Book Review: Franz Beckenbauer's story, flaws and all

The Three Lives of the Kaiser  By Uli Hesse (Simon & Schuster)

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A new English-language biography of Franz Beckenbauer has divided his life up into three sections: as a graceful, game-winning libero for Bayern Munich (three times European Cup champion) and the German national team (World Cup and European Championship winner); as a player for the ground-breaking and league-busting New York Cosmos in the NASL; and as Germany’s coach and administrator who won the World Cup trophy in 1990, and the World Cup hosting rights in 2006.

That third and final life has proven to be his downfall due to as yet unexplained financial shenanigans surrounding the bidding process that saw Germany – to everybody’s surprise – win out over favorite South Africa for what would turn out to be a hugely successful tournament played under summer skies. At the time, Beckenbauer was still leading a life largely shaped by his tendency to win. He was untouchable enough to survive a series of domestic scandals that generally involved leaving one partner for the already impregnated successor.

Since German weekly Der Spiegel revealed the dirt behind the myth of the 2006 Sommermärchen (Summer Fairytale), Beckenbauer has largely withdrawn from public life, and remains silent on the issue of various dubious payments that have sullied his name. He also had to deal with the premature death of his son Stefan, the only one of his sons to become a pro, and then a successful coach in Bayern’s youth system. That’s one of the many reasons that Uli Hesse’s meticulous book is worth your time. It reminds you of the 50 years when Franz the nominative Kaiser (the emperor – once the ruler of Germany) was as prominent in German public life as the Kanzler (the chancellor – the latter-day Kaiser).

The book is preceded by a quote from Confucius – “better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” Beckenbauer’s flaws are fully aired by Hesse. The above-mentioned serial adultery, for example. Or his flighty opinions, expressed off the top of his head, and then regretted within hours after they hit the headlines. One of the most famous came in 2013 when he declared that talk of slavery in Qatar was nonsense. He’d been there himself and hadn’t seen a single person in chains. Even son Stefan admitted that at one point he stopped watching his father’s appearances as a TV pundit because he was talking such nonsense.

Against all the flaws of the man you have to weigh the achievements as a player and a coach, and the influence on all the lesser gifted pros he took the time to mentor. The assured young man that came to the world’s attention at the 1966 World Cup in England stayed at the forefront of the domestic and international game until he left Bayern, with numerous honors to his name, just over a decade later. He started all over again in the North American Soccer League where, despite the demands on his body made by the rock-hard Astroturf, he enjoyed the freedom of being an off-field bon viveur beyond German media scrutiny.

The chapter focusing on the internal wars at Bayern during the early- to mid-1970s make for an especially compelling read if you’re a keen student of competing egos in sporting locker rooms. “It was group against group, everyone against everyone,” Bayern’s German international Paul Breitner later said. “The only reason it worked was because we had success.” It sounds like a mirror of the subsequent Cosmos setup with Giorgio Chinaglia at the center of its talents and intrigues.

It’s also telling how much influence players like Beckenbauer and the Dutch genius Johan Cruyff (whom the Kaiser regarded as a ‘brother’) had over their coaches at the time. Hesse does nothing to counter the narrative that it was pretty much Beckenbauer who ended up guiding the West German team he captained to the 1974 World Cup title alongside the actual coach, Helmut Schön. It’s impossible to imagine any player today having that kind of power in the era of multi-staffed coaching rosters.

Yet although Beckenbauer was a star, he didn’t act like one, and countless folk who came into contact with him testify to the fact that he treated everyone with the same attention and courtesy. According to the Cosmos’ Werner Roth, Beckenbauer would go “from intellectual to clown as suited him,” playing dumb pranks on his teammates or fans (his favorite was handing them a pen for autographs that then administered an electric shock …) before heading off for an evening at the theater or the ballet with his latest love, artist Diana Sandmann.

The soccer book market is flooded with self-serving autobiographies, and hack-job life stories of players that barely deserve the attention. Hesse mentions the numerous autobiographies that Beckenbauer was commissioned to ‘write’ during this life, and at times questions their accuracy. Their merit isn’t mentioned, but he doesn’t recommend them. He doesn’t need to. He’s written the best and most focused book about the greatest German player, faults and all. A diamond-quality read with very few flaws.

7 comments about "Book Review: Franz Beckenbauer's story, flaws and all".
  1. Randy Vogt, May 25, 2023 at 7:12 a.m.

    It might be true that you can't tell a book by its cover. I have not read this book that looks interesting but the cover is very well-conceived and designed.

  2. Arnold Ramirez, May 25, 2023 at 2:16 p.m.

    We had his three boys at the Pele Camps and Stefan who was the youngest was the talented one. So sad that he died so young.

  3. frank schoon, May 25, 2023 at 4:32 p.m.

    It's a shame that this book has to go into airing the Dirty Wash of a great player...I'm not really interest about his love life, and like details. I would much prefer to read about the Player Beckenbaur, about how he learned in his youth, what he thinks is important developing technically, whom he admired as young player , what he learned from other greats, who he thought were great coaches, how he picked players to fit a team....There are so many interesting aspects of the game that a coach a player could learn from......What were his thoughts on WC'74 playing Holland,etc.

    Johan Cruyff has had books written about him and or contributed to the books that are extremely educational for the student, player and coach, unfortunately some are not printed in English, like the one he wrote a decade ago, simply called "Voetbal". I have no idea this hasn''t been translated for it's a gem of a book full with knowledge.

    Beckenbauer is still alive and has abundance of knowledge, WHY  an American writer , a soccer writer hasn't approached Beckenbauer before we lose another great one, is beyond me. David Winner would be one such writer for I see too many authors who deal in a sports lack the real feel and deeper insights of the game to come up with a book like that....

  4. Ian Plenderleith, May 26, 2023 at 6:43 a.m.

    A biography without the flaws would not be taken seriously. They're part of the whole picture, and of making the apparent superstar a human just like the rest of us.

  5. frank schoon replied, May 26, 2023 at 7:48 a.m.

    Really ,Ian, ? "Would not be taken seriously?  Perhaps ,you're right for it depends upon the 'crowd' , you are trying to reach, more of the 'horns and tooter' types. The 'crowd' ,I would try to reach is perhaps ,like myself, who are not interested in the least about his 'bedroom' flaws but his flaws dealing with soccer or actions on the field.  I'm sure the German fans have read enough about Beckenbauer's off the field flaws in their own "National Enquier" or Die Bilt over the years and don't need to rehash this in another book...

    There are so few books on players that really deal with Soccer, itself, that I find it amusing that there are so few sports journalists who really would like to or are even capable of producing a good  insightful book on soccer. 

  6. Santiago 1314 replied, May 26, 2023 at 9:35 p.m.

    A interesting point, Ian

    I think I agree with you, over Frank on this one. It's an Autobiography, not a Coaching "Manual"

    Interesting Thought;
    What to make of "Arguably" the 3rd Greatest Player of ALL Time(Behind Pele and Cruijff)
    and The Fact that the Position that he Revolutionized(Sweeper/Libero) NO LONGER EXISTS.!?!?!?

  7. frank schoon replied, May 27, 2023 at 9:03 a.m.

    Santi,  "Coaching Manual ??? "You've been brainwashed and chipped by having gone to the Coaching School to get your license, LOL. Coaching Manual???? There are plenty of books out there that discuss Anecdotes and the likes of what happened in games, in talks, personal opinions and more ,all of which can be very interesting reading without having into the more sordid facts which has nothing to do with soccer. This is why I don't bother reading about George Best or those types for there is nothing to gain from those books...Pele  had a reputation off the field with women but you know I buy his books for it only deals and soccer along with a lot of insightful aspects ,anecdotes and opinions about him and the game. I've read a lot of books on players but none get into to sordid garbage but stay on soccer. 

    I understand some cultures like the English, American, and German are very interested in the piccodello aspects of players ,off the field antics that interests soccer fans more than a better look about the game itself. 

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