AT first glance, Uwe Seeler never looked like your classic footballer. Stocky and balding, 1.7 metres in height, he was deceptively good in the air and over short distances, lightning quick. He was combative, strong and was an expert of that most acrobatic of goal attempts, the bicycle kick.
Seeler was a child of Hamburg, born in November 1936, so his family would have endured the horrors of war and what followed after 1945. His father, Erwin, was passionate about football and played for Hamburg, hence his two sons, Uwe and Dieter followed in his footsteps.
Uwe made his debut for Hamburg in 1954 and in his first season was joint top scorer with 28 goals. Over the next 18 years he was, almost without fail, Hamburg’s leading scorer every season. In 1962-63, the Bundesliga’s inaugural campaign, he topped the league’s scoring list with 30 goals.
Seeler was incredibly loyal to Hamburg and rejected multiple offers to leave his beloved club. There was one especially tempting proposition, though, in 1961 when Inter Milan’s Helenio Herrera met with him and the Italian club offered a signing on fee of 250,000 Deutsche Marks and a salary of 150,000 DM per year. His rejection only served to make him more loved by the public.
Why was he so cherished by Hamburg people who called him “Uns Uwe”, which translates to “our Uwe”? Those that met him always commented on his unassuming, down-to-earth nature – to use that well-worn adage, “what you saw was what you got”. Unsurprisingly, his autogiography was called “Danke, Fussball”.
Seeler made his debut for West Germany in October 1954 just a few months after the Germans won the World Cup in Bern. He was only 18 years old. By the time the 1958 World Cup came around, he was becoming a fixture in the team and scored twice in Sweden that summer. He played in four World Cups, bowing out after the 1970 tournament in Mexico as a 33 year-old. He scored in all four of his World Cups, the last of his nine goals, the famous looping header that brought West Germany level against holders England in the quarter-final.
He never won the Jules Rimet Trophy, although he captained his country at Wembley in 1966 when England beat them 4-2 after extra time in the final. Many of his team-mates were angered by the controversial third England goal by Hurst, but after the game, despite being very visibly dejected, his comment underlined his sporting nature: “The English team was exceptional and worthy of the title.” Seeler had returned to the national side after sustaining a serious achilles tendon injury that could have ended the career of lesser players. In 1970, West Germany went out in the semi-final after the famous “match of the century” in which Italy beat Seeler and co. 4-3. The Germans, with Seeler’s heir, Gerd Müller scoring prolifically, were arguably the second best team in that memorable competition.
Seeler’s career was not laden with trophies and medals, although he was capped 72 times and scored 43 goals. He was player of the year in Germany three times (1960, 1964 and 1970) and finished in the first three in the Ballon d’Or in 1960. As Hamburg’s talismanic centre forward, he won just two major prizes, the German championship in 1960, where he scored twice as Hamburg beat Frankfurt in the title play-off, and the DFB Pokal in 1963 when his team overcame Borussia Dortmund thanks to his hat-trick. His brother, Dieter was captain of the cup winners.
After his playing career had yielded almost 500 goals in close to 600 games, Seeler had a brief spell in Ireland with Cork Celtic, but he was, inevitably, part of the football scene at Hamburg in future years. He had a short stint as president, but during his watch, the club was embroiled in a financial scandal. Seeler, predictably, took responsibility although was not implicated. He remained a popular, much-loved figure and a bizarre statue of his right foot was erected to commemorate his contribution to the club. A depiction of strength, simplicity and reliability, perhaps – the very qualities that made Uwe Seeler the football hero that he was.