Paul Breitner: I wanted to get to know myself

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Paul Breitner celebrates his 70th birthday today (Sunday). The FC Bayern honorary captain spoke to club magazine ‘51’ about his career, Freddie Mercury and his work with the Munich food bank.

The interview with Paul Breitner

Mr Breitner, you weren’t even 32 years old when you retired. Was it hard for you to let go?
“I didn’t have to let go because I was happy to retire. In autumn 1980 I extended my contract at FC Bayern by another two years. The duration should’ve actually been longer but I knew it was enough – albeit on the condition that I play the best season of my life up to that point. And I would’ve signed an extension if I hadn’t sat there at Christmas in 1982 and said: This is the moment. It doesn't matter if we won or lost, but what I offered the people was perfect for my terms and my skills, it was rounded. And so I told coach Pal Csernai in January that I was calling it a day.”

"At FC Bayern, you can accept one defeat but then the second time it happens, you’re in trouble."

Paul Breitner

“Quit while you’re on top” – it’s such a trite saying, but in reality it’s so unusual. Most people in that situation would take another year or two as a pro.
“I tried very early on to want to give 100 per cent at every moment. That had nothing to do with my actual performance capability, as I couldn’t always be fully fit during a season. But then on those days, the 70 or 80 per cent was my personal 100 per cent – I wanted to prove that to myself as a youngster. When I was 12, I started training alone four times a week: endurance runs, hurdles, sprints, plus hours of passing against a board to refine my technique. Not to become a professional or world champion someday, but because I noticed that running clears my head and allows me to get on with things. I wanted to get to know myself and I listened to how far I could stretch myself physically and mentally. This still has a liberating effect on me today.”

What did you learn from that?
“That the first 60 or 70 minutes as a professional don’t matter at all, you just underplay them. It’s the last 15, 20 minutes that count. That’s when I have to torture myself and summon one last burst of speed, even though I can’t anymore. I always wanted to keep pushing the limits of that state, in order to be able to turn a game around in the 94th minute. The ‘Bayern luck’ is a popular term among Bayern haters, but it’s completely wrong because it has nothing at all to do with luck. The truth is: at 17 other Bundesliga clubs, you’re consoled when you lose a match. At FC Bayern, you can accept one defeat but then the second time it happens, you’re in trouble. That was made clear to me when I signed my first contract in 1970.”

"I’m not a title vulture, not a football fanatic. But I’m very pleased with what I made out of my talent."

Paul Breitner

What does it mean to you to be one of four players in the world, along with Zinedine Zidane, Pelé and Vavá, who have scored in two World Cup finals?
“Nothing whatsoever because for me, 1982 doesn’t count. When you lose a World Cup final 3-1, then no one cares who scored the goal. For me the penalty in 1974 counts; the other one means nothing to me. I’m not a title vulture, not a football fanatic. But I’m very pleased with what I made out of my talent, and that I did justice to this talent that millions of others would have liked to have had. I always saw this as an obligation to myself, because even during my playing days, football already had an incredible status in society. I can still remember sitting in a Munich bar with my wife and friends in the early 1980s. Suddenly, someone stood at our table and said that Freddie Mercury – who lived in Munich at the time – was sitting three tables away and would like to meet me. So he came over, shook everyone's hand and said: ‘Mr. Breitner, it's a pleasure to meet you. I am Freddie.’ The frontman of Queen, the greatest entertainer of his time. It's crazy because really the honour was mine (grins).”

You’ve been involved with the Munich food bank for many years. Why’s that so close to your heart?
“It’s just a logical consequence of the post-war poverty that my wife and I experienced ourselves as children. A friend of ours told us about their involvement 14 years ago and that’s when we knew: this is the right thing for us. We want to help on our doorstep because even in affluent Munich there is poverty, particularly among the elderly – although many people are in denial about it. Every Monday we work at our distribution point in the district of Haidhausen, and with very few exceptions during the year, it’s a sacred appointment for me – much more important than 15:30 on a Saturday. As well as that, I’m a patron of the ‘Malteser Mahlzeitenspenden’, which provides those in need with three-course meals at lunchtime throughout the year and delivers them to their homes. A 365-day provision costs €2,100, we have over 300 people in the greater Munich area.”

Photos: © Magnus Lechner

Watch the big 70th birthday documentary on Paul Breitner from 14:00 CEST on Sunday:

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