Franz Beckenbauer was born in 1945, in Giesing, a working-class section of Munich. He made his debut for Bayern Munich at age 18, his debut for the German national team at 20 and went on to become one of the most recognizable names in world football. Beckenbauer played for Bayern from 1964 until 1977; he helped the Bavarians become the most successful club in German football history and ushered in a golden age where from 1974-1976 Bayern were champions of Europe three consecutive years. He played on the national team for 13 years and in three World Cups. Germany finished runners-up in 1966, third place in 1970, and finally winners in 1974. A brief list of his major accomplishments as a footballer includes:
- 4 German championships (1969, 1972, 1973, 1974),
- 4 German Cups (1966, 1967, 1969, 1971),
- 3 European Cups (1974, 1975, 1976),
- 1 Intercontinental Cup (1976),
- 1 Cup Winners’ Cup (1967),
- 2 European Footballer of the Year awards (1972, 1976),
- 4 German Footballer of the Year awards (1966, 1968, 1974, 1976)
- 1 World Cup trophy (1974).
The New Sweeper
Beckenbauer redefined the role of sweeper and helped restructure the national team, Bayern Munich and German football as a whole. In some important ways, Beckenbauer fulfilled German footballing tropes. He kept command and order at the back, made sure that the Germans held the ball more than their opponents, and helped form a very structured and efficient team. At times he showed a real fighting spirit, once playing the second half of a World Cup semifinal—the 1970 game against Italy—in a sling with a dislocated shoulder. Yet at the same time, he was an unconventional player; he fulfilled his role in covering behind Germany’s three-person defense, but he went forward whenever he could. His penchant to attack from the back was what made him special. FIFA, football’s world organization, said of him, “it was his nature to go forward; he simply could not stop himself.”
Against the Grain
Beckenbauer did not entirely fulfill the stereotype of a German player. Typical German players of the ’60s and ’70s were tall, muscular, physically imposing, attack minded, good in the air, hard tackling, and lacking in creativity on field. Beckenbauer was attack-minded and could hold his own in the air but he was very much the exception to the rule of physical, and aggressive play. He admittedly did not like the physical side of football. He was gifted with good speed, had lots of endurance, but played with a creativity and vision that was not generally associated with German footballers. When he captained Germany he was “the brains behind [the team];” in the Bundesliga, “Beckenbauer steered Bayern from the back.” Galeano describes that his game was beautiful,
“he proved that elegance can be more powerful than a tank, and delicacy more penetrating than a howitzer.”
A German Crisis
The success he had in his position, the unique skill set he brought, and his ability to command his teams cemented the role of sweeper in the German football understanding. Yet, following his retirement this may have had a negative impact on German football as a whole. In Germany, following the Beckenbauer era, all teams—down to the youth level—were based upon a sweeper system that had been defined by the prodigious talent Beckenbauer possessed, however, almost nobody could live up to what Beckenbauer was able to do in position and command.  His unwavering defense was legendary, football historian Eduardo Galeano writes, “in the back nothing escaped him, not one ball, not a fly, not a mosquito could get through; and when he attacked it was like fire.” Who could follow in Beckenbauer’s shoes?
Beckenbauer Returns to Coach
After retiring from the New York Cosomos and the game of football as a player in 1983, Beckenbauer returned to Germany to coach. Beckenbauer’s coaching career had a very unorthodox beginning that spoke to the influence he held in the world of German football. In 1984 German football was at a low point. West Germany had recently been knocked out in the quarterfinals of the European Championships, and just two years earlier, in the 1982 World Cup, German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher had unnecessarily collided with onrushing French midfielder Patrick Battiston leaving him unconscious and missing multiple teeth. Unharmed in the challenge, Schumacher showed little concern for the injured French player and attempted to get on with the game. Schumacher’s actions and the poor performances of the German team left German football in desperate need for change.
- The collision between Schumacher and Battiston left the French player unconscious and missing several teeth.
In order to rectify the situation “Germany follow[ed] a tried-and-tested route in crisis: turn to Franz Beckenbauer.” The fact that Beckenbauer didn’t have the credentials, nor had he publicly expressed the desire to coach the team didn’t matter. His image and influence in Germany was so great that it was thought he could bring the “pride and credibility” back to the team. After a falsified article in Bild newspaper that headlined “Franz: I’m ready” he met with the DFB president and was convinced to take a caretaker role until he got his coaching license and became the official coach. Beckenbauer coached West Germany from 1984 until 1990.
Beckenbauer attempted to rediscover the creative element he felt Germany’s “blind” players were lacking. He predicted that it would take ten years before Germany was at the top again, and surpassed his own expectations by four years. Six years after taking over, at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, he brought the title of World Champions back to Germany. For Beckenbauer it was the peak of his career, he said,
“Italy 1990 was the most important for me. It doesn’t get any better than coaching a team to win the World Cup.”