Listen to this article
On a rooftop in Lisbon, Franz Beckenbauer makes the x-thousandth speech of his life. “I loved Lisbon before I ever came here,” reveals the most celebrated living German in that soothing Bavarian singsong, “because aged about 20 I read all of Erich Maria Remarque’s work, some of it several times, and I loved The Night in Lisbon.”
Everyone is surprised. Few people have read anything by Remarque except All Quiet on the Western Front. The Kaiser has charmed yet another audience.
Every year is Beckenbauer’s year, but 2006 is more so than usual. The man who won one football World Cup as a player, another as a manager, and a third as a campaigner when
he snagged this year’s event for Germany, is now organising the tournament. Next week he resumes his global odyssey to charm every country coming to the World Cup. At home, his role in Germany’s psyche keeps expanding: Beckenbauer towers over today’s Federal Republic, bigger than its footballers or intellectuals or chancellors. And he is becoming possibly football’s mightiest politician.
Beckenbauer is a phoenix from Nazi Germany’s ashes. He was born in a bombed-out Munich in September 1945, the country’s “Hour Zero”. His father worked in the post office. His mother died last week aged 92. Franz started out as an insurance agent and a part-time footballer with Bayern Munich.
He became a free-ranging defender and Germany’s greatest footballer. Most German players are Kämpfer, battlers. But Beckenbauer ran with his head up, his back straight and such elegance that few opponents had the effrontery to tackle him.
Off the field he embodied the ambitious, money-oriented Federal Republic. Beckenbauer was an instinctive bourgeois. He married young – to the first in a parade of elegant blondes – and took elocution lessons. He always tried to ally himself with the mighty: with Bavaria’s rightwing Christian Social Union, and with Germany’s biggest tabloid Bild Zeitung.
But he also, always, had charm: looks, wit and a lightness of touch. “He is so nice,” one of his fellow World Cup-winners of 1974 told me. “When he sees you he remembers everything about you, drapes his arm around you, asks how you are.”
At 20 Beckenbauer was already plugging soup on television. In 40 years since, his omnipresence in advertisements has made him practically the collective face of German business. The former team-mate mimes Beckenbauer ducking as companies throw money at him: “ ‘Here’s 1m euros! ‘Here’s another 1m!’ ”
When the Federal Republic hosted its first World Cup in 1974, Beckenbauer began as German captain and soon unofficially usurped the coach’s job. During the tournament he announced a shift to more “realistic” football, reshuffled the team, and ended up lifting the World Cup in his home town.
The great player became a great manager. In 1986 he coached Germany to the World Cup final. His team played ugly, battling “realistic” football, and during their matches
the eye was drawn to the figure of Beckenbauer, posed beside his dugout with such elegance that one forgave his check trousers.
As coach, he always carefully distanced himself from his teams, so that their shortcomings couldn’t tarnish his reputation. Days before the final, chatting to friends, he intoned the names of several of his players and guffawed. What was so funny? “Just imagine,” said Beckenbauer, “on Sunday these guys might be world champions!” They weren’t: they lost to Argentina. In 1990 Beckenbauer did win Germany another World Cup. Again as manager he produced “realistic football” rather than the elegant game he had played himself. That night in Rome,
while his players went bananas, Beckenbauer strolled alone across the pitch, gold medal around his neck, gazing about him like a man walking his dog. He was saying goodbye to football.
But he soon returned in his third incarnation as football politician. Again he “won” a World Cup. Nothing can damage Beckenbauer in Germany now: not his constant contradictory comments to the nearest microphone, nor his difficulties with blondes. He simply laughs at himself and Germans forgive him. In a country tired of upheaval, he represents a reassuring continuity. He no longer has to court Germany’s mighty, because they now queue to court him.
Nor is Beckenbauer tarnished by the past. His date of birth absolves him from German sin, and he seldom dwells on nazism. Campaigning in 1998 to bring the 2006 World Cup to Germany, he said: “All over the world they’re still showing those old films harking back to things that happened 40, 50 years ago. That gives a wrong impression of this country…A World Cup gives you a chance to present yourself to the world.”
This summer he will be doing the presenting. Beckenbauer is still the Germany that wins with a smile. Only when criticised does he lose his cool. This month, after a consumer group branded eight World Cup stadiums unsafe, Beckenbauer mounted his earthly pulpit of Bild to advise the group to stick to “face cream, olive oil and Hoovers”.
Beckenbauer is outgrowing Germany. Next year he may stand
for president of Europe’s football association Uefa. If he stands he will surely win. He always does. As the only official popular with European fans, he would be quite a force. Soon his nickname of Kaiser may require an upgrade to something grander.