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Franz Beckenbauer, iconic German soccer figure, dies at 78

As a player, he reimagined the defender's role in soccer and captained West Germany to the World Cup title in 1974 before becoming a coach.
Franz Beckenbauer, iconic German soccer figure, dies at 78
Posted at 11:56 AM, Jan 08, 2024

Franz Beckenbauer, who won the World Cup both as player and coach and became one of Germany's most beloved personalities with his easygoing charm, has died, news agency dpa reported Monday. He was 78.

"It is with deep sadness that we announce that my husband and our father, Franz Beckenbauer, passed away peacefully in his sleep yesterday, Sunday, surrounded by his family," the family said in a statement to dpa, the German news agency. "We ask that we be allowed to grieve in peace and be spared any questions."

The statement did not provide a cause of death. The former Bayern Munich great had struggled with health problems in recent years.

Beckenbauer was one of German soccer's central figures. As a player, he reimagined the defender's role in soccer and captained West Germany to the World Cup title in 1974 after it had lost to England in the 1966 final. He was the coach when West Germany won the tournament again in 1990, a symbolic moment for a country in the midst of reunification, months after the Berlin Wall fell.

Beckenbauer's death comes just two days after the announcement that Mario Zagallo, the Brazilian who became the first person to win the World Cup as a player and coach, had died at the age of 92.

Beckenbauer was also instrumental in bringing the highly successful 2006 World Cup to Germany, though his legacy was later tainted by charges that he only succeeded in winning the hosting rights with the help of bribery. He denied the allegations.

"We did not want to bribe anyone and we didn't bribe anyone," Beckenbauer, who headed the World Cup organizing committee, wrote in his last column for daily tabloid Bild in 2016.

Beckenbauer and three other members of the committee were formally made criminal suspects that year by Swiss prosecutors who suspected fraud in the true purpose of multi-million dollar payments that connected the 2006 World Cup with FIFA. But he was eventually not indicted in 2019 for health reasons and the case ended without a judgment when the statute of limitations expired in 2020 amid delays to the court system caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Beckenbauer was in 2014 briefly suspended by FIFA's ethics committee from all football-related activity for failing to cooperate with prosecutor Michael Garcia's probe of alleged corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup votes. The suspension was lifted during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when he agreed to cooperate.

The allegations damaged Beckenbauer's standing in public perception for the first time. Until then, Beckenbauer had seemingly been unable to say or do anything wrong. Germans simply loved him.

"He did everything that a German is not supposed to do," former Bayern Munich teammate Paul Breitner once said of the man popularly known as "Der Kaiser."

"He got divorced, he left his children, took off with his girlfriend, got into trouble with tax collectors, left his girlfriend again.

"But he is forgiven for everything because he's got a good heart, he's a positive person and he's always ready to help. He doesn't conceal his weaknesses, doesn't sweep his mistakes under the carpet," Breitner said.

The son of a post official from the working-class Munich district of Giesing, Beckenbauer became one of the greatest players to grace the game in a career that also included stints in the United States with the New York Cosmos in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Born on Sept. 11, 1945, months after Germany's surrender in World War II, Beckenbauer studied to become an insurance salesman but he signed his first professional contract with Bayern when he was 18.

"You are not born to become a world star in Giesing. Football for me was a deliverance. Looking back, I can say: Everything went according to how I'd imagined my life. I had a perfect life," Beckenbauer told the Sueddeutsche newspaper magazine in 2010.

Beckenbauer personalized the position of "libero," the free-roaming nominal defender who often moved forward to threaten the opponent's goal, a role now virtually disappeared from modern football and rarely seen before his days.

An elegant, cool player with vision, Beckenbauer defined as captain the Bayern Munich side that won three successive European Cup titles from 1974 to 1976.

In his first World Cup as player in 1966, West Germany lost the final to host England as Beckenbauer chased Bobby Charlton around the field having been given the task of marking the England standout.

Four years later, with his arm strapped to his body because of a shoulder injury, Germany lost a memorable semifinal to Italy.

Finally, in 1974 at home, Beckenbauer captained West Germany to the title.

Beckenbauer left Bayern for New York in 1977 and later recalled fondly the time spent in the United States.

"From Munich-Giesing to New York City, that was a huge step," Beckenbauer said.

Beckenbauer said the decisive step in luring him to the Cosmos was the helicopter ride the club officials gave him from the roof of the Pan Am Building across Manhattan to the Giants stadium in New Jersey.

"That was then the most modern stadium in the world, with VIP boxes. We didn't have that in Europe. As we flew over the stadium, I told them, 'Fine, stop it, I am coming.'"

In that 2010 interview, Beckenbauer also recalled visits to famed nightclub Studio 54 with fellow Cosmos stars Pele and Carlos Alberto.

Beckenbauer missed the 1978 World Cup because the Germans decided not to invite players playing abroad. He returned to Germany in 1980, spent two seasons with Hamburger SV — and won another Bundesliga championship, his fifth — before returning for a final season at the Cosmos.

Although he had never coached before, Beckenbauer was hired to revive West Germany in 1984 after a flop at the European Championship.

West Germany made it to the final of the 1986 World Cup, losing to Diego Maradona's Argentina in Mexico City. Although West Germany failed to win the 1988 Euros title at home, it went to the final of the 1990 World Cup and defeated Argentina in the final in Rome, another highlight in the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The penalty goal came from Andreas Brehme, a defender Beckenbauer had once told to "play the piano, pay the flute but not football."

While his team celebrated, Beckenbauer cut a lonely figure walking and reflecting at the Olympic Stadium.

Later, at the news conference, he said he was "sorry for the rest of the world" because a united Germany would be unbeatable for years to come. But Germany had to wait 24 years before winning another World Cup title.

Once he left for New York, Beckenbauer never had a home in Munich. He lived just across the border in the Austrian Alpine resort of Kitzbuehel, where taxes were lower.

Beckenbauer was a voracious traveler and personally visited all 31 countries who had qualified for the World Cup in Germany in 2006.

Beckenbauer said he got the urge to travel as a child by collecting pictures for a sticker album. "There were photos from Africa, America. It got me interested ... but I never thought I'd experience it personally."

"There are many who travel but who see nothing because they are too busy. I was always curious."

Beckenbauer retired from the West Germany job after coaching the team to the 1990 World Cup triumph. The Berlin Wall had fallen the year before and Germany was in the process of reunifying after the Cold War. The final was the last tournament game played by a West Germany-only team.

He didn't have much success at coaching Marseille, but won the Bundesliga title with Bayern in 1994 and the UEFA Cup in 1996, both after taking over as coach late in the season. He later became Bayern's president, until leaving most functions when he turned 65 in 2010.

Beckenbauer's legal issues around the 2006 World Cup continued into his retirement, but he remained a much-loved figure in German soccer and society.

SEE MORE: A look at the more than 100 influential figures who died this year


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