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When we were footballers — Paul Breitner: the elusive rebel who became one of football’s all-time greats

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The third installment of “When we were footballers” will tell the story of the complicated left-leaning rebel Paul Breitner.

Photo by Istvan Bajzat/picture alliance via Getty Images

Introduction

Defining Paul Breitner the football player is not an easy task. Starting as a striker, the hard-working Kolbermoor-native blessed with a powerful right-foot moved to left-back. Never having played in a defensive position before, Breitner’s constant free-roaming allowed him to score from the right midfield as well as stopping attackers in his penalty area. Later in his career, Red Paul moved to the midfield, where his eye for goal and defensive capabilities made him one of the best midfielders in Europe.

A fluid player on the field, Breitner was even more complicated off it. Breitner was everything but the norm. A politically left-leaning young Bavarian man born in the newly capitalistic West Germany, Paul Breitner cultivated a career and lifestyle that often contradicted the image he made himself.

After declaring sympathy for communism, Breitner led a lavish lifestyle as a footballer and made even commercials for McDonald’s. It is this paradox that makes Paul Breitner one of the most fascinating characters in modern football.

“Red Paul”

Paul Breitner was born in the small Bavarian-town of Kolbermoor (the same town as Bastian Schweinsteiger) five years after Nazi Germany was defeated in World War II.

Breitner was influenced by the anti-establishment counterculture that gained momentum in most parts of the Western world during the mid-60s and mid-70s, and his early career as a footballer was epitomized by his rebellious acts off the pitch.

Described in the New York Times as “the newest hero of German counter-culture,” Breitner was defined as a member of the political fringe. He posed under a massive poster of Chairman Mao, declared his sympathy for Che Guevara, and attempted to dodge military service while living with Uli Hoeness as a youth. Breitner recalled the events while speaking to Bild on his 60th birthday (ESPN):

I was sharing a flat with Uli Hoeness. At 2 am, the military police rang the doorbell and, while Uli fobbed them off at the door, I dashed down to the coal cellar and hid there. This went on for a few nights. Finally, there was talk they would put up wanted posters for me and that I could be arrested walking the streets, so then I did go to the barracks.

Photo by Fred Joch/ullstein bild via Getty Images

His punishment affected his career, as he spent a year cleaning military toilets while his Bayern teammates played in the Bundesliga.

His distinctive afro hairstyle and thick beard made him look like more like a Cuban revolutionary than a professional footballer.

After scoring in his debut with the German U-18 team, the German Football Association (the DFB) gave Breitner, not praise, but an order to cut his hair. Breitner late recalled (These Football Times):

I was educated to ask questions… When I started in 1970, footballers had to do everything the managers and trainers told them to do. Nobody asked “why” or said “no.” It was a shock for the club, the people, and the press. The image started there, but I was part of “the 68ers” in Germany. There was a revolution in the minds of the students and I felt like part of them. And so I was interested in the ideas of Mao and Che Guevara.

Tension in post-war Germany was still high and many West-Germans were driven mad by the threat of communism. The fact that a promising young 20-year-old footballer teased journalists in interviews by answering “defeat for the Americans in Vietnam!” when asked “what is your greatest desire?” created headlines.

He became known as “Red Paul,” a rebellious provocateur that did not seem to be afraid of letting his ideology affect his footballing career.

An accidental World Cup Champion:

Paul Breitner claimed that he never intended to become a professional to win the World Cup but to use football as a source of income to support his studies at the University of Munich. Whether this was the case, he made his debut for Bayern Munich as a 19-year-old, one year after dropping out.

By the end of his 13-year career, Paul Breitner’s club-honors included five Bundesliga trophies, two La Liga championships, and one European Cup title. Playing 48 times for West Germany, Breitner won both European Championship in 1972 and the World Cup in 1974.

The 1974 World Cup was the first time an international football tournament was hosted on German soil. Paul Breitner was a vital part for the German team that triumphed over the Netherlands in the final. He showed nerves of steel from 11 meters (12 yards) and scored the equalizer at the Olympiastadion in Munich, only a few kilometers from his childhood home.

He wasn’t even supposed to take the penalty, as Gerd Müller was the designated spot-kick taker, but Breitner spontaneously decided to step up. He remains one of four players who have scored in two separate World Cup finals.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call him one of the best footballers Bavaria has ever produced.

An elusive rebel

Despite Breitner’s success as a footballer, his life and quirks seemed to jar with the persona he cultivated. Breitner did not view playing for the national team as an honor only a few gifted people would achieve. He claimed that national anthems were boring and commented on how he didn’t feel German or Bavarian at all.

At times, it seemed as if he didn’t like to play for Bayern either. He once labeled the club as a “nouveau rich money-based aristocracy.” After Bayern retained the Bundesliga title in 1973, Breitner was photographed dancing naked by a swimming pool. The Bayern president, Wilhelm Neudecker, responded by issuing him with a hefty fine and explored selling the gifted player with a growing “bad boy” image. Breitner responded by saying (The Panenka Blog), “This shit club can’t even celebrate properly.”

The national money-maker that was the Bundesliga was another target for Breitner’s socialist condemnation (These Football Times):

The Bundesliga is big business. Almost everything revolves around money. There is no room for socialism. The whole business of transfer fees is unlawful, it’s contrary to human rights and basic human dignity.

However, after the 1974 World Cup, many of his leftist views seemed to subside, as Breitner seemed to appreciate more and more the capitalistic perks that came with being a world-famous football player.

In 1974 he signed for Real Madrid, a team that was heavily associated with the then living monarchist dictator General Francisco Franco. Yearning to play for one of the most famous clubs in the world, Breitner seemed willing to set aside his outspoken leftist views.

Photo by dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

By 1982, Breitner had developed a taste for expensive cars and houses, featured in a McDonald’s advertisement, and received 150,000 DM contracts from a cosmetics company and shaved off his beard. Claiming that the beard never meant anything to him and that he kept it because his wife liked it, Breitner upset members of the counterculture. His distancing from his Red Paul persona was complete.

Conclusion:

Post-retirement, Breitner spoke less about his political beliefs and did more commercials for multi-national corporations such as Gillette. Despite calling Franz Beckenbauer the “gravedigger of football” while the Kaiser was managing Germany’s national team, he was welcomed back to Bayern Munich as an adviser to the board, becoming part of the establishment himself.

Breitner was often accused by others of being insincere in his political views as a young man. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see why. The man who brought a book about Chairman Mao to practice had swapped the readings of the communist leader for a check from corporations such as McDonald’s.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Breitner has stated that he felt like he was a part of the revolution in the minds of German students during his early years as a young footballer.

Whether he whole-heartedly believed in his socialist ideas, Red Paul was never afraid to embrace controversial views, even if they did not help his career. His frosty relationship with the DFB never fully recovered. He became the German national team manager for a mere 17 hours, before the DFB president Egidius Braun changed his mind after some fellow officials vehemently opposed hiring the former troublemaker.

By the mid 1990s, Paul Breitner was far from the free-spirited, left-leaning and rebellious soul he displayed in his youth. The world had changed as well. The counterculture had become popular culture, the Americans left Vietnam, the Berlin Wall fell, as did the Soviet Union, Chairman Mao and Che Guevara were long dead, and Red Paul had become rich.