Monday, May. 08, 2006

Franz Beckenbauer

During the month of June, no sportsman will be able to rival the attention focused on Franz Beckenbauer. Widely considered the best soccer player ever produced by Germany, he will preside over a tournament of 32 teams, including one from the U.S, the survivors of an elimination process involving 194 teams, that has gone on for more than two years. Being president of the organizing committee of the World Cup is a particularly delicate and complicated job. He must satisfy 32 national passions, all but one of which will be disappointed. Fortunately for Germany, Beckenbauer, 60, is of a stature beyond the reach of those passions. No other soccer figure, except possibly Pele, has ever reached the mythic status of Beckenbauer, who has planned the Cup with a combination of meticulous professionalism and personal attention.

I saw Franz Beckenbauer play for the first time when he captained the German national team to a 2-1 victory in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich over the technically superior side from the Netherlands. Germany scored the decisive goal just before halftime. Beckenbauer played the position of sweeper — or libero — the defensive marshal who fills whatever holes the attacking team has managed to pry open. He gave the position a new dimension by transforming it into a dual-purpose role: organizing the defense and, on the attack, acting with his subtle passes as a quarterback does in American football. Those qualities proved decisive in that World Cup final and also produced four German championships and three European Cups for the Bayern Munich team he captained. Beckenbauer's abilities also helped him coach the national team to victory in the 1990 World Cup and foreshadowed his later career. Few pro athletes, even stars, enjoy comparable success in later life. But he was instrumental in securing the 2006 World Cup for Germany; that will solidify his status in the soccer world and perpetuate his role as a dominant figure of his country. Not for nothing is Beckenbauer's nickname in Germany "der Kaiser" — the Emperor.

Kissinger is a former U.S. Secretary of State