- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

HANOVER, Germany — “Der Kaiser” is everywhere at this World Cup, looking down from billboards, dominating TV commercials, popping up at nearly every match in every city.

Franz Beckenbauer even found time to do what most members of the Cup’s organizing committee would avoid at all costs: fill up the pages of gossip-hungry tabloids.

Just before the knockout game between Germany and Sweden on Saturday, Beckenbauer, 60, sneaked off to the Austrian Alps to marry 39-year-old Heidi Burmester.

The marriage was a complete surprise to the public — not even the organizing committee knew about it — and the tabloids had a field day with photos of the couple. It was the third marriage for Beckenbauer, who divorced his second wife in 2004 after having two children with Burmester.

The scandal did nothing to blemish Beckenbauer’s image. There is, in fact, seemingly little Beckenbauer can do wrong in the eyes of his countrymen.

Tall and elegant, sun-tanned and now gray-haired, Beckenbauer remains one of Germany’s most famous citizens. He recently was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in a spread that included an essay written in his honor by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Beckenbauer’s calm demeanor and folksy manner maintain their appeal with Germans, just as they did when he graced soccer fields 30 years ago as the nation’s greatest player. Beckenbauer, the son of a postal worker from a Munich suburb, was the key player in the nine-year effort to bring the World Cup back to Germany and, it seemed, the inevitable choice to run these finals.

Now Beckenbauer is the most visible person at the Cup — that is, other than Diego Maradona sitting in the stands, waving his shirt. Beckenbauer hops from game to game in a helicopter, somehow managing to appear at 32 of the 48 games in the opening round.

“When you really want to get to know your country, you need a chopper,” Beckenbauer told German reporters.

But he loves it.

“We all reach the high point of our lives at some point, and mine is now,” Beckenbauer said.

His life has been full of those highs.

As a player, Beckenbauer was considered so superior to his contemporaries he earned the nickname “Der Kaiser,” the Emperor.

Beckenbauer invented the role of the “sweeper,” a defensive player positioned just behind the back line who would plug holes in the back, then charge upfield with the offense in a playmaking role.

“By nature I was more of an attacking player than a defensive one,” Beckenbauer told FIFA’s Web site yesterday. “That’s why I always pushed forward.”

Few players ever mastered that position after Beckenbauer, who in many ways defined the perfect player.

As a player with Bayern Munich, Hamburg and later the New York Cosmos, Beckenbauer won 19 titles. He served as captain of West Germany when it won the World Cup on home soil in 1974, and he coached it to victory at the 1990 finals in Italy.

He is the only player to both captain and coach a championship World Cup team.

He also has been a remarkable success in retirement, serving as chairman of Bayern Munich, the richest club in Germany. He has been criticized for his lucrative advertising deals and conflicts of interest, but in Germany, Beckenbauer rules.

Running the World Cup, as Kissinger wrote in Time, is a “delicate and complicated job. He must satisfy 32 national passions, all but one of which will be disappointed.”

Beckenbauer certainly proved up to that challenge: He visited all of the other 31 countries participating in the finals, traveling 75,000 miles in 117 days. He even showed up at a New York Red Bulls game in Giants Stadium, a homecoming of sorts.

Beckenbauer played alongside Pele on the New York Cosmos from 1977 to 1980 — “the best time of my life” he called it — and helped them win three Soccer Bowls.

That, however, is in the past.

In the present, it’s difficult to turn on the TV in Germany without seeing Beckenbauer in a commercial. The man is an advertising icon. He’s either romping around the German countryside for a cell phone company or showing off his soccer skills for a bank. An Adidas ad shows a digital image of Beckenbauer from his playing days competing on a sandlot with 22 stars of today, players like David Beckham and Oliver Kahn.

Germany’s coach, Juergen Klinsmann, wishes that were possible, bringing back the old Beckenbauer to compete for his country in its quarterfinal match against Argentina in Berlin today.

Beckenbauer would like to see his country win, too, but mostly “Der Kaiser” just wants Germany to be a good host. Then, after the Cup ends July 9, he’ll retire to play golf — his real passion — near his home in the hills in Austria.

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