The Defender Who Revolutionized Soccer

Issue 7, Volume 112

By Soham Mukherjee 

Two-time Ballon d’Or winner, four-time Footballer of the Year, World Cup winner, Euro Championship winner, and four-time German Cup winner aren’t achievements that one would expect from a defender. However, one defender has accomplished these. Nicknamed “Der Kaiser” (German for “German emperor”), Franz Beckenbauer transformed soccer forever through his unique playing style and commanding leadership on the field.

Born in Munich on September 11, 1945, Beckenbauer’s passion for the game saw him join the youth team of SC Munich ’06 in 1954. Later, he made it onto Bayern Munich’s youth team, the squad with which he would become the greatest defender of his era, in 1959. Beckenbauer impressed the club’s coaches and was soon promoted to the official squad. In his first season, the team won the second division and was promoted to the Bundesliga, the top flight of German soccer.

Over the next four years, the team improved massively, and in 1968, Beckenbauer was named team captain. Under his first season of captaincy, Bayern won its first Bundesliga title. Throughout the next few years, the team would go on to win the Bundesliga three times in a row from 1972 to 1974, as well as three European Cups from 1974 to 1976. Beckenbauer’s commanding presence on the field earned him the nickname “Der Kaiser” among his growing fan base and the media.

His success with Bayern was widely recognized by the entire soccer world. When he joined Bayern, he brought with him youthful energy and a unique perspective to the team. He understood complicated offensive and defensive tactics and could organize his team to counter those strategies. Beckenbauer’s firm leadership was what enabled his success. He was able to spread his understanding among his teammates and develop strong relationships with others. He brought the whole team together, creating a sense of unity which produced chemistry between teammates.

These effects on the team soon began to show on the field as Bayern’s playstyle took on a new form. Attackers combined short passes and quickly finished offensive chances to score a plethora of goals while the defense worked as a unit to stop any of the opponent’s threats. Bayern soon became a force to be reckoned with, capturing German soccer in a short span and winning countless trophies.

Beckenbauer’s hard work with Bayern got him invited to the national squad for the 1966 World Cup, where he impressed all who watched him play. He scored goal after goal with passion and effort that onlookers would remember for years to come. In the finals against a dominant English team, the coach assigned Beckenbauer the defensive responsibility of man-marking prolific striker Bobby Charlton. Though England ultimately won the match, Beckenbauer fulfilled his duties excellently, proving his potential as a defensive player.

Around this time, Der Kaiser began experimenting with the role of the libero, a position invented by the Italians. The libero operates behind the defensive line in front of the goalkeeper, where he can swipe up loose balls, stop final threats, and act as the final line of defense in front of the goal. However, Beckenbauer added an extra offensive element to the role. In addition to his incredible understanding of the game and his defensive awareness making him the perfect libero, Beckenbauer could advance up the field with the ball, adding to the offensive capabilities of his team.

He had a unique ability to organize the team through his vision of the entire field and combine passes with other players while orchestrating the attack. He could play long balls over the top of the opponent’s defense to the German attackers, who could exploit their speed and finishing ability to score many goals. Der Kaiser’s defensive characteristics provided his success at the heart of his defense, but his technical ability with the ball also gave him confidence to play as he wished with the freedom of the redefined libero role.

Beckenbauer traveled to the 1970 World Cup, where his team defeated England in the quarterfinals and moved on to face a tough Italian team in the semifinals. Unfortunately, the Germans fell at the hands of the Italians in a hard-fought 3-4 match. After four years of hard work, West Germany returned to the 1974 World Cup, which would prove to be the perfect stage for Der Kaiser to shine. Under the captaincy of Beckenbauer, the team fought its way to the finals, where they were set to face their most difficult foe yet: a synchronized, goal-scoring machine in the form of the Netherlands, led by one of the greatest playmakers of all time, Johan Cruyff. Even though Dutch midfielder Johan Neeskens scored an early penalty in the second minute, the Germans recovered with midfielder Paul Breitner finishing a 25th minute penalty and striker Gerd Müller scoring the 43rd minute winner. The German captain was instrumental in West Germany’s comeback win against the Dutch in that final game, which truly showcased the extent to which his libero role had an impact, and Beckenbauer’s triumph over Cruyff to win his first World Cup with West Germany will forever be remembered.

After West Germany’s defeat to Czechoslovakia in the 1976 Euro final, Beckenbauer retired from his international career the next year at the age of 31. He would later return to coach his national side on multiple occasions. His first experience at the 1986 World Cup saw West Germany fall to a Diego Maradona-led Argentina in the final. Beckenbauer returned to the World Cup with his team in 1990 after developing new tactics and a unified team spirit. The team faced the same Argentinian side as last time, with Maradona returning in hopes for his second World Cup. However, Beckenbauer’s new strategies paid off, and the German side managed to shut out Argentina’s attacks, avoid the mistakes of the last final, create chances, and ultimately triumph in a 1-0 win. This feat made Beckenbauer the first man in the game’s history to win the World Cup both as a captain of his national team and as coach. His incredible success as a player and coach was remarkable and achieved by very few. Later, he would retire from coaching after managing multiple clubs, including Olympique de Marseille and Bayern Munich.

Beckenbauer’s critical contributions as player and coach, namely his revolutionary impact on the role of the libero, have left their mark on the modern game. After witnessing the effectiveness of Der Kaiser’s playing style, many teams began adopting his tactics, and the game evolved into a more offensive form. Nowadays, top teams focus on keeping possession and passing the ball, patiently creating chances to score goals and using the defense as a way to control the game. Beckenbauer’s legacy has carried on. He will always be remembered for his impact on the game through his intelligent tactics, great understanding of the game, and unmatched leadership.