In the 20-year history of the FIFA World Player of the Year award, only one German has claimed the prestigious crown, and that was Lothar Matthaus. The former midfielder certainly rates as one of the greatest footballers ever produced by the central European powerhouse, and he remains his country's most-capped player.
However, Matthaus himself went on record early in his career to hail another man he personally considered an all-time great - and it was not Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller or Fritz Walter. So who was it? “I've come up against Zico and Maradona, and I now know who’s the best player in the world: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge," Matthaus declared in the 1980s.
Former forward Rummenigge boasts a glittering career record, finishing as a FIFA World Cup™ runner-up in 1982 and 1986, and winning the UEFA European Championship in 1980. At club level with Bayern Munich, he won the 1976 Intercontinental Cup and the Bundesliga in 1980 and '81, and was twice named European Footballer of the Year, also in ‘80 and ‘81.
Rummenigge was a true colossus of the 1980s, becoming a household name around the world. “The 1982 World Cup will be a personal duel between the two superstars, Rummenigge and Diego Maradona," said the West Germany No11's former Bayern coach Dettmar Cramer. As it turned out, Jupp Derwall's team battled through to the Final but finished runners-up after losing 3-1 to Italy.
Cramer's prediction finally came true four years later, when Rummenigge and Maradona led out their teams for the Mexico 1986 decider. For the second time running, the Germany striker and his compatriots came up short, this time courtesy of a 3–2 defeat by Argentina.
“I wasn't fit in time, but I knew it would be my last World Cup and I was determined to play," Rummenigge later explained. “It was the worst period of my career. The only performances that were even satisfactory were against Morocco and Argentina." It was the player's last major tournament, as he announced his retirement from international football immediately afterwards.
I've come up against Zico and Maradona, and I now know who’s the best player in the world: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Rummenigge’s ascent to the top of the German game began in the autumn of 1976, when he made his debut in a 2–0 victory over Wales. After the game, assistant coach Derwall described the 21-year-old simply as “our best man". Cramer even picked his protégé up from Munich airport, handing him a congratulatory bottle of champagne.
At the time, experts and pundits agreed that the dynamic, blond-haired player could restore the charisma lost to German football with the retirements of Beckenbauer, Gunter Netzer, Wolfgang Overath and Muller from the international stage.
The 1.82m forward, who could play out wide but was at heart a traditional centre-forward, was famed and feared for his mazy dribbles, bringing the crowd to its feet in anticipation and spreading panic among opposing defenders. Rummenigge, a lithe and agile mover but surprisingly robust for his build, teamed up productively with Hansi Muller and Bernd Schuster, adding a dash of creative flair to a West Germany side otherwise dependent on fighting spirit and physical obduracy.
Rummenigge was an established regular in the Germany squad by the time of Argentina 1978, and two years on he was a leading figure in the side which triumphed at the European Championship. He scored the only goal of the opening match against Czechoslovakia, and supplied the corner in the final against Belgium for Horst Hrubesch to seal a 2-1 victory. Afterwards, he was named Player of the Tournament by the media.
Rummenigge recalled: “We set new benchmarks in the build-up to the European Championship. We went 23 games undefeated, something no Germany team had ever done before. My confidence was on a high. I finished leading scorer and Player of the Year in Germany, so I had real belief in myself. Our coach Jupp Derwall also did everything he could to put us at our ease. And it was Lothar Matthaus’s first major tournament. He was totally fresh and cocky."
Overseas adventures, pop tribute
By this stage, the man who was born in Lippstadt in 1955 and idolised Pele as a boy, had already assembled a clutch of winners' medals at club level. Joining forces with Gerd Muller, Paul Breitner and Sepp Maier, Kalle spearheaded Bayern's drive back to the undisputed number one spot in German football, restoring a reputation which had become tarnished in the late 1970s after the break-up of a previous golden generation.
In the normal run of things, Rummenigge's switch to Italian giants Inter Milan in 1984 would have been the zenith of his career, but injury was now becoming a factor and he would not collect any further winners' medals. His three-season stint in Milan yielded 24 goals for I Nerazzurri in 64 appearances.
In 1987, Rummenigge signed the final contract of his playing career with Swiss club Servette, finally hanging up his boots two years later. Fittingly enough, he went out on a high as the Swiss league's top scorer.
Rummenigge now went on to join the handful of former players who establish a successful second career in the administrative and commercial side of the game. Following a brief spell as a colour commentator on TV, he was elected Bayern Munich vice-president in 1991. Nowadays, Rummenigge is chairman of Germany's biggest club, and fills the same position for the powerful European Club Association (ECA).
A figurehead and leader both as a player and an official, Rummenigge was always destined for greatness. And trivia fans take note: his star quality was evident from the early days, even prompting British pop duo Alan & Denise to sing their hero’s praises in their minor hit single, Rummenigge, What A Man.