Thu, 18/05/23, 17:14
The Kaiser's glorious passes
Best-of videos of old players work like a time machine. The older the match footage, the less the scenes on the pitch remind the younger fans watching them of modern football. The games of the 60s, 70s, and 80s seem strangely slow to them, the skills almost unimaginative, the passes not quite as precise, as clinical. As a young fan, you can only try and appreciate how good these players were for their time. Very rarely, however, do you see a video of a former player that stops you in your tracks. Players who seem like time travellers, as if they were decades ahead of the others on the pitch: Diego Maradona's dribbles. Johan Cruyff's goals. And, most certainly, Franz Beckenbauer's passes with the outside of the boot.
To complete a long pass, you need vision and a willingness to take risks. You have to anticipate tiny gaps and the runs your teammates will make. And you have to be bold enough to put all your eggs in one basket. A long 50-metre pass can take out an entire defence - or end up handing possession to the opponents. The current Bayern team has a pass completion rate of just under 90 per cent - but of the balls that travel 25 metres or more, "only" 65.5 per cent reach their target. A long pass is, by its very nature, in the air for a long time. Everyone has time to react and work out where the ball will end up.
At the centre of the team
Grand masters of the long pass like Beckenbauer therefore have other skills besides vision and a willingness to take risks: creativity and the technical ability to catch defenders on the wrong foot despite their time advantage. By using a special effect, for example: the pass with spin, hit with the outside of the boot, whose imprecise, almost curved trajectory makes it all but impossible for defenders to guess its destination.
Munich, 14 April 1976, the European Cup semi-final second leg. Franz Beckenbauer's Bayern vs. Real Madrid featuring Paul Breitner and Günter Netzer.
Beckenbauer was the team's fixed star, who made the other top stars like Uli Hoeneß, Gerd Müller and Karl-Heinz Rummennige shine. Time and again he sent the ball on a long, curving trajectory, opening up spaces for the fast strikers. It's only when you analyse the footage in slow motion that you understand exactly what Beckenbauer was doing: he angled his shooting leg inwards long before actually making contact, putting a lot of feeling and just the right amount of power into his ankle and hitting the ball with the outside of his boot, just below the centre. Don't try this at home, kids.
The game ended 2-0 for Bayern. Franz Beckenbauer, the Kaiser, triumphed over Los Blancos, and a few weeks later FC Bayern won the European Cup for the third time in a row.
Beckenbauer's elegance and creativity had long been almost a little scary to his compatriots. "The elegance of his movement," enthused Otto Rehhagel, who plied his trade in the 1960s as a defensive clogger at Hertha Berlin, when he saw the budding Kaiser strolling along the Ku'damm before a game. "Wonderful, southern." Yet Beckenbauer had a modest, down-to-earth upbringing in Munich's working-class Giesing district after the end of the war, where his father was employed by the post office. His primary school teacher described little Franz as already being a supernatural phenomenon: "He would dart around the gym, but he could stop at a moment's notice, change direction and would never bump into anyone. He would run around between the children like a flash of lightning."
New position on the pitch
Beckenbauer was not only quicker on his feet, but also quicker mentally. Although he began his career at SC 1906 München as a winger and also played there later in the FCB youth team, he realised as a young professional footballer that the most important position in the game is neither up front nor in midfield, but in defence.
The older he got, the further back Beckenbauer moved - and had the game more and more in front of him. At the end of his long career he would say: "I didn't like midfield, as back then man-marking was still the way to go. I didn't like someone running after me for 90 minutes, snapping at my heels. That wasn't my idea of football."
It was fate that in the mid-1960s, of all times, coaching pioneers invented a new type of player that suited Beckenbauer perfectly: the "libero" - or as it's called in Germany: "Ausputzer" (sweeper). To today's ears, "libero" sounds old-fashioned and washed out: the guy who puts in a sliding tackle when all the other defenders have been left behind. Beckenbauer was indeed fast and physically robust, almost indestructible (during his time at Bayern he missed just 12 Bundesliga games due to injury). In the conservative world of football in Germany, however, it took someone like the confident Kaiser to turn the purely defensive worker into someone who could move between the worlds of defence and attack, a "free man" who could play without a direct opponent and create decisive situations with superior numbers anywhere on the pitch.
Beckenbauer was to the pitch what the director was to a film: "Action!" - everyone would listen to his silent commands and follow his vision, as he dictated the rhythm of the game with his long passes.
Beckenbauer led Bayern to three consecutive league titles and achieved a European Cup hat-trick. He won the European Championship with Germany and was the only person on the planet, along with Brazilian Mario Zagallo and Frenchman Didier Deschamps, to win the World Cup both as a player and as a coach. Oh, and then there was 30 March 1974, the day on which the director not only made his teammates look good, but took to the stage himself as the leading actor.
22 minutes in on Matchday 28 in the Bundesliga at Wedaustadion in Duisburg. Dietmar Linders, the MSV goalkeeper, set up the wall of players in front of his goal so tightly packed that it's not even possible to see properly in the old footage how many players it consisted of. One thing is clear: it was a real bulwark that couldn't be overcome by force. Beckenbauer takes a run up. Four or five small steps, and then a very delicate chip with the outside of his boot. Linders saw the ball and dived, trying to make himself long. Not a chance. The ball seemed to glide weightlessly over his gloves and into the top corner. 1-0 for Bayern, who went on to win 4-0. With this goal, Beckenbauer created a monument for the ages to his signature move. You could call it "The outside of the Kaiser's boot".
In part 2 of the Unmatched series, we took a closer look at Stefan Effenberg: