Netzer Vierundneunzig

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 in his 70s. 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.

RB Leipzig, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City… what is a “normal” club?

THE excellent German football publication 11 Freunde refused to cover the game between Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig as the latter is not a “normal” club. Admittedly, in the traditional German sense, RBL is not like most of the others, but then, what really constitutes normal?

Football has never warmed to a club, or player, that does not conform to convention. Remember when Graeme Le Saux was playing and not only received ridicule for actually “reading” a newspaper but was also taunted by a Liverpool player, implying that he might be gay? And what about the clubs that have very different models from the majority, how many hated clubs are there because they dare to be different?

The strange thing about football is that fans, clubs and officials invariably don’t like the status quo being challenged. Let’s look at Leipzig and their connection with Red Bull. The Austrian drinks company is a big corporate, just like so many others that dabble in football. Red Bull is not unlike the City Football Group in that it has a portfolio of clubs. While they are wealthy, there is a limit to how much money they can inject into any of their clubs. Red Bull’s real sin is in showing scant respect for tradition. If there is one thing football fans hold dear it is customs and rituals, so they made a huge blunder.



Germany’s 50+1 club ownership model is an admirable one and the ongoing anger about RBL’s existence is, to some extent, over the system being bigger than any one club, despite Bayern’s near monopolisation.

But RBL are not the only club to receive big corporate backing. Bayer Leverkusen are 100%-owned by Bayer, the pharmaceutical giant. Wolfsburg is Volkswagen’s club and Hoffenheim are 96%-owned by Dietmar Hopp, one of the founders of SAP. None of these clubs are really “normal”.

Leipzig’s story is well documented and a lot of people sneer at the very mention of their name, not least because the traffic between RB clubs gives them an advantage over rivals.

Red Bull’s patronage has not made Leipzig the richest club in Germany. According to the Deloitte Football Money League, Bayern (obviously), Dortmund, Schalke and Frankfurt are all better resourced. People may not like the way Red Bull gamed the system but Leipzig have yet to win a major trophy and you sense Bayern will always outgun them.

Leipzig have challenged the accepted order, however, and that always upsets those at the head of a traditional football hierarchy. England is a good example of this and, notably, the way clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool reacted to “new money” entering the Premier League. These three clubs were England’s most successful and represented the establishment. Everton were also once included in this bracket.

Take United as an example and their big attendances. When the Premier League started, United were averaging 35,000 at Old Trafford, while 12 of the clubs in the division were drawing under 20,000. United had a big advantage that has only grown. Within 15 years of the Premier’s launch, United had doubled their crowds to 75,000 and the overall average was 36,000 in the division. In the period between 1992-93 and 2002-03, Manchester United and Arsenal dominated domestic football in England, with United winning eight league titles and FA Cups and Arsenal two and four respectively. These clubs benefitted from financial strength, a rich heritage and critical mass in terms of popularity. It was difficult for other clubs to compete with United by building organically, so the only way to achieve elevation was by seeking-out investment. Football seemed to accept the uneven playing field that existed for decades, yet begrudged any club receiving the fresh impetus of new investors. This sentiment was also fuelled by the hereditary peers of the game – United, Arsenal, Liverpool – who protested more than anyone else about the threat of losing their place at the top table.



That didn’t happen, but the pendulum swung away from United and Arsenal. It took a while, though – in the period 2003-04 to 2011-12, United still had enough power to win four Premier titles and they also won it in 2013. Chelsea were in the ascendancy in that period, but in the years between 2012-13 and 2018-19, Manchester City came to the fore. Liverpool, domestically, have been short on staying power, although in 2019-20, the Premier League trophy looks destined for Anfield. Arsenal have certainly lost their position as a league contender.

Both Chelsea and Manchester City are disliked because of their inflated investment, but is it really any different than United becoming a corporate giant (in footballing terms) and using the stock market, leveraged buyouts and globalisation to good effect? Or, in Arsenal’s case, moving the club from south to north London in order to capitalise on a wealthier part of the capital? Or the Mersey clubs gaining financial advantages from the backing of a football pools empire? Clubs have always used various opportunistic methods in trying to build themselves up – rarely has it been idealistic, patient or democratic. And football has, more often than not, been a case of the survival of the fittest. Chelsea and Manchester City, by arriving into the top bracket, provided more competition for a league that was, to a large degree, being monopolised. It is feasible that if either had not been, to quote a well-known former manager, “injected with steroids”, then Arsenal and United would still be at the helm.

The new environment has also created some very embarrassing situations, such as Paris Saint-Germain’s almost obscene advantages in France. PSG’s financial strength allows them to dominate domestically, but it is really a model that is being constructed to preside over European football.

Football is also full of contradictions. While the fans and club officials complain about the artificial wealth accumulated by Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, they also long for a similar form of financial backing. In other words, if a billionaire drove into Villa Park, St. James’ Park or St. Andrews, the club would probably bite his or her hand off. Football is, after all, a game based on envy as much as common sense.

Rightly or wrongly, modern football today is propped-up by wealthy benefactors and, inevitably, broadcasting revenues, so clubs will be drawn towards those investors that can keep them in a style they would like to become accustomed to.

It is worth noting that, despite the impetus received from Russian and Middle Eastern money, Manchester United – run on a US-style sports business model – are still wealthier than both Chelsea and Manchester City.


All levels

The non-league game in England has also seen a scaled-down version of what has been happening at the top level. Clubs that do not conform to the accepted non-league model are normally despised or mocked. Team Bath was a good example,  a club that was linked to the University of Bath and received certain benefits from a conveyor belt of good quality players. As a team from a university, they were not well supported and as a tenant at other clubs’ grounds, found their progress stymied. There was a little bloody-mindedness in the way Team Bath were treated, but the quality of their football was a cut above many of their opponents. You hear stories about leagues willing some clubs to fail because they don’t like the way they are run or financed.

Any non-league club that has had substantial cash injections is usually disliked, partly because of envy and partly due to the way the money is spent – normally thrown around like confetti at a wedding. There is something rather tasteless and crass about a millionaire flexing his wallet in non-league and paying more money than is necessary to win a step three or four league. For one thing, it is unsustainable and secondly, it does little for the long-term image of that club.

Increasingly, clubs are trying to improve their social awareness and have realised that people like to be associated with organisations that adopt an approach of doing what is right rather what is permitted. Ideals are a great thing, but they rarely prove effective in football. If football was idealistic, then gambling would not have such a foothold in the game and players and their agents would not be disrupting team-building plans. And clubs would not charge the admission prices they currently demand. We would all like to think fan-owned football might be “normal” in the future, but there is no such animal as a “normal” club. Clubs come in all shapes and sizes, adopting approaches that serve their own requirements. Football is, after all, a competitive world, so it is natural that clubs will try anything to be more successful than their rivals. That might include securing sponsorship, building a bigger stadium to generate more income, attracting a billionaire or sovereign wealth fund to provide unprecedented amounts of cash. How “normal” is it to have a league with a club that has a 75,000 ground playing alongside one that cannot attract 20,000? How competitive is it for a fan-owned club with limited resources to come up against a multinational club with “supporters” all over the world? Football is a free market, and like all such economies, you have the extremely rich, the rich, the well-off and the poor. Modern football reflects modern life and sometimes, “normal” just doesn’t exist.


Photos: PA