Remembering Franz Beckenbauer, a true game-changer with a complicated legacy

For those who saw him play — even just in grainy videos — there’s a single image of Franz Beckenbauer that stands out. Striding out of the back, ball at his feet, head held high, eyes scanning for things only he could see, while worry builds in the eyes of the opponents: that was “Der Kaiser” who passed away on Monday, on the pitch.

But there’s far more to him than that.

You could say Franz Beckenbauer was a fortunate man. Most of us get just one act in our professional lives; he achieved GOAT candidate status as a player, made history as a World Cup-winning coach, helped his club consolidate its status as a juggernaut, organized a World Cup in his native Germany and ended his career as a member of FIFA’s executive committee. (That last one left him tarnished: more of this later.)

Along the way, he was a central part of the biggest soccer-related U.S. phenomenon pre-1994 World Cup, joining the New York Cosmos in their pomp and playing alongside Pelé, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia.

Most of all, with Pele and Johan Cruyff, he was part of a triumvirate of phenoms that defined an era during which the world shrank, TV proliferated the game and superstars became truly global.

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Beckenbauer also redefined a position: center back. He wasn’t the first sweeper, nor the first central defender who could play a pass and step into the midfield, but nobody did it as effectively and on such a big stage (arguably, before or after). The skills formed in his early years as an attacking midfielder never abandoned him.

The ability to move into the middle of the park, create man advantages or simply spray the ball with accuracy all over the pitch are things we take for granted today, but they were pioneered by Beckenbauer. So too was the idea that a center back wasn’t just a destroyer, but a creator, a guy who could illuminate a side; it may not have started with him, but nobody took it to a higher level.

In many ways, Beckenbauer was the first “modern” defender, which is why this commercial ahead of the 2006 World Cup, in which two kids fantasise about putting together a star-studded lineup of contemporary players, is so apt: even though he retired more than two decades earlier, he would not have been out of place among Zinedine Zidane, Kaka, Frank Lampard and the other stars of that tournament.

Beckenbauer made his first-team debut for Bayern Munich at 18 years of age and stuck around for 14 seasons, 582 appearances and 75 goals — a huge total for a guy who spent most of his career at the back. With the Bavarians, he won four league titles, four German Cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup and three European Cups. Then, in 1977, not yet 32, he joined the Cosmos and won three titles in four seasons.

He returned to the Bundesliga — not to Bayern, but to Hamburg, and contributed to another league title in 1981-82 before one final season with the Cosmos. It would be their penultimate season of existence before the North American Soccer League folded.

That was his club career. Running in parallel was an international career that spanned three World Cups, and he left his mark on each in the most emphatic way. In 1966, aged just 20, he was part of the West Germany side that reached the final, where he man-marked Sir Bobby Charlton out of the game. Beckenbauer’s side would end up losing to England on a goal that, to this day, most Germans regard as a “ghost goal,” the ball never actually crossing the line.

Four years later, in Mexico, West Germany looked headed to a showdown with Brazil’s Pele in the final at the Azteca, only to be upset by Italy in an epic 4-3 extra-time thriller that FIFA still remembers as the “Game of the Century.” Take the time to watch the highlights and you’ll see Beckenbauer playing the last 50 minutes with a dislocated shoulder, arm strapped to his side in a sling. Yeah, he wasn’t just elegant and pretty to watch: he was hard as nails, too.

In 1972, West Germany were crowned European champions, and it was the prelude to the 1974 World Cup, which they hosted and won, with Beckenbauer, the captain, lifting the cup after a comeback victory against Cruyff’s Clockwork Orange in the final.

Did he slow down after his retirement in 1983? Did he heck. Less than a year later, he was named West Germany and coach and duly guided his side to the 1986 World Cup final, where they were beaten only by the one and only Diego Armando Maradona. Beckenbauer’s side got their revenge in 1990, beating Maradona’s Argentina 1-0 in the final, making him only the second person in history (after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo) to win the World Cup both as a player and as a coach.

After leaving the German FA, he had brief stints at Marseille and then back at Bayern as interim coach, before leaving the dugout altogether. His two spells at Bayern totalled around six months combined, but coincided with more silverware: the 1993-94 Bundesliga and the 1995-96 UEFA Cup. That — alongside his success with the national side — cemented the notion that he was a big-picture man with a hefty dose of stardust to sprinkle, rather than the sort of detail-oriented coach suited to the daily grind of a club.

And so, Beckenbauer moved decisively into the world of football politics. His third act, in some ways, would be his most controversial.

He served as club president of Bayern — a largely honorary position, but a highly visible one — from 1994 to 2009, picking up other gigs along the way: vice-president of the German Football Association, head of the bid committee that awarded Germany the 2006 World Cup, head of the organizing committee of that same World Cup and later FIFA Executive Committee member.

If you like your heroes spotless and untainted, stop reading here. If you like them human, keep going, because this is where his legacy was tarnished.

Germany won the bid for 2006 over South Africa in highly controversial circumstances, amid allegations of corruption. He would face more accusations after it emerged that his position as head of the 2006 organising committee — a volunteer role, reportedly — was actually paid by a sponsor to the tune of $6 million. And, perhaps most egregiously, he faced serious accusations of corruption in the vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups (which were controversially awarded to Russia and Qatar). The FIFA ethics committee investigated him for five years before being forced to drop the case because the statute of limitations had expired.

You want to remember Beckenbauer as a graceful, smiling winner, a man universally loved and admired — a guy who wanted to be liked (unlike, say, his contemporary, Cruyff, who was typically blunt and direct even when it rubbed others the wrong way) and seemed to like everybody.

At the 2006 World Cup, I was in a parking lot near the AufSchalke Arena in Gelsenkirchen ahead of the Argentina vs. Serbia game when a helicopter carrying Beckenbauer landed a few hundred feet away. (He made it a point to show up to as many games as he could and to do so, he used a chopper.) Beckenbauer hopped out, smiled broadly and began shaking hands — not just dignitaries (there weren’t any) and media, but fans, parking lot attendants and volunteers. It struck me that he had no reason to do so other than he enjoyed being among people, even when there were no cameras around. (Remember: this was before the ubiquity of smartphones.)

Did he lose his moral compass once he moved upstairs? Maybe. Does it change the way we should remember Beckenbauer, the man? Probably. But does it in any way affect how we celebrate the legacy of Beckenbauer on the pitch and in the dugout?

Not in my view. He’ll forever be “Der Kaiser,” a giant of the game, conquering territory with his forays upfield, silverware with his victories and hearts with his smile.

I just wish his football story had ended before the millennium, prior to his entering FIFA politics.

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