KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Franz Beckenbauer, who has died after several years of failing health, was the greatest German footballer of all time. A case may well be made that he was the greatest German sportsman. He was also, beyond national boundaries, one of the very greatest players in the history of the game.

The sad irony is that Beckenbauer’s death follows so soon after that of his 1966 World Cup rival Sir Bobby Charlton and within days of Mario Zagallo, whom he matched as a World Cup winner while both player than coach. Indeed, Beckenbauer went one better: he was the first man to captain and coach his country to the ultimate prize-winning glory.

Beckenbauer, born on September 11, 1945, built his reputation with Bayern Munich but also enjoyed an American adventure with Cosmos in New York before one last, brief Bundesliga hurrah with Hamburg. He was the first German to reach a century of caps.

His honours degree as a player portrays 103 caps, the World Cup in 1974 (runner up in 1966), the European championship in 1972 (runner up 1976), the World Club Cup (1976), the European Champions Cup (1974, 1975, 1976), the Cup winners Cup (1967), West German league and cup.

Beckenbauer was also a runner up in the UEFA Cup with Hamburg and a runner up in the Supercup with Bayern. With New York Cosmos, he won the NASL Superbowl in 1977, 1978 and 1980. Twice he was voted European Footballer of the Year, in 1972 and 1976. As a team manager he led West Germany to the 1990 World Cup and Bayern to the Bundesliga title and UEFA Cup.

But achievement is not, itself, sufficient evidence of greatness. Beckenbauer’s innovative strength was through the revolutionary role of attacking sweeper which, with the encouragement of Bayern Munich coach Tschik Cajkovski, he developed in the late 1960s.

The boy Beckenbauer took his first steps on the football ladder with 1860 Munich before he switched to Bayern and was recognised by West Germany at youth level. Within a year of making his league debut with Bayern, as an outside left, Beckenbauer was promoted into the senior national team.

The occasion was one to test the nerve of the most experienced player, never mind a fledgling newcomer: West Germany were away to Sweden in a decisive qualifier for the 1966 World Cup. The odds were against them. Yet they won by 2-1. West Germany’s place in the World Cup finals was all but secured and Beckenbauer’s place in the national team was settled for almost a decade.

Career pinnacle

In due course he was voted German Footballer of the Year and European Footballer of the Year. On the pitch he was grace and elegance personified, combining an athlete’s physique with a computer-like brain for the game which saw gaps before they had opened and goal opportunities – for himself and his team-mates -for which opposing defences had not prepared.

The pinnacle of his career was in leading West Germany to victory in the 1974 World Cup on his home pitch of the Munich Olympic stadium and at the expense of his old rival Johan Cruyff and Netherlands. It was the ultimate reproof to critics who said he was wasting his talent as an attacking sweeper.

Beckenbauer, in an increasingly crowded modern game, found that the sweeper role provided him with time and space in which to work his magical influence on a match. He was the puppet master, pulling the strings which earned West Germany and Bayern every major prize.

Not that Beckenbauer shied away from the attacking opportunity when it presented itself. Indeed, West German manager Helmut Schon maintained him in midfield – from which he scored the goal which inspired West Germany’s revival against England in the legendary 1970 World Cup quarter-final – far longer than at Bayern.

His influence at the club was unique because Robert Schwan, his personal manager, was also general manager. It was a conflict of interest never challenged because results were all-important. Besides, Schwan kept local politicians on board as Bayern – despite their success – walked a financial and tax tightrope.

US switch

Beckenbauer moved forward again into midfield during his four years in New York. Cosmos’ management believed the American public too naive to understand why their latest high-profile superstar played defence. Beckenbauer made many friends and admirers in the United States and was long expected to take a central role in their 1994 World Cup wind-up before other interests distracted him.

On retiring, Beckenbauer was in demand as a newspaper and television columnist and it was in inviting him to put negative words into positive deeds that he was offered the post of national manager in succession to Jupp Derwall after the 1984 Euro disappointment.

The DFB had always promoted from within. Beckenbauer was an outsider with a ‘name’ no coaching experience: his appointment represented a huge gamble not only with his own golden reputation but by DFB president Hermann Neuberger.

Six years later the gamble paid off. Such was Beckenbauer’s Midas touch that, not only were “his” West Germany crowned world champions in Rome but Beckenbauer’s guiding role earned him that other unique place in history. He retired after the 1990 World Cup triumph only to return to coaching twice – once, briefly and unsuccessfully with Marseille, and then again with Bayern to win a German league title and the UEFA Cup in 1996.

Political problems

At the time Beckenbauer was also Bayern president. However his foray into football politics proved a damagingly painful one after he flew too close to the corrupt Blatter-era FIFA and all its World Cup scandals.

Soon he was appointed vice-president of the DFB then joined the all-powerful executive committees of UEFA and FIFA. Now he was tipped for football’s top job, as president of the world federation. Instead he preferred to enhance his image by heading up Germany’s successful bid to stage the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Family and friends urged him to quit while he was ahead. In vain. Unfortunately.

December 2, 2010, was the day it all began to go wrong. Very publicly. Beckenbauer’s FIFA voting role entangled him in the Russia and Qatar World Cup awards. He was unhealthily close to both the Russian energy giant Gazprom on the one hand and to Australia’s manipulative German bid advisers on the other. Six months later he quit FIFA after only one four-year term as ever-more lurid tales circulated around the World Cup voting.

Later he found himself entangled in revelations about murky financial dealings by the successful German 2006 World Cup bid and organising operationwhich he fronted.

Beckenbauer and three DFB colleagues were subjected to both a FIFA ethics inquiry and a Swiss criminal investigation but he was never charged, on grounds of ill health. Not only had he undergone a hip replacement and two heart procedures but other personal woes weighed, with one of his five children, son Stephan, succumbing to cancer.

Beckenbauer quit his TV pundit role, cancelled his 34-year column with Bild and retreated from public life as further ill health took its toll.

Football’s film vaults will continue to hail not his last years in the shadows but those fabulous images of the youngster trading steps with Bobby Charlton in 1966, defying a dislocated shoulder in the 1970 semi-final thriller against Italy, the first club captain to raise the Champions Cup three years in a row and as Der Kaiser hosting the World Cup in 1974 . . . on his way to sporting immortality.

Franz Anton Beckenbauer: born September 11, 1945; died January 7, 2024.