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Happy Birthday

Oliver Kahn celebrates turning 50

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The sound of the cowboy boots' heels could be heard along the whole corridor. Along with the crowing voice: "Where is he? Where is he?" Uli Hoeneß knew that he was the one that was meant. And he also knew what kind of a fury was about to storm into his office. Shortly before, as manager and alongside coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, he had imposed a fine and a suspension on a Bayern pro; it was clear the person concerned would not accept this without blowing off steam. And there he was, raving in the office of the current president: Oliver Kahn.

After Hoeneß calmly explained to him that the punishment was final, the goalkeeper slammed the door so hard the secretaries had to check whether all the pictures were still hanging on the walls. An hour later Hoeneß's mobile phone rang. Kahn: "I guess I made a mistake." The next day he turned up at the door of the Hoeneß home at the Tegernsee for breakfast , holding a large bouquet of roses in his hands for his manager's wife Susi. That's how it was with the "Titan", the Bayern president remembers today: Kahn sometimes lost his head. "But as soon as he calmed down, he would be magnanimous again."

From early on, Kahn was a man of extremes. It all began when his grandparents give him a Sepp Maier goalkeeper kit. The boy, who out of stubbornness always wanted to watch a different TV channel to his parents at home and who adored the filthy rich egomaniac Scrooge McDuck so much that he himself went around with a walking stick for a while, began to make himself bloody from diving on the ash pitches around Karlsruhe. Decades later, he wrote in his book 'Ich - Erfolg kommt von innen' (I - Success comes from within) a quote he'd once read from a current philosopher: "Nothing, not even the slightest thing, should be tackled without having a goal." That wisdom is 2000 years old, he added. It's from Aristotle.

From early on, Kahn oriented himself on the greatest - he was also driven by a vision that could hardly be greater: to be the best keeper in the world. If the Karlsruher SC first team was playing, the teenager would train alone on the pitch next door. When the fans cheered at something, he would imagine that the applause was for him. "I took receipt of it," he once said.

The will

In his debut between the sticks for the Karlsruhe first team in November 1987, they suffered a 4-0 defeat, and they lost the next two games too. But Kahn, who had already been rejected at the age of 15 (too small, too weak), did not doubt himself. According to legend, he even woke up a groundsman in the middle of the night, went in goal and insisted on having shots fired at him. In 1994, FC Bayern paid 2.4 million euros for him - a record at the time for a goalkeeper. Hoeneß brought in Sepp Maier as goalkeeping coach and said: "I bought a gem there - polish him into a diamond for us!" Maier knew Kahn from the Germany team, and when he first met him he thought, “As stiff as he is, this is going to be difficult.”

The two "trained like madmen," Hoeneß says now. Maier invented adventurous contraptions to improve Kahn's reflexes, because just firing powerful shots on goal from close range was not enough for the pair. The balls were deflected by extra pipes fixed in the ground, they bounced off beerhall benches unpredictably or flew over a sheet that restricted the keeper's sight. Kahn later said he even had aches in the muscles of his toenails.

"The will," Hoeneß says today, "the will, you had to be impressed by it." Especially since everything didn't go smoothly for Kahn. He tore his cruciate ligament in his first year at Bayern. Just a few days later he and Hoeneß were sitting in the "Käfer" restaurant with their wives. The manager wanted to build up his goalkeeper, "because others are devastated in a situation like that - but not Kahn. I've never seen a player in that situation have such a precise plan. He was full of energy, even after that serious injury."

Kahn ruled the Bayern penalty area for 14 years. The crowning achievement came in 2001 with the "Immer weiter" [keep going] coup of Hamburg and victory in the Champions League. When the championship seemed lost, "he still believed," says Hoeneß. "I was lying back on my seat on our subs bench, done-in, and I saw him grabbing [Sammy] Kuffour and pushing him forward. And then he ran off himself." Hoeneß watched in amazement as Kahn got into an argument with Stefan Effenberg in the Hamburg penalty area. "He wanted to take this last free kick himself," said the current president, "but fortunately he let Patrik Andersson take it." He scored. Kahn, on the other hand, secured his own immortality a few days later when he saved three penalties against Valencia in the final of the Champions League. "I never thought we'd win the penalty shootout," says Hoeneß, "Oliver hadn't saved a single penalty before. But he was right there. He was the hero."

But hardly any of the greats has a perfect CV. At the World Cup in 2002 Kahn played a flawless tournament and made an error in the final which had momentous consequences. In the months that followed, among other things the anecdote about the suspension came about. A portrait of him is titled "The Fist in the Neck", and the text reads: "In the stranglehold of resentment, mediocrity and moral apostles, Kahn feels that it is not easy to be a football god." For a decade he "bathed in adrenaline," he said later, "the goalkeeper's job isn't much fun. It always has something to do with masochism."

He had to compensate for that. But he caught himself, remained world-class, and it's all the more incomprehensible that [head coach] Jürgen Klinsmann dismissed him as Germany's number 1 before the 2006 World Cup at home. The younger Kahn would then have ranted endlessly, but although it made his blood boil, he accepted the degradation. As Germany's number 2, he won hearts that had previously been closed to him.

Today Kahn is "much more balanced," says Hoeneß. They never lost touch after the end of his career in 2008. "Oliver has developed enormously, found inner peace and has travelled his path," according to the current president. "I like the way he now finds the right words on [German TV channel] ZDF, in addition he's completed his studies, and at the same time he's always been focused on football. In 2004 there was the thought that Kahn could become a manager at Bayern right after the end of his playing career. "But back then he was still too deep in the tunnel," says Hoeneß, "Kahn had to get out first."

Among other things, the ex-pro used his time to study in Salzburg. In the beginning he introduced himself to his fellow students with: "Hello, I'm Oliver Kahn and I used to be the Germany goalkeeper." In the meantime he produced his student ID card during a visit to the zoo, finding it amusing that he could get in for half price. His thesis was entitled "Strategic Management in German Football". He never made a secret of the fact that Hoeneß is a role model. "He sums things up, sometimes in a funny way, seldom in a mild one, occasionally brutally and preferably in an anti-cyclical fashion," he wrote in his book about the FC Bayern chairman of the board. "When everyone starts the alphabet and whispers a small 'a', Uli starts from the end and loudly yells a big 'Z'". In the same book, Kahn quotes former US President Abraham Lincoln: "A great spirit avoids trampled paths." We can't wait to see what this Oliver Kahn will do in his life; he's always been exciting. Whether in football boots or cowboy boots.

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