World Cup Legends #4: Franz Beckenbauer

Continuing our series on World Cup legends, how Der Kaiser achieved almost mythical status in Germany, winning the World Cup as player and manager

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Franz Beckenbauer is universally known as “Der Kaiser” but in Germany, another moniker has found greater currency in recent years: they call him “Die Lichtgestalt”, the figure of light.

And it only takes a second or two in the company of the former Bayern Munich sweeper and two-times World Cup winner (first as a player in 1974, then as manager in 1990) to understand why this title, for all it’s over-the-top, quasi-religious reverence, is simply an accurate description of his charismatic appeal.

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Beckenbauer has that rare talent: he can shake your hand for the first time and make you feel that meeting you is the best thing that’s happened to him all day.

You know it’s not true, of course, and he knows that you know it as well, but somehow that reality is magically suspended for a fleeting moment.

The same incredible lightness of touch also made him Germany’s greatest-ever player. As a sweeper, he was freed from the rigid man-marking duties of the time to regally float through midfield; he dominated games with outside-of-the-boot passes, the accuracy of which were only matched by their sheer effortlessness.

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Beckenbauer was famously reluctant to head the ball, as he didn’t want to mess up his hair, and he never seemed to sweat either. Opposition fans found this nonchalance enraging.

Fußball was supposed to be a combination of running and fighting, not ephemeral art. They would throw knives at him and his all-conquering Bayern side of the mid Seventies.

By the time he lifted the World Cup as captain of the national team, the “libero” had become a symbol of the new West Germany: a liberal, permissive, modern democracy.

His ease on the ball belied a strong work-ethic, however. Beckenbauer, grew up as the son of a postal worker from Giesing, one of the poorest parts of Munich; it was known as the “Glasscherbenviertel”, the broken glass quarter, after the war.

He spent thousands of hours practising one-twos against a wall outside his house. “That wall was the most honest teammate you could wish for,” he explained years later, “if you play a proper pass, you’d get it back properly, without the need to run.”

A spell with New York Cosmos alongside Pele saw him rub shoulders with Liza Minnelli at Studio 54 and cemented his pop-star status at home. Ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev once propositioned him over dinner in Brooklyn; Beckenbauer laughed it off. “I told him I went to a different college,” he said.

After his career, Beckenbauer’s likability helped him to develop into a successful operator at the highest level. He resided over the staging of the wonderful 2006 World Cup in Germany and became something akin to the country’s unofficial head of state in the process.

He was also part of the Fifa committee that controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar but typically, he escaped without any meaningful censure. More than thirty years after he stopped caressing the ball, he’s still just as untouchable and impossible to tackle as he was on the pitch.

The June issue of Esquire, starring Bobby Moore, Pele, Diego Maradona, Johann Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Zinedine Zidane is available to buy now from all (most / some) good newsagents and as a digital edition.

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MORE WORLD CUP:

World Cup Legend #1: Maradona
World Cup Legend #2: Pelé
World Cup Legends #3: Zinedine Zidane
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