Franz Beckenbauer revolutionized soccer with sweeper role, bringing glamor and glory to Bayern and Germany

1975 Franz Beckenbauer of Germany looks on
. (Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

Beckenbauer looks on while playing for West Germany in 1975.Alessandro Sabattini/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Revolutionary soccer player Franz Beckenbauer, one of the few men to win the World Cup as both as a player and a coach, has died at the age of 78, according to the German football federation (DFB).

Nicknamed ‘Der Kaiser’ ‘(The Emperor’), Beckenbauer is regarded as one of soccer’s all-time greats. He won the prestigious Ballon d’Or award in 1972 and 1976, the only defender ever to win it twice and is credited with pioneering soccer’s ‘sweeper’ position.

“Franz was a marvelous distributor of the ball, a great tackler, he always had control of a situation and he never panicked,” England legend Bobby Charlton told FourFourTwo magazine in 2007.

In addition to his World Cup triumphs with what was then West Germany, Beckenbauer also captained his side to victory at the 1972 European Championships.

At the club level, Beckenbauer won five Bundesliga titles as a player and three European Cups with Bayern Munich.

He also spent some of his career in the United States with the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League, the predecessor to Major League Soccer, winning the championship on three occasions.

After spending time in management and with the DFB, Beckenbauer was investigated by FIFA over alleged involvement in corruption scandals surrounding bids by multiple countries to host the World Cup.

German Bundesliga, FC Bayern Munich - Hannover 96, Allianz Arena, Munich, May 4, 2019. Munich won 3:1. +++ Franz BECKENBAUER (Ehrenpraesident FC Bayern Muenchen), Einzelbild,angeschnittenes Einzelmotiv,Portraet,Portrait,Portraet. Fussball 1. Bundesliga, 32.Spieltag,Spieltag32, FC Bayern Muenchen M) - Hannover 96 (H 3-1, am 04.05.2019 in Muenchen A L L I A N Z A R E N A, DFL REGULATIONS PROHIBIT ANY USE OF PHOTOGRAPHS AS IMAGE SEQUENCES AND/OR QUASI-VIDEO. (Photo by ddp images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Beckenbauer pictured in 2019.Frank Hoermann/Sipa USA/AP

In 2021, the case was dropped “due to the expiry of the applicable limitation period for prosecution in accordance with article 12 of the FIFA Code of Ethics (FCE),” according to FIFA’s adjudicatory chamber of the independent Ethics Committee. Beckenbauer denied wrongdoing, per Reuters.

The inquiry coincided with a decline in health for Beckenbauer. He underwent heart surgery in 2016 and 2017 and his public appearances reduced.

His lawyers told FIFA during the investigations that he was suffering from a “progressive neurodegenerative disease” with “no expectation of a notable improvement.”

Born to play for Bayern

Beckenbauer was born on September 11, 1945, in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Though he would go on to become a Bayern icon, Beckenbauer grew up supporting local rivals 1860 Munich, like the majority of residents in Giesing, the town where he grew up, according to the Bundesliga.

Nevertheless, he joined Bayern’s youth ranks in the late 1950s and made his senior debut five years later, initially playing as a left winger.

The team earned promotion to the Bundesliga in 1965 and won the German Cup in 1966 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1967. Beckenbauer took over the captaincy the following year and guided the side to its first ever Bundesliga title in the 1968/69 campaign.

(L-R) Bayern Munich captain Franz Beckenbauer lifts the European Cup following his team's 4-0 victory, as teammates Johnny Hansen and Gerd Muller watch the reaction of the Bayern fans  (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Wearing the captain’s armband, Beckenbauer hoists the European Cup with Bayern Munich.S&G/PA Images/Getty Images

Three more Bundesliga titles came in 1972, 1973 and 1974, while Bayern and Beckenbauer also experienced success on the continental stage, winning three successive European Cups (now known as the Champions League) from 1974 to 1976.

After more than a decade at Bayern, Beckenbauer headed to the US and joined the Cosmos, briefly playing alongside Brazilian legend Pelé.

A winner of the ‘Soccer Bowl’ in 1977, ’78 and ’80, Beckenbauer returned to Germany to play a couple of seasons with Hamburg – winning the Bundesliga once again in 1982 – before spending one last spell with the Cosmos.

A German icon

Beckenbauer is equally revered for his efforts at the international level. He made his World Cup debut in 1966, playing a starring role as West Germany reached the final only to be defeated by England.

On the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), English soccer club Manchester United posted a photograph of Beckenbauer with England great Charlton, who played against the German defender in that 1966 final and who died in October 2023, saying: “Rivals on the pitch. Eternal respect off it. Now, together at rest.

“Sending heartfelt condolences to our counterparts at Bayern Munich as we mourn the loss of a true great, Franz Beckenbauer.”

Beckenbauer came up short again in the 1970 World Cup, but is remembered for soldiering on with his arm in a sling in a semifinal defeat against Italy after suffering a dislocated shoulder.

He captained his side to a 3-0 victory over the Soviet Union in the final of UEFA Euro 1972, but the pinnacle of Beckenbauer’s glittering career arguably came two years later, when he led West Germany to a World Cup victory on home soil, defeating fellow all-time great Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands in the final.

“Johan was a better player, but I won the World Cup,” Beckenbauer later said, per the Bundesliga.

FILE - In this July 7, 1974 file photo, West Germany captain, Franz Beckenbauer, holds up the World Cup trophy after his team defeated the Netherlands by 2-1, in the World Cup soccer final at Munich's Olympic stadium, in West Germany. Applauding at right, German goalkeeper Josef "Sepp" Maier. On this day: West Germany wins its second World Cup after defeating the much-fancied Dutch. (AP Photo/File)

Beckenbauer raises the World Cup trophy in 1974.AP

Success off the pitch

Beckenbauer stepped away from the German national team in 1977 after being capped 103 times, retiring from the game altogether in 1983 following his last campaign with the Cosmos.

The following year, he was appointed as West Germany manager.

He then guided the team to the 1986 World Cup final, where West Germany was defeated by Argentina and Diego Maradona, but went one better in 1990. West Germany got the better of Maradona’s men on this occasion to hoist the World Cup trophy for a second time.

Team manager Franz Beckenbauer is holding up the World Cup trophy on the balcony of Frankfurt's town hall, the Roemer; Raimond Aumann, Guenther Hermann and Pierre Littbarski are standing next to him. (Photo by Kai-Uwe Wärner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Beckenbauer celebrates with the World Cup trophy once again, this time as West Germany coach.Kai-Uwe Wärner/picture alliance/Getty Images

“German football will be unbeatable for years to come,” Beckenbauer remarked after the triumph, per the Bundesliga.

After leaving his position with the national team, Beckenbauer transitioned into club management, first leading French club Marseille to a league title in 1991, before heading back to where it all started with Bayern, winning yet another Bundesliga title and the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League).

His subsequent activities included a 15-year spell as Bayern president, with the Bavarian side evolving into the dominant force that it is recognized as today during his tenure. He also served as vice-president of the DFB, spearheading Germany’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup, while also working as a TV pundit.

Redefining a role

Much of Beckenbauer’s on-field success can be attributed to the way he revolutionized the center-back position.

As a sweeper or a ‘libero,’ Beckenbauer paved the way for the modern ball-playing defender, moving up the pitch to break up opponents’ attacks, spraying passes all over the field and hurling himself into attacks when needed.

This was a major shift from the traditional idea of a center-back, which usually involved limited forward movement.

Beckenbauer conversely assumed much more on-ball responsibility and played the position with a perceived grace and class.

File photo dated 12-07-1966 of West Germany's Franz Beckenbauer (r) guides the ball past Switzerland goalkeeper Karl Elsener (l) to score his team's fourth goal. Beckenbauer, who led West Germany to World Cup glory as both a captain and manager, has died at the age of 78, his family said in a statement to German news agency DPA. Issue date: Monday January 8, 2024. 75018325 (Press Association via AP Images)

Beckenbauer scores past Switzerland goalkeeper Karl Elsener in 1966.PA Photos/AP

“I am deeply shocked,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, long-time FC Bayern CEO and former teammate of Beckenbauer, told Bayern’s website.

“Franz Beckenbauer rewrote the history of German football and left a lasting mark on it. He was my captain at FC Bayern, my coach with the national team, our president at Bayern – and in all these roles, he was not only successful but unique.

“As a person, he impressed with his great respect for all people because everyone was equal in Franz’s eyes. German football has lost the greatest figure in its history. We will miss him more than sorely. Thank you for everything, dear Franz.”

Beckenbauer will forever be heralded as a hero in his native Germany. For leading from the front during several of the nation’s finest footballing moments, turning Bayern into a European powerhouse during his playing days and reinventing a seemingly inflexible role, ‘Der Kaiser’ etched his name into the soccer history books as one of the greatest players of all time.

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