat, feted whenever he went. He played a key role in Germany’s successful bid to host the 2006 World Cup, but the outcome was stained by sleaze, with Fifa’s Oceania delegate Charlie Dempsey abstaining from the vote in protest after being offered multiple bribes. As a result, Beckenbauer was investigated by Swiss authorities in the mid-2010s, and avoided jail only because the statute of limitations expired.

He came under more scrutiny for his role in the controversial Fifa vote that awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. The corruption allegations didn’t destroy his reputation in his homeland, but they noticeably dented it. He also suffered a devastating personal blow in 2015 when his son Stefan passed away from a brain tumour.

Beckenbauer died on January 7th, after suffering ill-health for several years. He is survived by his third wife, Heidi, and by his children Thomas, Michael, Noel and Francessca.

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