It was epic football theater: Diego Maradona, the Argentine hailed as the game’s greatest, was weeping uncontrollably. The man responsible for his tears, known as “Der Kaiser”, or The Emperor, of German football looked remorseless. But Franz Beckenbauer had good reason to be smug. 

The 1990 World Cup final showed a deplorable Argentina. But the West German team managed by Beckenbauer — prior to the country’s East-West reunification — had reached the World Cup final for an unprecedented third time in a row. Argentina and West Germany had also played in the prior 1986 final won by Maradona, and the 1990 victory was sweet revenge for Der Kaiser. Another triumph for him was that West Germany under him became the first European side to beat a South American team in a Cup final.

But more than that, over the course of 50-year career, Beckenbauer made his stamp as one of soccer’s greatest players and managers — certainly Germany’s greatest — who started out as a midfielder before making his name as a central defender and inventing the role of the modern sweeper, a position known in footballing lingo as the libero.

Maradona (left) and Beckenbauer (Picture: DPA – Archivo)

Thus, with his passing on January 7, 2024, at the age of 78, Der Kaiser was remembered as a defining figure of the sport for more than half a century and one of only three people to win the World Cup as both player and coach.

Totemic, Magnetic Presence 

“His interpretation of the role of the libero changed the game,”  Julian Nagelsmann, Germany’s national football coach, at the time of this tribute’s writing, said. “This role and his friendship with the ball made him a free man.”

Both on- and off-field,  Beckenbauer made an impactful presence. Picture: Bongarts, via Getty Images (reproduced from New York Times)

Both on- and off-field,  Beckenbauer made a totemic, magnetic presence. He was a player, a defender of unusual poise and elegance. He was a coach, exhibiting a deft touch and an easy manner with his players. And he was an executive, showing himself to be a skilled diplomat and consummate networker.

Most of all, though, Der Kaiser was a winner. He won relentlessly at Bayern Munich, the club he joined as a teenager and with which he became so intertwined that Uli Hoeness, its longtime president, called him the “greatest personality” in its history.

Beckenbauer coached West Germany to a World Cup victory in 1990. Picture: Reuters: Action Images, File

Over 14 years with the club, Beckenbauer lifted four German championships, four German cups, three European cups and an Intercontinental Cup, the forerunner of the Club World Cup. He was twice elected Ballon d’Or, the prestigious award given by the magazine France Football to the European Player of the Year, the only defender ever to win it more than once. He went on to pick up three more titles during a spell, in the autumn of his career, with the New York Cosmos.

More notable still, he won with his national team, too. Beckenbauer helped guide West Germany to the final of the 1966 World Cup, losing in extra time to the host, England, in a game that he felt he was “too young” to influence, as he put it. Four years later, he was part of the West German side that lost to Italy in a thrilling semifinal labeled the “Game of the Century.”

In 1974 — two years after winning the European Championship — he finally conquered the game’s global summit, guiding West Germany to a 2-1 victory against the Netherlands on home soil, in Munich. As captain, Beckenbauer became the first player to raise the current incarnation of the World Cup trophy.

He would encounter it again 16 years later. Beckenbauer had, a little reluctantly, agreed to coach the West German national team in 1984, agreeing to take the job only because he felt what he later described as a “moral obligation.”

He reached the World Cup final two years later — losing 3-2 to Maradona and Argentina — and then got his comeback in 1990, beating the same opponent by a single goal in Rome in the final. 

Even after his direct involvement with soccer, on the field, had come to an end, he continued to win. Beckenbauer was at the forefront of a reunified Germany’s attempt to host the 2006 World Cup; the success of the bid, as well as the eventual success of the tournament, led him to nominate that World Cup as the one that meant the most to him personally.

Bayern Munich And The Early Years

Franz Beckenbauer, second from right, led West Germany to a World Cup championship as a player in 1974. Original picture: Associated Press (reproduced from New York Times)

Franz Anton Beckenbauer was born in September 1945 to Franz and Antonie Beckenbauer in Giesing, a working-class suburb of Munich, close to what would become the site of the city’s Olympic Stadium. His father was a postal worker. Franz was identified as a player of rare talent as a child by both of the city’s professional teams, 1860 Munich and Bayern Munich.

His decision to play for Bayern became the moment the team’s destiny was set. Without Beckenbauer, Bayern “would never have become the club it is today,” as a statement from that perennial German champion put it.

Originally a midfielder, Beckenbauer spent the majority of his career as a “libero,” effectively a deep-lying sweeper given license to roam forward and start attacks whenever the opportunity arose.

“For me, he was the best player in German history,” the country’s current national team coach, Julian Nagelsmann, said. “His interpretation of the role of the libero changed the game. This role and his friendship with the ball made him a free man. Franz Beckenbauer was able to float on the lawn. As a footballer, and later also as a coach, he was sublime. He stood above things.”

Beckenbauer, in foreground, during a World Cup match between West Germany and Peru in Leon, Mexico, in June 1970. Picture: Lohmann/Associated Press (reproduced from New York Times)

Beckenbauer made more than 500 appearances for Bayern — and a further 103 for West Germany — before announcing his decision to leave the country and join the New York Cosmos in 1977. It was a decision that cost him his place at the 1978 World Cup, when the German soccer federation decreed it would not select players working outside Europe.

He did not regret it. He would later describe his years with the Cosmos — where he counted Pelé among his teammates — as the best of his life.

In Munich, he said, he could not go for a meal without “the newspapers reporting on my main course.” The cosmopolitanism of New York, by contrast, offered a degree of freedom. “At Munich, we were all German players,” he said. “At the Cosmos, it was 14 nationalities, and Pelé.”

Woody Allen’s First Reaction: “My God, Franz Beckenbauer!” 

Hollywood filmmaker Woody Allen was dumbfounded on seeing Beckenbauer at his table. Picture: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The anonymity was only relative, though. One night, Beckenbauer was dining with Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records and the driving force behind the Cosmos, on Second Avenue. Beckenbauer spotted Woody Allen and asked Mr. Ertegun, impeccably connected, to introduce him.

As detailed by Gavin Newsham in his 2006 book “Once In A Lifetime,” his history of the Cosmos, the impresario duly obliged, heading across the restaurant with Beckenbauer following, uncharacteristically shy. As they reached the director’s table, though, before Mr. Ertegun could speak, Mr. Allen quickly stood up, a look of incredulity on his face. “My God, Franz Beckenbauer,” he said.

The Legend Who Was Only Human

Beckenbauer, left, with Herbert Hainer, the chief executive of the sportswear company Adidas, in Berlin in April 2006 as a unified Germany prepared to host the World Cup. Beckenbauer headed the organizing committee for the event, which gave rise to allegations of corruption in the bidding process. Picture: John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images (reproduced from New York Times)

But Beckenbauer also had stains on his legacy. Throughout his career, his private life and his conduct as an executive led to reputational damage and more than one brush with the law: Both his tax affairs and his romantic life attracted scrutiny and, in the case of the former, seven-figure fines.

The allegations of corruption over the bidding process for the 2006 World Cup hung over him for a decade. Beckenbauer evaded criminal conviction in Switzerland, home of soccer’s governing body FIFA, only when a trial was abandoned just before the verdict was due because of a Swiss rule related to the amount of time that had elapsed since the crimes were alleged to have been committed.

That trial came a few years after Beckenbauer participated in the tainted FIFA vote that led to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments being awarded to Russia and Qatar. Beckenbauer was among the officials accused of wrongdoing.

He always denied the accusations. “We did not want to bribe anyone, and we did not bribe anyone,” he wrote in a column for the German newspaper Bild in 2016.

In his private life, Beckenbauer was married three times in all. He had two children with his third wife Heidrun and two others from previous marriages.

“He did everything that a German is not supposed to do,” his former teammate Paul Breitner once said. “He got divorced, he left his children, took off with his girlfriend, got into trouble with tax collectors, left his girlfriend again. But he is forgiven for everything because he’s got a good heart, he’s a positive person, and he’s always ready to help. He doesn’t conceal his weaknesses, doesn’t sweep his mistakes under the carpet.”

Adapted from New York Times’ tribute on Franz Beckenbauer 

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