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A new series: When we were footballers — Oliver Kahn

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The first edition of this new BFW series will cover one of the best and most fascinating goalkeepers in recent memory: Oliver Kahn.

Introducing “When we were footballers”

“When we were footballers” is a new series about the fascinating characters who inhabit the world of football. Focusing on individuals in football how have made an impact on me during my short time as a football enthusiast, I will try and tell their story both on and off the pitch in this series. If you are a fan of the cultural phenomenon known as “the beautiful game,” I believe you connect with societal aspects of the sport that reach far beyond the 22 players kicking a ball on a pitch.

Although Bavarian Football Works content is dedicated to Bayern Munich, the German National Team, and the Bundesliga broadly, this series will include players from all areas of world football. The next article might be about the very brightest superstars on the football stage, cult heroes from Italy or Iraq, divas whose potential was wasted, or hidden gems whose story is worth telling.

It will start, however, with Bayern Munich’s captain from 2002 to 2008 and one of the most fascinating goalkeepers in recent memory: Oliver Kahn.

What makes a goalkeeper?

What qualities would you include if you had to explain what kind of individual is best suited for the goalkeeping position?

The description of the most specialized position in football is easy. A goalkeeper is someone whose job is to keep the ball out of their team’s net. A good goalkeeper needs to have strong reflexes, jumping agility, and catching ability.

While these physical elements play a part, it is often the psychological component that determines the difference between success or failure. The goalkeeper is the only individual in a team sport that stands alone and is cut off from the rest of the team.

It is, pure and simple, the loneliest position in football.

While a striker can afford to miss a sitter, a goalkeeper doesn’t share that privilege. Knowing that one mistake will make you the obvious scapegoat can create intense pressure. What kind of individual would willingly take on this type of pressure and put themselves in the way of balls moving towards them with the strongest of forces?

If I had to describe what makes a good goalkeeper, I would borrow a quote from Oliver Kahn: “Goalkeepers need an element of insanity.”

Greatness and insanity have often come hand in hand when discussing the now 50-year-old Karlsruhe native. Success as a goalkeeper often comes from within, something that der Titan worked at his entire career (Spiegel):

If you work hard you’ll make something of yourself, and anyone who tries to stand in your way is your enemy. Those were my infantile attempts to motivate myself.

The gorilla with 1,000 arms

Oliver Rolf Kahn grew up in Karlsruhe and described his childhood in the 1980s as an era epitomized by movies such as “Rambo” and “Rocky.” The message was clear: the tough ones survive.

Kahn has said in hindsight that it took him a long time to realize that football isn’t martyrdom, but a sport that should be enjoyed. When he was between 20 and 30 years old, though, Kahn’s entire life revolved around his job. He practiced longer and harder than everyone else and used every opportunity to improve. His father, Rolf, explained his son’s unusual dedication to be the best (Guardian):

Oliver wants to go into regions where you can’t go. He wants to get balls you can’t get. He seeks untrainable areas.

It was at hometown club Karlsruhe SC where Kahn started to make headlines that would define his persona for years to come. One of his fellow goalkeepers refused to share a room with the future German international goalkeeper, because he was afraid of being smothered in his sleep. Another teammate confessed that Kahn regarded anyone who wore gloves as an enemy.

In the 1993/94 season, Karlsruhe surprisingly reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, a tournament in which Kahn impressed immensely. Unable to hold on to their exciting young goalkeeper for long, Karlsruhe sold Kahn to Bayern Munich in the summer of 1994 for DM 4.6 million (€2.4 million), the record transfer fee for a goalkeeper at that time.

Silverware and a budding reputation as the best goalkeeper in the world were accompanied by antics on the pitch. In a game against Dortmund, Kahn started by pretending to bite Dortmund-legend Heiko Herrlich. A few minutes later, he seemingly tried to kung-fu Swiss striker Stephane Chapuisat. In modern football, such actions could easily result in a sending off, but Kahn stayed on the pitch and helped Bayern to leave Dortmund with a point after saving a penalty 10 minutes before the final whistle.

His generalissimo persona was not directed exclusively towards the “enemy.” Kahn’s teammates got the other end of the stick on plenty of occasions, as Kahn was not afraid to use his physicality towards them. When asked what he is afraid of, teammate and fellow Karlsruhe-native Mehmet Scholl answered that he is only afraid of two things: war and Oliver Kahn.

‘’Football is a man’s sport. Things like that belong in the game,’’ Kahn explained in a post-match interview when asked for an explanation of his aggressiveness after he grabbed Leverkusen striker Thomas Brdarić by the neck.

Antics towards the opposition and teammates or mindless acts such as a sending-off against Rostock (shown below) made him an easy character to ridicule in the media. Comedian Harald Schmidt joked about how Kahn looked like a gorilla, a nickname that became common when facing opposition fans.

Nevertheless, by 2000, Kahn had established himself as one of the best goalkeepers on the planet. His physically and psychologically challenging training routine had rewarded him.

With terror came valuable leadership. Refusing to leave the pitch after he was struck on the head by a golf ball at a game in Freiburg in April 2000, Kahn stayed despite the heavy bleeding and led Die Roten to a title-important victory. Kahn was between the posts for Bayern when they lost to Manchester United in the Champions League final of 1999 and was the key motivator in Bayern’s comeback on the grandest stage of European club football.

The 2001 Champions League final against Valencia was dominated by penalties. A game that had already seen three penalties awarded during the first 120 minutes was to be decided on penalties.

Enter Der Titan.

Kahn saved three penalties, including the decisive spot-kick that made Bayern the new Champions League winners, two years after the robbery at Camp Nou. His second save was the pick of the bunch. Initially misreading Amedeo Carboni’s strike right down the middle by moving to the left, Kahn’s cat-like reflexes enabled him to swing his right arm up and divert the ball off the crossbar and out. He celebrated by grabbing the ball with both of his hands and yelling at it. He looked obsessed, but it surely must have given his teammates confidence.

They were not going to lose this time.

The gorilla with 1,000 arms saved the remaining penalty, leading Bayern to their first Champions League title since 1976.

The anti-climax in Yokohama

Arguably, Kahn’s most impressive achievement came during his first World Cup tournament as Germany’s number 1. Germany entered the tournament in Japan and South Korea with a national team clearly on the decline. They were crushed in the quarterfinals by surprise package Croatia in the 1998 World Cup in France. When trying to defend their title at Euro 2000, they were knocked out in the group stage after not winning a single game and only scoring one goal against Romania.

This was a German side consisting of Jens Jeremies, Carsten Ramelow, and Oliver Neuville — professionals, but far from world-class. The young Miroslav Klose made a name for himself after the tournament, but he was relatively unknown outside Germany. The only true world-class quality players that were present in the German squad was the young German Footballer of the Year, Michael Ballack and the infamous Oliver Kahn.

Germany flirted with disaster every game after their second group-stage match against Ireland, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Kahn was vital in Germany’s crawl to the knock-out stages as he saved them time and time again against Cameroon during the last group-stage match.

Germany won each of their knock-out games 1-0, beating Paraguay, the United States, and co-host South Korea. Kahn had allowed one goal in six games, despite the fact that the German defense was far from watertight.

Exaggerations are easy to come by when writing about historical events, especially sports, but this is not one of them: Germany would never have reached the final if it wasn’t for Oliver Kahn.

One of the best goalkeeping performances in World Cup history will, unfortunately, be defined by one mistake. On the hour mark of the World Cup final, Rivaldo hit a poor effort towards Germany’s number 1 — a strike that Kahn would have picked up easily 99 out of 100 times. This time he dropped the ball, and Ronaldo picked up the rebound and easily rolled the ball into the net. 10 minutes later, Ronaldo scored again, securing the Seleção’s fifth World Cup title.

After the game, Kahn explained how he felt, further strengthening the notion that being a goalkeeper is the loneliest position in football (Guardian):

There is no consolation. I have to live with this mistake myself. Because of it, everything is lost. It was my only mistake in seven games, and I was punished. That’s 10 times as bitter.

After the final whistle, Kahn sat down, with his back against the goalpost — alone.

Embed from Getty Images

A new life

Kahn later said in an interview with Der Spiegel that his mistake in 2002 helped him realize that the path of ultra-competitiveness on the pitch was, in the end, self-destructive off it:

The problem with the system I was living in was that it was exhausting. Being the world champion would have meant that everything was the way it should have been. But it wasn’t. The mistake during the final was meant to show me that something wasn’t right about my path in life, that a few small things had to be changed. And when I made those changes after the transitional phase, things improved for me.

Talking about being benched during the domestic World Cup in 2006, Kahn recalled the experience, not with resentment, but with gratitude:

I learned a lot in 2006 […]. The realization that you’re not always standing down there on the field merely to win, to be successful, was very liberating. One can be successful by helping the team, the other players. All of a sudden I felt the kind of empathy for people that I hadn’t felt before.

He went on to say that it made him realize that you can achieve everything in life, as long as you are willing to work on who you are as a person. His ego was brushed aside and instead of working to become the best goalkeeper in the world, Kahn began working on the man off the pitch.

That is what is most fascinating about the Karlsruhe-native. He is far from the brute that was often displayed on the football pitch. He quotes Aristotle and Immanuel Kant in his post-career book, is extremely level-headed and intelligent as a TV-commentator, and is now poised to be Karl-Heinz Rummennigge’s successor as Bayern’s chief executive.

He let go of the person of der Titan and all that came with it: the unhealthy level of competitiveness, the brutal training schedules, and the notion that it was him against the world. He is no longer the all-or-nothing ultra-competitor, the person he thought he had to become the best, and who always danced on the fine line between greatness and insanity.

His dedication brought him both success and tribulations. When asked what he would miss about football, Kahn answered the experience of being part of the team, “otherwise nothing.”