Franz Beckenbauer was a role model for a generation

Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

The year begins sadly. Franz Beckenbauer has died. He gave more to German football than anyone else and embodied his country in the best possible way. With wit, charisma, expertise, charm and optimism. The world bows before this shining light.

Beckenbauer always instilled enormous confidence in Germans. First as a player, then as a coach and finally as the man behind the 2006 summer fairytale. It was always true: if Franz takes care of things, nothing can happen to us.

Related: Franz Beckenbauer was a player out of time who made football evolve with him | Jonathan Wilson

I didn’t experience Franz Beckenbauer as a player; the last time he was on the pitch was shortly before I was born. But I did experience the reverence with which my father spoke of him. And when I later looked at the old recordings from the 60s and 70s, some still in black and white, I immediately noticed something: everything was much slower than it is today. The players took a long time to position the ball. They only passed it with their second or third touch. Except for one. Franz played the ball directly to where he wanted it. He played in a way that became common decades later. Like a man from the future.

I have a free-kick in my mind’s eye that he, in a Bayern shirt, flicked over the wall and into the corner of the goal with the outside of his foot after a straight run-up. This goal must have seemed like a miracle to those who witnessed it.

Beckenbauer embodied this progress, this technical innovation, with unprecedented ease. And he was not only more elegant than the others, he had a different idea of football and teamwork. He became a role model for a generation. Der Kaiser modernised football, accelerated it, made it more beautiful. I can’t think of anyone who changed the game in the same way.

When West Germany became world champions in 1990 under Beckenbauer, I was glued to the television as a six-year-old. I think I watched every game of that World Cup. I remember the penalty kick Andi Brehme scored to win the title. And the hairstyle of the team manager, who entertained the whole country with his jokes.

You saw a world champion coach who worked so hard that his mother worried about him “because Franz was so thin”. He knew how to address his players. “Geht’s raus und spielt’s Fußball.”: “Go out on to the pitch and play football.” He gave everyone courage, because one thing was always clear to everyone: nothing can go wrong with Franz.

In 2006, when the World Cup kicked off in Germany, I was on the pitch. The goal I scored in the opening game against Costa Rica is one of the highlights of my career. Being able to play a World Cup in your home country is a priceless gift. The connection with the crowd, the closeness to the fans, has always filled me with confidence. The 2006 experience carried me through my career. It also made me realise my responsibility as a footballer.

The World Cup transformed Germany. A nation that was used to looking at itself very critically suddenly recognised its beautiful teams. A free-playing Germany helped the country look itself in the mirror. Football helped Germany to recognise itself.

Related: Beckenbauer defined an era as a player and that was just the beginning | Andy Brassell

We all know mistakes were made around the 2006 World Cup. But in the case of Beckenbauer, something got out of balance. His life’s work for German football and his country cannot be overestimated. The Sommermärchen would not have been possible without the president of the organising committee.

Another tournament is due to be held in Germany this summer. Times have changed, the world is plagued by many crises. We have to adapt, strengthen our community and learn to appreciate Europe and all its achievements again. To do this, we need a new impetus.

Europe can do this, its people are capable of it. And football as a cultural asset is part of European civil society. The game can create solidarity and unite people across borders. The many warm-hearted obituaries Franz Beckenbauer has received from all countries shows this.

Euro 2024 should strengthen our cohesion and the European idea. For sport to achieve this, it needs authentic personalities who radiate satisfaction, pride and optimism. Franz Beckenbauer always did that. That is his legacy.

Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine.


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