Paul Breitner was a world-class footballer in his day, but his place among the legends of the game owes as much to an extraordinary, multifaceted and often contrary personality. Cast in the mould of a classic midfield general, Breitner actively sought responsibility on and off the field, and rates as one of the most straight-talking individuals in football.
A native of upper Bavaria, Breitner and controversy went hand-in-hand, as is to be expected from a man with a love-him or hate-him personality. Nowadays, many years after his illustrious playing career, Breitner is a popular and sought-after media figure, always with an anecdote or quotable quip to hand.
Arguably the highlight of Breitner’s career was his display in the 1974 FIFA World Cup™ Final on home soil. The fiery Bavarian, who emerged during the tournament as captain Franz Beckenbauer's chief lieutenant, stepped up to take a vital penalty in Munich and level the scores against the Netherlands, nervelessly converting from the spot and sparking the German revival which ultimately ended in triumph for coach Helmut Shoen's side.
“Even before the opening match, we talked about who’d take the penalties if we were awarded one, but no-one wanted to," Breitner exclusively told FIFA.com a few years ago. "Gerd Muller had missed a few in the Bundesliga, and no-one else stepped forward and said he'd do it." The player himself shouldered the responsibility, with momentous consequences for the game. As he recalled: “When the referee restarted play after my penalty, we all recognised the equaliser had activated a turbo in our team, and I certainly wasn't the only one who knew we'd go on from there and win."
Triumphs and a place alongside Pele
In the course of a long and successful career, Breitner won almost everything there was to win. Two years prior to the 1974 FIFA World Cup triumph, he was a member of the European championship-winning Germany side, still regarded as one of the most skilled teams ever produced by the country. In a Bayern Munich shirt, the man nicknamed Afro for his youthful hairstyle of choice collected a winner's medal in the European Champions Cup, the forerunner to today's UEFA Champions League.
Bayern remains the club most closely associated with Breitner, who won the Bundesliga five times and the German cup twice in the famous red shirt. However, the man capped 48 times by his country also won the Spanish league twice and the Copa del Rey once with Real Madrid. Interestingly enough, although Breitner would be best remembered as a midfield enforcer, his game incorporated a versatility which rates as ahead of its time, as he learned the trade as a striker but also featured in defence in his early years as a pro.
Wherever Breitner went, success was not far behind. The reverse was true as well: after a series of disputes with the coaching staff and a handful of players, he withdrew from the national set-up in 1978. That year’s FIFA World Cup in Argentina turned into a debacle for Germany, prompting Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to lead a group of players arguing that the side was not competitive without Breitner. He was duly recalled, and helped the team reach the Final of the 1982 FIFA World Cup. The Germans fell 3–1 to Italy, but Breitner scored his country's goal and became the first player since Brazilian idol Pele to score in two FIFA World Cup Finals.
One of a kind
Due to his exceptional tackling ability, thunderbolt shot and peerless leadership qualities, the player became a household name all over the footballing world. His unconventional approach to life off the field was part and parcel of the man. At the age of 18, he abandoned university studies in Munich to turn professional with Bayern, and he was later often portrayed in the media as an intellectual rebel. “Breitner acquired an image as a member of the political fringe ever since he was photographed in his younger years under a poster of Chairman Mao, and declared his sympathy for Che Guevara," German news weekly Speigel reported.
He also adopted a sideways attitude towards honours and silverware, as typified by his response to FIFA.com asking for his thoughts on the famous FIFA World Cup Trophy: "It's impressive, and I don't want to say anything against it, but it's a symbol. The figure is intended as a world champion, holding that sphere, he's the best in his field. It's a symbol, no more and no less. And symbols - flags, pendants or whatever - don't need to be beautiful. Their significance isn't what they look like but what people associate with them."
There seems no end to the complexity of this most intriguing character, who is even (very) distantly related to former Pope Benedict XVI. But the facts are that the man who had already won the UEFA European Championship and European Champions Cup by the age of 22 was one of the first authentic superstar footballers in Germany, and someone who never settled for anything less than the best. He continues to work for Bayern these days as a scout and adviser, supplementing that with frequent, typically outspoken media appearances. A free spirit for sure, but with the dynamism and determination to hit ambitious targets.
Did You Know?
Paul Breitner and Uli Hoeness, currently Bayern Munich club president, have been close friends for decades. In their early days as pro footballers, they shared an apartment in Munich.
In 2004, Brazil idol Pele included Paul Breitner in the FIFA 100, his list of the 125 best living players.
Paul Breitner’s many talents include acting. He featured in the 1976 Western Potato Fritz.
In 1977, Paul Breitner stunned the footballing world by leaving Spanish giants Real Madrid for the relative obscurity of German provincial outfit Eintracht Braunschweig. Just a season later, he returned to his spiritual home at Bayern.