WE WATCHED in awe. We admired his physique, his energy, his boldness and his power. He was 1972 personified: trendy, confident and, strangely for a footballer, radically cool. Günter Netzer was of his time, anti-establishment and defiant. He looked like he would be just as easily at home as a member of the Velvet Underground or part of a student protest movement.
It was April 29, 1972. Netzer had torn England apart, driving West Germany to a 3-1 win at Wembley in the quarter-final first leg of the European Championship. During the game, the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder had brushed aside the English – one move saw him outpace Bobby Moore, dismiss Francis Lee like a ghost and side-step the usually agile Martin Peters. Sir Alf Ramsey had made a career-changing mistake in ignoring Netzer’s threat and power and had paid dearly for it. In the second leg, with England’s hopes all but gone, Ramsey fielded a team of “cloggers” to neutralise Netzer. The game ended 0-0, but England had avoided humiliation.
Netzer, like Cruyff, was almost Lennonesque, a child of his time
After that Wembley game, the playground was full of Netzers running hard and shooting from distance. West Germany won the European Championship in 1972, and along with Ajax Amsterdam, we suddenly had some exotic heroes from across the Channel. The Dutch had Cruyff, the Germans had Netzer – arguably the two most charismatic – almost Lennonesque – players in European football.
With Netzer in their ranks, Borussia Mönchengladbach won the Bundesliga in 1969-70 and 1970-71. It was a young team, managed by Hennes Weisweiler, that was founded on the belief that you could play rapier-like counter-attacking football that was exciting. The initiator of many of their forward thrusts came from Netzer.
Gladbach were fierce rivals of Bayern Munich and their tussles characterised the era. Bayern, marshalled by the establishment figure Franz Beckenbauer, played a more functional and often cautious game. Gladbach, essentially a much smaller club, were somewhat gung-ho. It was often said that Netzer and Beckenbauer didn’t see eye-to-eye, so the contrast to these two figureheads helped provide the narrative for the Bayern-Gladbach debate. While “Der Kaiser” was a working class lad who shook the right hands, Netzer was more middle-class and very much an individual. He had a glamorous image – long, flowing blond hair, fast cars (he was one of the first players to drive a Ferrari), arty girlfriend, the owner of a Disco and a rebellious streak. And he mirrored Gladbach’s persona – defiantly successful.
In 1971-72 and 1972-73, Bayern won the Bundesliga, but in the latter of those two seasons, Gladbach won the DFB Pokal and also reached the final of the UEFA Cup. The German Cup, which was played over two-legs in every round bar the final, started in December 1972. Gladbach beat Frieburger FC 8-4 on aggregate. They then beat Schalke (3-1), Kaiserslautern (5-2) and in the semi-final, Werder Bremen (7-3).
In the Bundesliga, Gladbach started well, with three straight wins, but lost form and were beaten in four of their next five games, including a 0-3 reversal at Bayern Munich. They were not their consistent selves for much of the season.
The Gladbach team contained some very familiar names. Goalkeeper Wolfgang “Otto” Kleff was a pivotal figure of their successful teams of the 1970s. He would have surely won more than six caps for West Germany if Sepp Maier had not been around. Bertie Vogts became a German football legend, playing more than 400 times for Gladbach and winning 96 caps. Germany can thank him for his performance in the 1974 World Cup when he blotted-out Johan Cruyff.
Rainer Bonhof was another member of the 1974 squad and won 53 caps. Belgian-born Herbert Wimmer was in the 1972 European Championship team and scored one of West Germany’s goals against the USSR. Henning Jensen, a Dane, was a good example of a deep-lying forward concept and went on to play for Real Madrid. Jupp Heynckes had two spells with Gladbach and is also remembered for his success as a coach. And there was also Uli Stielike, a sweeper/midfielder who also went to Madrid.
And there was, of course, Netzer. In 1972-73, he was 28 years old, so he was at his peak. Occasionally, he would fall out with coach Weisweiler, and it was suggested that the reason Netzer was sold to Real Madrid in the summer of 1973 was because the duo could not get along. There were a number of theories, but the transfer was undoubtedly hotly pursued by Real, who were keen to counter Barcelona’s purchase of Cruyff with a big ticket signing. Money may also have had plenty to do with it, aswell – Netzer had often said that in football there were 11 businessmen in the team, very similar to Cruyff’s philosophy.
And so, Netzer was on his way out of Gladbach. As the season ran down in Germany, Netzer signed off his Bundesliga career with a penalty in Gladbach’s last game at home to Stuttgart, a 3-4 defeat. He had one last appointment – the DFB Pokal Final in Düsseldorf against 1. FC Köln on June 23, 1973.
Köln had reached the final by beating local rivals Fortuna (5-2), Hamburg (6-3), Eintracht Brunswick (8-2) and Kickers Offenbach (6-1). They had been more successful in the Bundesliga, finishing fifth to Gladbach’s eighth. They had their own excellent midfielder man in Wolfgang Overath, you might say one of Netzer’s rivals for a place in Die Mannschaft. They also had Wolfgang Weber, who scored in the 1966 World Cup final in the dying seconds of normal time.
In the days leading up to the final, the talk was of Netzer’s farewell to Gladbach. But Weisweiler, considering the impending move and also that Netzer’s mother had just died, chose to relegate his captain to the bench. “I am preparing for life without Netzer,” he explained.
The Gladbach fans were shocked and chanted Netzer’s name constantly. Herbert Wimmer, effectively Netzer’s replacement, gave Die Fohlen (the foals) the lead on 24 minutes, but Herbert Neumann equalised five minutes before half-time.
Weisweiler, perhaps sensing that his gamble was not paying off, told Netzer he was coming on in the second half. He refused, remaining on the bench, exuding an air of nonchalance.
Ich spiel dann jetzt
After 90 minutes, it was 1-1. Christian Kulik, often Netzer’s deputy, was exhausted (late June in central Europe can be very hot!) and told Netzer he could not go on. The blond mane turned to Weisweiler: “Ich spiel dann jetzt” – “I will play now, then.” The cameras clicked furiously around Netzer as he took the field, his muscular torso testing every stitch of his predominantly white shirt.
Then it happened. In the 94th minute. Netzer touched the ball for the first time. Initially, he elected to run one way then switched direction, playing the ball to Rainer Bonhof before dashing across the penalty area to the left hand side. Bonhof’s ball found him in full stride and then Netzer appeared to lose balance ever so slightly before sending a left-foot rocket shot into the roof of the net.
What happened next provided one of the most iconic images of the age, Netzer jumping for joy, hair freaking-out in an out-of-body experience. It was the winning goal. He had his grand finale in German football.
Was he successful in Spain? Real Madrid finished eighth in 1973-74, while Barcelona won La Liga. Real did win the Cope Del Rey in 1974 and 1975 and La Liga in 1974-75 and 1975-76. He then went to Switzerland and Grasshopper Zurich for one final season.
It remains a mystery why Netzer did not play for more than 20 minutes in the 1974 World Cup. Brian Glanville said that the West German side of 1974 had passed its peak, that the panache provided by the likes of Netzer had gone. While the Germans laboured through the first few games, Netzer sat on the sidelines, eventually brought on to face East Germany, a game they may have strategically lost. He never appeared again on the field during the competition.
Today, Netzer still has something of a rebellious look about him – invariably dressed in dark clothing, with tinted hair and looking remarkably sculptured for a man of 71. He is a legend, still a maverick, always an icon and forever a reminder of a brief moment in time. When asked by FIFA to reflect on his career, he commented: “I feel extremely privileged to have had, and to continue to have, the life I’ve had. I view it all with great humility and gratefulness. It’s been extraordinary and something I’d never imagined even in my wildest dreams. That’s why I look back on it all with a huge sense of thankfulness.” German football fans will doubtless be just as thankful for having seen Günter Netzer in his pomp.