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World Cup icons: Cruyff vs Beckenbauer – how great rivals became great friends (1974)

Cruyff, Beckenbauer 1974

Rarely do the two best player's face each other in a World Cup final; they did in 1974, though...

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Of all the scenarios that could unfold in Russia this summer, among the less likely is Argentina and Portugal meeting in the final. Not just because neither side are among the hot favourites, but also because it would mean Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – the two best players of their generation – facing off for the game’s biggest trophy. And that almost never happens.

You could perhaps argue it did in 1998, when Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo went toe-to-toe in the Stade de France showpiece, though the Frenchman blossomed into true world class only in the wake of that match. So you’d say the exception that proves the rule was the 1974 final – when the Kaiser met the King.

All too rare

That Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff came up against each other on the grandest of all stages becomes even more improbable when you consider a surprising fact: these two giants of the game faced each other in only four competitive matches. One year before the World Cup final, they captained their sides in the first leg of the European Cup quarter-final between Ajax and Bayern Munich (Cruyff missed the return match through injury).

And then there were two NASL clashes years later, in 1979 and ’80, which pitted Beckenbauer’s New York Cosmos team against Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats sides starring the iconic Dutchman. That’s it.

Perhaps strangest of all is this: although West Germany’s victory in 1974 led to a simmering resentment in the Netherlands, and was the starting point for one of the fiercest rivalries in world football, the two men who led these teams not only respected each other before and after that fateful day in Munich, but became good friends. When the Dutchman passed away in March 2016, Beckenbauer tweeted: “I am shocked – Johan Cruyff is dead. He was not only a very good friend, but also a brother to me.”

‘Brother’ is not a far-fetched word when you analyse the similarities between the two players, starting with the three European Cups they won on the trot. Neither played in the 1978 World Cup, though they were still active. They both left Europe for the United States before finishing their careers with their hometown club’s arch-rivals (Cruyff at Feyenoord and Beckenbauer at Hamburg). And they even went into coaching within just a few months of each other, in 1984/85.

Since neither man had bothered to acquire coaching badges, new titles were invented for them – Cruyff became technical director at Ajax, while Beckenbauer was the national side’s ‘team leader’. Their managerial careers were successful, but not especially long. Both last coached a club side in 1996 before concentrating on roles that can best be described as football’s guardians and admonishers.

Cruyff was known (and feared) for his scathing public comments, though his German counterpart wasn’t too far behind. In June 2000, Beckenbauer even mocked the German national team – who came bottom of their group at that summer’s European Championship – with an expression that has entered the game’s parlance as a term for lumbering play: “Rumpelfussball”.

No room in the Big Apple

The King and the Kaiser did in fact twice appear on the same team. Cruyff agreed to join the Cosmos once he left Barcelona and played two friendlies alongside Beckenbauer – against the World All-Stars in August 1978, and against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge a month later. In the end, he moved to Los Angeles because the NASL didn't want all the big names in New York.

On Beckenbauer’s 70th birthday in 2015, Cruyff told the German magazine 11Freunde: “I can’t say exactly when we became friends. But even when we were playing, we instinctively had a great respect for each other and that organically grew into a friendship. We often saw each other, because I always went skiing in Kitzbuhel, where he was living. We did sport together and, in the evenings, sat together. Over the years, the connection became stronger and stronger.”

Apart from maybe Pele and Diego Maradona, nobody could begin to imagine what it’s like to be Johan Cruyff or Franz Beckenbauer. As Cruyff put it: “We both know that life at the top is lonely.”

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