A living legend on and off the pitch, Franz Anton Beckenbauer is commonly considered one of the greatest players of all time.
At the pinnacle of his wonderful career Beckenbauer’s nickname was highly suitable, as he literally ruled the football world; ‘Kaiser Franz‘, as he was widely known across the globe, captained the first team to win consecutively the European Championship (in 1972) and the World Cup (two years later), uniting the two crowns for the first time ever (France and Spain have since done it).
In five consecutive major tournaments with the West German team he played four finals and one semifinal, winning two Ballon d’Ors.
Only a month before winning the world title in 1974 he led his Bayern team to the first of three consecutive European Cups, becoming the only player so far to lift the famous trophy on three occasions as captain.
Beckenbauer was the first person in football history to win the World Cup both as a player and as a manager, as he coached Matthaus, Brehme et al to glory in 1990. It took the only other person to win in both capacities, Mario Lobo Zagallo, 24 years to complete the feat (1970 and 1994).
Retiring from the active, pitchside role, Beckenbauer moved up to the office, first with Bayern and later with DFB (the German FA), overlooking great transformations and enjoying lots of success at both.
His remarkable progress during the 20 years he spent playing for his hometown team Bayern Munich mirrored the club’s rise from mid-level Bavarian side into the German, European and global powerhouse we all know today.
But first and foremost Beckenbauer is known for his unique role on the pitch as the world’s most famous libero. He singlehandedly transformed the position from the out-and-out defensiveness championed by Armando Picchi in Helenio Herrera’s all-conquering Inter Milan team into a role commonly described as the attacking defender. Ironically, it would be another member of that famous Italian side that would help Beckenbauer transform his role on the pitch.
The turning point in Beckenbauer’s career was 1964 when in a quick succession the 18-year-old earned a place in Bayern’s first team and the senior Germany squad.
Before that it was rarely an easy life for the youngster. Born in the ruins of Munich only four months after World War Two, his football career began when he was six.
In his youth Franzie played as a centre forward, just like his childhood hero Fritz Walter, a key player in the 1954 World Cup winning team that brought enormous joy to the nation still suffering in the aftermath of the war.
Like most local kids at the time he supported TSV 1860 München, but a twist of fate led him to Bayern instead: a brawl with TSV team members at an U14 tournament in 1959.
At the time TSV was the stronger side of the two. When in 1963 DFB decided to finally end their complicated league system (ever since the late nineteenth century German clubs had played in regional leagues, and only their champions would later face each other in a knock-out competition for the national title) the blue-white team was chosen to represent Munich, rather than the red-white one.
It would all change once Bayern assembled a youthful side led by Sepp Maier in goal, Gerd Müller upfront and Beckenbauer building the play from the back.
It would take them two years to earn their place in the top tier, only to see their local rivals win the title the following season.
But it was a good season for Bayern as well, as they won the German Cup for the second time ever. It was a huge success for a team whose top stars were all under 22 and it would allow them to play in Europe, where they would achieve instant success, beating Glasgow Rangers to the 1967 Cup Winners’ Cup.
It would kick off a trophy winning spree which would continue uninterrupted for ten years, earning them four league titles, four German Cups, three European Cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1976 Intercontinental Cup as the crowning achievement. Beckenbauer played during the entire period, captaining the side for the latter six years.
The 1969 Bundesliga title, Bayern’s first since 1932, showed them the way and gave them the confidence to persevere. It came at the time Beckenbauer’s role was transformed, helped by the change in the dugout.
But let’s go back a bit. At the age of 18, Beckenbauer went through personal problems, but within six months he finally broke into Bayern’s first team. On his debut versus Stuttgarter Kickers the teenager played as the left winger. Over the following four years he played in various positions, including strictly covering Bobby Charlton in the 1966 World Cup Final.
Ever since they were back in the Regionalliga, Bayern were coached by Yugoslav Zlatko Cajkovski, who was heavily influenced by the Hungarian coaches of the 40’s and the 50’s. On a personal level Cajkovski was great for Beckenbauer, helping him to improve his technique and build up strength, but above all he introduced the future Kaiser to modern tactics.
Even though he played as a defender Cajkovski as a coach used the attacking style, which suited a Bayern team well on their way to the top, especially in cup games. However, when it comes to winning the league it is necessary to take care of your team’s defence.
In 1968 Cajkovski was replaced by his compatriot (and long time teammate) Branko Zebec, who had previously coached Dinamo Zagreb to their 1967 Fairs’ Cup win, where they beat Leeds United. That was the game changer.
“I was coached by the likes of Udo Lattek, Ernst Happel and Zlatko Cajkovski, but the biggest of them all was Branko Zebec. He is number one on my private list”.
Zebec abandoned the attacking style, reinforcing the defence instead. But to do it he needed to transform his libero in order to utilise his many qualities.
Even though he was a tough tackler and strong in the air when needed, Franz Beckenbauer was best with the ball at his feet. His technique and vision were sublime and his passing well ahead of his time.
Watching the great Internazionale side of the mid-sixties, it was their left wingback that caught Beckenbauer’s attention. With a sweeper and two central defenders behind him Giacinto Fachetti was allowed to go forward as often as possible and he put this freedom to good use, consistently providing goals and assists for the team.
Being so assured on the ball, Beckenbauer decided to try something similar right through the middle of the pitch. It had devastating effect, as the opposing teams simply didn’t know how to defend him.
Even though his starting position without the ball was behind the two central defenders, once his team gained possession (and he was often the one to win it) Franz would carry the ball up the pitch, before deciding whether to pass to a teammate, or to go for it himself.
His attacking career stats are incredible for a defender – over the course of his club career, which at the late stages took him to New York Cosmos and Hamburg, he scored 81 goals and registered 94 assists. He scored 13 goals for West Germany as well.
Even though he didn’t provide a goal or an assist, he was arguably the man of the match at the 1974 World Cup Final, when the Germans managed to repeat the feat of 1954, beating the world’s best team at the time, Johan Cruijff’s Holland.
Not many players managed to emulate Kaiser Franz’s style at the top level. Matthias Sammer and Lothar Matthaus played in similar roles at the tail end of their careers, with the former enjoying more success (Matthaus was much better in the attacking midfielder role).
In contemporary football the likes of Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo are often compared to Beckenbauer. If not completely similar to the famous German, all of them are considered nearly as elegant as he was back then.
Alonso’s defensive duties in the current Bayern setup make him the closest of the three, while Xavi’s most Franz-like game was arguably in the 2011 Champions League Final, when Man Utd’s early pressure forced him to dictate the game from a lot further back than usual.
But perhaps the closest player to Beckenbauer considering his role on the field is the guy who swapped positions (not roles) with Xavi on that famous night in Wembley, Sergio Busquets. Playing in such a wonderfully talented team as Barcelona, Busquets’ passing skills are often overlooked. Though admittedly nowhere near as pleasing on the eye as Kaiser Franz, the Catalan is finally receiving the acclaim he deserves for his offensive contribution as well.