Beckenbauer defined an era as a player and that was just the beginning | Andy Brassell

In late February 2020, myself and a handful of other British journalists were given a tour of the German Football Museum, which looms opposite the central station in Dortmund. Our affable guide provided anecdote and colour for the huge array of artefacts spanning the sport’s history both pre-and post-reunification – and then we reached Beckenbauer Corner.

The momentos celebrating the career of Franz Beckenbauer, spanning more than four decades as player, coach, administrator and influencer (in the more traditional sense of the word) were gathered and cordoned off, in a sort of museum purgatory. The collection’s long-term fate would be decided, our guide explained, after the Fifa Ethics Committee concluded its investigation into bribery centred around Germany’s successful bid to host the 2006 World Cup. In early 2021 the investigation closed, when a statute of limitations expired, and the charges were dropped.

The museum scene was a perfect sum-up, in many ways, of Beckenbauer’s complicated legacy. Der Kaiser, the German football legend who died on Sunday aged 78, was always a leader and a pioneer, though there was still plenty of right place, right time throughout his career. The earliest sliding doors moment is generally recognised to have been in 1958, when the 12-year-old Beckenbauer played in a youth tournament in Neubiberg, a village in the south-eastern suburbs of Munich. He had grown up an 1860 Munich supporter but according to legend decided to throw in his lot with Bayern after being slapped by the 1860 player Gerhard König.

It was the right-hander that changed the course of German football history and shaped Bayern, whom he joined at just the right time. When 1860 were chosen as Munich’s representative for the inaugural Bundesliga season in 1963, Bayern had to tighten belts. A clutch of young talents, led by Beckenbauer, got their chance. By 1969 Bayern had become the first Bundesliga-DFB Pokal double winners.

If Gerd Müller’s goals wrote headlines, Beckenbauer’s guiding hand was always in view. He had been a forward when König walloped him in his youth but as a pro, redefined what the game could expect of a defender. He became one of those rare players whose name came to define a role and, in his case, embody a certain finesse.

Some in Germany suggested Beckenbauer’s personality and influence was even greater than his production on the pitch, but the combination of his character and talent was irresistible. It saw him past the only European player of his era he considered superior, Johan Cruyff, in the 1974 World Cup final for West Germany – and his pep talk after the shock reverse to East Germany in the first round changed the course of that tournament – before leading Bayern to three successive European Cups, fully establishing them as the preeminent force in the Bundesliga era.

The New York Cosmos team line up before a match
The New York Cosmos team of the late 1970s included Pelé (10), Giorgio Chinaglia (9) and Franz Beckenbauer (6).
Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

The next stage of Beckenbauer’s influence was stepping out of the bubble of Munich and joining the New York Cosmos in 1977. It was clear there was a financial element to going Stateside after running into issues with the West German tax authorities, but Beckenbauer’s move was groundbreaking. Alongside Pelé and Giorgio Chinaglia the Cosmos were “the ultimate boy band”, in the words of 11 Freunde’s Tim Juergens, and Beckenbauer lived it large from his 21st floor apartment in Central Park, walking distance from Studio 54.

Beckenbauer already had cultural significance beyond the game, posing for photos with Mick Jagger (and teammate Müller) after Bayern won the 1976 European Cup in Glasgow but by immersing himself in NYC, Der Kaiser truly became a man of the world. Taking over the West Germany team from Jupp Derwall in 1984, he allied his cache from his impeccable playing career to a new worldliness. His post-playing pinnacle, coaching his country to the 1990 World Cup, was built on trust rather than pure discipline.

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Franz Beckenbauer (first to the right) and Bayern Munich players pose with the European Cup after their 1-0 victory against St Étienne in 1976 at Hampden Park.
Franz Beckenbauer (first to the right) and Bayern Munich players pose with the European Cup after their 1-0 victory against St Étienne in 1976 at Hampden Park. Photograph: PA Photos/PA Archive/PA Images

When a DFB delegation did a pre-tournament visit to Lake Kaltern in South Tyrol, where West Germany would base themselves for Italia 90, the party got a bit out of hand. On hearing about various alcohol-fuelled high jinks, Beckenbauer could have asserted his authority. Instead he turned a blind eye, and it was the beginning of a successful summer masterminded by “an emperor who ruled with a light touch,” as Juergens put it. “Get out there, have fun and play football,” was his message to his squad. “Winning a title isn’t just about tactics and training,” reflected midfielder Pierre Littbarski. “It needs a healthy dose of fun.”

That feeling was front and centre when the West German players bade him a fond farewell post-tournament, but Beckenbauer quickly decided coaching wasn’t enough fun for him. A brief and turbulent spell in charge of Bernard Tapie’s Marseille marked the end of his career on the bench save two successful caretaker spells at Bayern. He again left his mark on his first club in 15 years as Bayern president, part of the triumvirate with Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge that helped to make FC Hollywood one of European football’s blue-chip institutions, rather than the built-on-sand giant that had begun to leak money by the late ‘70s.

Franz Beckenbauer (left) and Uli Hoeness (right) at the Bundesliga match between Bayern Munich and Hannover 96 at the Allianz Arena in 2016
Franz Beckenbauer (left) and Uli Hoeness (right) oversaw the building of Bayern Munich into a global club. Photograph: Angelika Warmuth/EPA

Winning the right to host in 2006 further gilded Beckenbauer’s reputation as The Man Who Could and despite the fallout, there is no doubting what a huge influence he had on German football, standing tall on and off the field. As the game comes to terms with its loss, Beckenbauer Corner promises to be one of the museum’s star attractions for decades to come.

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