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FourFourTwo's 100 Greatest Footballers EVER: No.7, Franz Beckenbauer

Franz Beckenbauer

The son of a post office worker, Franz Beckenbauer seemed destined for 1860 Munich, the club he supported as a boy. Born in Giesling, the working-class district of the city from which 1860 drew upon their most fervent supporters, he was set to join them as a youth team player until, at a 1958 under-11s tournament in Neubiberg, a junior 1860 player punched young Franz following an altercation during a match.

On the spot, Beckenbauer decided he could never join a club whose players behaved in such a way. Instead, he applied for membership of FC Bayern, a club which tended to appeal to boys from wealthier districts like Schwabing.

At that time, Bayern lagged behind rivals Offenbach and Frankfurt, but they had a formidable youth set-up, rammed with emerging talent including goalkeeper Sepp Maier, defender Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck and the taciturn striker Gerd Muller. Somehow Beckenbauer quickly fitted in.

From winger to Kaiser

Like many great players, Beckenbauer was adept at playing in several positions. Originally a centre-forward, he actually made his Bayern debut in the Regionalliga Sud as a left winger, and in his first full season, Bayern won promotion to the recently formed Bundesliga. As Bayern’s youth team products blossomed, Bayern gradually became the dominant force in West German football.

Beckenbauer began to experiment with the sweeper role, and became the most effective exponent of it in world football

By the 1968/69 season, Beckenbauer had been appointed as captain, and led Bayern to their first Bundesliga title. A calm and cerebral presence who shied away from the more physical side of football when possible, he possessed such gravitas that he began to experiment with the sweeper role, and became the most effective exponent of it in world football.

There are two versions of the story about how Beckenbauer was given the 'Kaiser' moniker. Beckenbauer claims it was because, in 1968, he posed alongside a bust of former Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and the media referred to him as Fussball Kaiser afterwards. Alternatively, it was because in the 1969 German Cup Final he fouled Schalke’s Reinhard Libuda, often known as Konig von Westfalen (King of Westphalia), and the press believed that Beckenbauer had now trumped him.

Either way, the exalted moniker was entirely befitting: Bayern won a hat-trick of Bundesliga titles between 1972 and 1974, and did likewise in the European Cup between 1974 and 1976. On the international stage, Beckenbauer captained West Germany to triumph in the 1972 European Championship and 1974 World Cup.

Like Bayern, Beckenbauer wasn’t universally loved, and often expressed shock at the aggression displayed towards his team at Bundesliga away games. Aged 18, he was banned from the West German youth team for refusing to marry his pregnant girlfriend, and – controversially - he was no longer selected for international matches after joining the New York Cosmos in 1977 for a hugely successful four-year spell.

Der Kaiser returned to the Bundesliga in the early 1980s, when he led Hamburg to the league title. Naturally. He was a born winner.

Career highlight
At Hampden Park in 1976, Beckenbauer captained Bayern on the night they completed a hat-trick of European Cup victories, defeating Saint-Etienne. “I still have a huge feeling of pride about that one,” he later recalled.

The list

100 to 91 • 90 to 81 • 80 to 71 • 70 to 61 • 60 to 51 • 50 to 41 • 40 to 31 • 30 to 21

20 • 19 • 18 • 17 • 16 • 15 • 14 • 13 • 12 • 11 • 10 • 9 • 8 • 7 • 6 • 5 • 4 • 3 • 2 • 1

FourFourTwo's 100 Greatest Footballers EVER

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Jon Spurling is a history and politics teacher in his day job, but has written articles and interviewed footballers for numerous publications at home and abroad over the last 25 years. He is a long-time contributor to FourFourTwo and has authored seven books, including the best-selling Highbury: The Story of Arsenal in N5, and Get It On: How The '70s Rocked Football was published in March 2022.