Brazil had Pelé, England had Bobby Charlton and Germany had Franz Beckenbauer, in football’s golden age of the 1960s and 70s. While Pele and Charlton were the living, breathing symbols of their country’s best-known traits—Pelé’s flair, Charlton’s ingeniousness and grit—Beckenbauer charmed the world with a willingness to play outside of prescribed roles, something very un-German at the time. An elegant player with a lust for life and success, Beckenbauer changed football forever as he revolutionised the role of the libero—a ‘free man’ in defence who can sweep up and attack.
The football world lost its emperor, Der Kaiser, on Sunday. His family announced on Monday that Beckenbauer died “peacefully” surrounded by his family in the Austrian city of Salzburg at the age of 78. The German legend was only one of three footballers who won the World Cup as a player (1974) and coach (1990). Brazil's Mario Zagallo and France's Didier Deschamps have also achieved the feat.
“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,” Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann said in remembrance. “He rightly earned the title ‘lighting figure of German football.’”
Beckenbauer was born in Munich in 1945, a few week after the end of World War II. He grew up in the working-class district of Giesing and the country started rebuilding life after the war and trudged through guilt. Though his father, a postal worker, wasn’t too pleased with him playing football, he joined the youth team of SC Munich ’06 in 1954. Having played as a mid-fielder and on the left-wing early in his career led to the genesis of the best attacking defender in the game.
While Beckenbauer had already broken through the ranks at Bayern Munich and led them to promotion in the Bundesliga, the world first cast eyes on the German defender at the 1966 World Cup. In the final, the 20-year-old Beckenbauer’s role was to man mark Charlton, the finest player in the world at the time. West Germany lost the final 4-2 after extra time, but Beckenbauer had done his job in keeping Charlton shackled.
He was to conjure one of the most enduring images of his career at the 1970 World Cup as he played the last hour of the semi-final against Italy with a dislocated shoulder—and with his arm in a sling. Beckenbauer was central to Germany’s resurgence in football, as West Germany went on to win the 1972 European Championships. Two years later, they conquered the world. West Germany defeated Johann Cryuff’s brilliant Netherlands side, which introduced the ‘Total Football’ philosophy, 2-1 to win the 1974 World Cup.
“He was so elegant he wasn’t really German,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a team-mate, said on the Bundesliga’s official website. “He just oozed class and quality.” In his 104 appearances for West Germany and 427 for Bayern Munich, Beckenbauer injected joy in a football system defined by efficiency and rigour.
In their obituary on Beckenbauer, German publication Die Welt wrote, “We needed someone who could play football like Pelé, or at least play in a way that doesn’t make the rest of the world think of panzers.” He guided Bayern Munich, a second division club when he first debuted for them, to four Bundesliga titles and won the Ballon d’Or twice as a player—in 1972 and 1976.
After retiring from football in 1983, Beckenbauer was handed the reigns of the German national team in 1984. He turned that to gold as well, guiding the team to victory in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Ahead of the final against Diego Maradona-led Argentina, Beckenbauer reportedly told the team, “get out there, have fun, play football”.
A charismatic figure, Beckenbauer also made an impact as an administrator. Though allegations of corruption turned the story sour, he played a key role in bringing the 2006 World Cup to Germany.
Philipp Lahm, a member of the 2006 German team, wrote on an Instagram post on Monday: “As a player, he was way ahead of his time. As a coach, he knew how to communicate his mission to his team. The 2006 World Cup, the summer fairytale, taught a self-critical nation to like itself again.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.