Gunter Netzer: The uncanny and the awe-inspiring

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Taken from THE FOOTBALL PINK ISSUE 2, LAYTH YOUSIF eulogises about the stylish but unconventional German football legend whose individuality illuminated European football during the 60’s and 70’s.

“I believe that truth has only one face: that of contradiction.” – Georges Bataille, Philosopher

How do you explain a man that owned a bar but never drank alcohol?

The son of a humble greengrocer who ended up running a notorious nightclub?

Who kept fast cars but never raced them? Who wore his blonde hair long like an Edwardian poet but insisted it was to hide his ugliness? A man who was nicknamed after a musical legend with a questionable past? An astute businessman who hated commercialism? A sex symbol who married an enigmatic goldsmith? A man who intellectuals salivated over but was apolitical?

And that was off the pitch.

How can you describe a man who only won 30 International caps but played in a game that at the time was voted the second best performance in his country’s illustrious footballing history?

A German entrusted with a penalty in Wembley’s cauldron, lionised for staying icily calm and admired for scoring the vital kick – when the truth was it was an effort which a World Cup winning goalkeeper should have saved.

A footballer who was immortalised in the 1973 German Cup Final, yet hadn’t started the game and refused to come on until he decided the time was right?

A player whose performance peaked in a single week the same year – but had arguably the game of his life expunged from the record books through no fault of his own?

Fiction has more room for ambivalence, moral ambiguity and contradiction than reality. In sport as in life things are easier if they are compartmentalised. Intuitively it is far more comfortable for us if our idols are one dimensional and easy to read. But that’s not always the case.

The footballer’s nickname was Karajan. (A reference to the talented and charismatic conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan. The contradiction evident in the moniker was whilst bringing joy to millions Karajan was also a member of the Nazi Party in the 1930s).

Yet the world knew the man as Gunter Netzer.

Günter Theodor Netzer was born on 14 September 1944 in Mönchengladbach.

With his natural flair and talent, Netzer was a hero to many of a certain vintage. Even now he is prized and venerated – for his football of course – but also for something more intangible.

For a sense of dilettante seditiousness, for non-conformity and nonchalant defiance, for dissent and unruliness. For being an outspoken and curiously immodest individual in a team sport.

In a tribal footballing world where players were either thoughtless and inarticulate, or sensible and bland, Netzer personified rebelliousness and made it obercool.

He was quoted: “I thought of headers as similar to handballs…Personally, training camps used to make me wonder whether I ought to pack football in.” He also pronounced: “I have the ability to pull off something extraordinary during a match in extraordinary circumstances.”

This was a man who knew his worth. He could have been someone despised for Teutonic arrogance. Instead he was admired for his ability to transcend football’s usual partisanship with his laconic non-compliance for the prevailing culture of conformity. The German pioneers of electronic music, Kraftwerk, released a single called ‘The Robots’ taken from their 1978 Album ‘The Man-Machine’. A line is intoned that says:

“We are programmed just to do”
“Anything you want us to”

This was an ironic comment on individuality versus the need to conform. The band was part of an emerging generation of young West Germans, living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, a new wave who identified with the idea of promoting a German cultural identity which was separate and distinct from that of Britain and America. You could argue that Netzer on and off the football field was doing the same. Netzer once said: “I understand that I must run, but I do so reluctantly, at least, without the ball”.

But he did run.

The team he played for, the legendary, unconventional, Borussia Mönchengladbach side of the early 70s, nicknamed ‘the Foals’ for their high spirited youth, provided the perfect platform for his talents and temperament.

‘Gladbach’ were noted more for their concentration on the aesthetics of the game as the pursuit of victory and are still loved to this day by many neutrals. They were a team managed by the iconic Hennes Weisweiler who focused on the more esoteric pursuits of passion and pleasure rather than power and muscle.

The national team may have viewed traditional German strengths as the way to win – through efficiency and the negation of the individual into the collective – but under the Weisweiler personality, independence and unconventionality were encouraged, on and off the pitch. Alongside him was Horst Koppel, who had an endearing eccentricity about him, as he wore a toupee for three playing years, whilst midfielder Berti Vogts was an orphan.

Netzer was one of the first German players to cultivate an off field persona – as opposed to a carefully crafted PR identity that many leading players promote these days. His partner, who was a goldsmith, in conjunction with Netzer ran a debauched nightclub that was a hive of nocturnal activity called Lovers Lane. He even designed the logo.

As for Netzer’s long unruly hair that appeared on posters on the walls of all rebellious teenage boys’ posters throughout Europe he simply commented, “Many people criticised me for long hair. But I wear them not because of their addiction to fashion. I have an ugly appearance, and long hair inexpressiveness brightens my face, make it a little more attractive”.

Yet Germany was a tempestuous place in the 1970’s. There was also an ideological slant to the rivalry between the two fierce competitors of the era, Gladbach and Bayern. If you were a radical left wing writer, reformer or progressive you were ‘Gladbach’. If you were a politician who favoured the status quo you were labelled as ‘Bayern’. No wonder the Foals were seen as a counterpoint to the more regimented collective of Bayern Munich.

Weisweiler roared unapologetically “better to lose 6-5 than 1-0”. As he expounded, “Our great advantage over all other sides is that our players are constantly moving. When Netzer is on the ball, he can choose from four or five players to pass to”.

They were also loved and renowned for taking risks. They once lost 7-0 at home to Bremen.

It is another score of seven Netzer was involved in which survives in the memory of many, even if the game in terms of official statistics – UEFA decreed in their wisdom – was worthless. So much so that even ‘Jünter’, the Foals’ cheerful matchday mascot named after Gunter to this day shakes his head about the bureaucrats’ painful decision.

Everyone knows Johan Cruyff’s Ajax took part in four European Cup finals in the space of five years. But to the true believers one decider ranks above all others in symbolism. Ajax versus Inter Milan in 1972; when the God-like Cruyff netted a double as ‘Total Football’ joyously banished Inter’s notorious ‘Catenaccio’. But it is a little known fact that the 1972 match, however satisfying, should never have taken place.

October 1971: In one of the most famous German victories of all time, against Inter, reigning Champions of Italy, the Foals, galvanised by an early Jupp Heynckes goal, stormed to a 7-1 win. The Nerazzurri won the seemingly meaningless second leg 4-2.

However, after Inter made a complaint that Roberto Boninsegna was deemed to have been hit by an empty can during the first game, UEFA decreed the game was to be replayed and the 7-1 victory scratched from the record books. The replayed game ended 0-0 in Berlin and the shocked Foals – Weisweiler, Heynckes, Netzer et al were out. The result was expunged from the record books and a classic final for the ages denied between the vibrant Foals and the Total Football of Cruyff’s Ajax.

It will always be a regret that this final the Gods decreed – only to have mere mortals decide against it – will only ever be played out in the minds of ageing men and women, and intrigued youngsters who want to learn more. The mind forgets what it never sees.

Thankfully the moment lingers on in a haunting afterlife on YouTube. The first goal: Netzer displaying his renowned vision, threads the ball through to Heynckes who turns his man and slams it into the near post. Too earthy?

And the fourth goal? Where the gifted son of a greengrocer softly, delicately, lifts the ball into the top corner from a free kick?

The sixth then? Where Netzer again, starts a move from the edge of his box.

By now he is being peremptorily dismissive of the ball. It is revealing to note that during the genesis of the attack, certain Foals players move into space, pass and receive the ball, without actually looking at it. It is football from the gods. But which God was Netzer?

There is a Roman god called Summanus who represented the uncanny and the awe-inspiring – how about him? Netzer actually looks as if he finds the ball’s worship of him tedious, summarily exiling it to an onrushing Heynckes with a glorious push from the outside of his right foot.

Yet it is only a temporary banishment. Heynkces runs onto it, knowingly turning his head several times in the belief that it will be time for the sacrifice soon, and eventually squares it. Netzer with nothing better to do than score, simply nudges ahead of the helpless defender – nullifying a man steeped in the dark arts of catenaccio – and executes the ball over the keeper.

He doesn’t celebrate this time, he simply lifts his head to the other Gods and their heavenly sovereignty above, merely in order for them to confirm they have seen his offering. This footage makes you weep with joy and wonder. A watching Matt Busby, in attendance that fateful night, shook his head and simply declared, “There is no cure against this Mönchengladbach side”.

You feel like hoarding it for yourself, greedily feasting on it the next time you hear the overhyped strains of Zadok the Priest, but you know there are other believers out there who you need to share the secret with. Seek it out. Borussia Mönchengladbach v Inter Milan. To paraphrase the title of a great cult football book: It is the best football you never saw.

As a postscript, a meagre 72 hours after the final whistle of that momentous evening, the Foals beat Schalke 7-0. How must it feel to live the rest of your life knowing that your life’s work has already peaked?

And yet.

Netzer also played in Germany’s ground-breaking 3-1 victory at Wembley that same year in a performance that caused the cultural critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Karl Heinz Bohrer, to write in an essay the immortal words, “Netzer came from the depths of space”.

Unsurprisingly, the chief architect of England’s overthrow in one of the greatest classics of European International football was Netzer. Sitting deep with Beckenbauer, the players prompted forays, pulling England players out of place, finding time and space with vision and flair.

“The magnitude of our performance,” said Beckenbauer, “was really just like a dream. I have never shared in a finer West German performance. Everything we wanted to do, we did. The moves, the idea and the execution all happened”.

Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Sepp Maier, Jürgen Grabowski, the young Paul Breitner and Uli Hoeness equalled a litany of greatness. But without Netzer orchestrating, without their Karajan, they were far less than the sum of their parts.

It has been argued the day England ceased to be world champions wasn’t in stultifying Monterrey in Mexico in 1970. It was at Wembley in 1972. (You could argue that English football at that level has never really recovered. But that’s for another day).

As the great Austrian conductor Karajan himself once said: “If you start with almost nothing, people concentrate much more on hearing you. Then when the outbreak comes, it makes a far greater impact.”

Before 1972, West Germany had failed to win on the European stage since their single success in the Miracle of Bern in 1954 aided, as every German knows, by ‘Fritz Walter weather’ – but by God, they made up for it afterwards. Gunter Netzer said of that team, “As far as beauty, our football was unique”,

One more game. Perhaps the defining game of Netzer’s career. It all depends on if you like Roy of The Rovers, albeit a less altruistic one.

The 1973 German final was Netzer’s last game before moving to Real Madrid. However, Weisweiler, cautious of the 28-year-old’s fitness and commitment, and already planning for the next season leaves him out of the starting line-up with Herbert Wimmer as central midfielder and team captain. Netzer simply nods his head imperceptibly and muses out loud: “That’s a courageous decision”.

During the first half, the Foals fans at Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadion sung for Netzer to be brought on. Weisweiler then has a change of heart and told Netzer at half-time he would play in the second half. Netzer, furious with the snub, and ever the iconoclast simply refused and sat brooding. Only in extra time of the dramatic final against rivals FC Köln with the score poised at 1-1 did Netzer then proclaim himself ready to join the game, theatrically removing his training top proclaiming to Weisweiler: “I’ll play now then”.

What was to unfold in the next minute only added to the Netzer legend.

As extra time is about to commence he trots nonchalantly onto the pitch, blond locks rising and falling with his stride, amidst a phalanx of loitering reporters, cameramen and players, and waits to take the kick off.

Once the uninvited melee clears and extra time commences, immediately the ball is drawn to him, just outside the centre circle. With an instinctive feint and change of direction that buys him a crucial yard of space from his onrushing opponent, he powers between the lines. He plays the ball through to a teammate whilst continuing his run. The ball is then fed perfectly through into the box for Nezter to run onto. The next part is crucial.

Whilst I ran it continually on a loop on Youtube looking for further clues to the German’s genius – with ‘Robots’ booming out on Spotify – I accidentally hit the pause button just as he shaped to shoot. Annoyed with myself for the interruption I went to press play again, only to be drawn to his body shape in the frozen shot. For Gunter Nezter looks like he is about to fall down.

It appears that in running onto the ball he has tripped over. Someone unfamiliar with the goal would reasonably surmise by looking at the freeze frame that the forward would not only fail to score, but would be lucky to stay on his feet. Netzer did neither.

Disguising his stumble in an instant by simply allowing the ball to run across him, he lifts a strong shot into the top corner of the goal to the keeper’s right-hand side. Only someone with such intuitive balance and footballing intelligence could perform an implausible act such as this.

No wonder Netzer celebrated with such unrestrained joy – even if his celebratory leap into the air is effortless. The strike won the German Cup for the Foals. The goal cemented his love by all Foals fans and countless other Germans. Not for nothing is he still known by many today as ‘Son of God’.

Later, to convince myself his trip was real and not perceived I searched for quotes by him admitting the fact. I found one. “I hit the ball incorrectly as I stumbled. The goal was an accident”. Germany didn’t care. His strike was still voted goal of the season.

Netzer enigmatically stated of the day, “No man should be allowed to be so bold”, adding, “That was the greatest happiness in my life on the football field”.

Later he won La Liga twice with Real Madrid – of course he did.

And after he retired he still showed the vision he was renowned for in transforming Hamburg’s team – off the field in this case – as their General Manager. His appointments of the singular Ernst Happel and later Branko Zebec as coaches allowed the Hanseatic City to clinch three Bundesliga titles.

In 1983, Hamburg reached the European Cup final. Horst Hrubesch, Felix Magath and Manny Kaltz, on the field and Netzer off it, combined in one of the great sporting underdog stories. Hamburg, to everyone’s surprise but Hamburg and Netzer somehow managed to win the trophy by beating a Juventus side crammed with Italian players who had won the World Cup a year earlier, as well as Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek.

Even now Hamburg fans consider the ‘Günter Netzer years’ as the most successful in Hamburg’s 126 year history. If the face of truth is one of contradiction then Netzer’s legacy is indeed that of the Roman god Summanus who represented the uncanny and the awe-inspiring.

With his long blonde hair immortalised by students of fashion as well as students of football, with his unforced genius in finding space – his and his team mates space – through exuberant movement and extravagant passing that was never wasteful or self-indulgent; and with the inherent flair that presented itself through audacious goals, Gunter Netzer did evoke the contradictory spirit of the Gods.

His technical accomplishments, his football intelligence, his thoughtful analysis of the numerous options available to a player – available to a gifted player, or to a renegade player at least – at any given split second on the football field, and his uncanny and awe-inspiring ability to execute them perfectly, left him immune to contrived, soulless football.

He was creative and he was original – and he simply didn’t care enough to worry about if he was different. And for that we idolise him still.

Perhaps his fellow countrymen, Kraftwerk, encapsulated it best with their wry commentary in denouncing monotony and homogenization in The Robots:

“Nobody owns me.”
“Nobody sells me.”

In recalling Gunter Netzer, uncanny and awe-inspiring Gunter Netzer, this contradictory truth applies even now.

LAYTH YOUSIF – @laythy29

One response to “Gunter Netzer: The uncanny and the awe-inspiring

  1. What a wonderful eulogy of Herr Netzer. As a kid living in Gladbach in the mid-70′s I was aware of the his exploits and enjoyed attending the continued success of Die Fohlen once he left (I’ve still got the free programmes you picked up for free after getting into the Bokelberg for DM4-.)
    Moreover, I love the passage on Gladbach v Bayern. The Intelligentsia & bon-viveurs v the Bayern machine – it is still mentioned to this day amongst folk I meet throughout Germany.

    As an aside, as a Scotsman and supporter of Aberdeen, you omitted the small matter that HSV lost to the Dons in the 1983 Super Cup, but I’ll let that pass, a small footnote shouldn’t despoil the greatness that IS Gunter Netzer!
    PS: His love of life if still evident today in his after-match speeches on DE tv, a most wonderful inspiration to approaching / treating life!!

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