During the late sixties and early seventies West German football was the dominant force in the game. As well as Die Mannschaft lifting the World Cup in their homeland in 1970, Bayern Munich took three successive European Cups back to Bavaria between 1972 and 1974. A number of players featured for both Bayern and the national side, and whilst some may be more celebrated, the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller spring to mind for example, few would have been more instantly recognisable than Josef-Dieter Maier, better known universally as Sepp Maier; owner of big gloves, long shorts and a goalkeeper’s cap full to the brim with medals.
The legendary number one is often acknowledged for his pioneering attitude to the role of the modern ‘man between the sticks’ and is often particularly lauded for his agility. It’s an ability that earned him the nickname of Die Katze von Anzing. The phrase translates as “The Cat from Anzig,” with the latter being the small Bavarian municipality where he spent part of his youth. For all that though, to the many millions of football fans around the world, it was the seemingly outsize gloves and extra-long shorts donned by Maier that made him one of the most recognisable footballers on the planet. As his nomme de guerre suggests however, there was far more to Sepp Maier than a perhaps questionable choice of attire. He was not only one of the outstanding goalkeepers of his generation, but also an indispensable member of both the club and national teams that ruled football in the seventies.
Sepp Maier was born in the small town of Metten in Bavaria in February 1944. Growing up in a post-war Germany destroyed by conflict and then torn asunder by allied rivalries bent on securing their own dominions, would have been a harrowing process. The young Maier had football for solace however, and his passion for the game would bring great reward. At just eight years of age, he joined local sports club TSV Haar, where his ability was nurtured to the extent that, in 1959, he was snapped up by Bayern Munich.
It was the beginning of a relationship with the club that would stand the test of time. A playing career spanning 18 years was later followed by a further 14 working in coaching there and searching for his successor. It was a task that he excelled in, as he developed and mentored Oliver Kahn who would have 14 years with Die Bayern. At international level, this dedication to his protégé eventually cost him his coaching position with the national team. After the 2004 European Championships, he clashed with then manager, Jürgen Klinsmann, who preferred to play Jens Lehmann, rather than the Bayern stopper. With no less 95 caps and an array of honours with Die Mannschaft to support of his opinion, perhaps Klinsmann should have taken greater heed of Maier’s more qualified counsel. He didn’t do so though, and the two parted company.
Starting off with Bayern’s youth team, Maier progressed through the ranks and international recognition was not slow in following. From 1961 to 1962, he played 11 games for the West Germany Youth Team and the following year, he also featured four times in the national amateur side. There were however bigger things ahead for the goalkeeper, now in his late teenage years.
Bu 1962 he was in the Bayern first team and would stake a claim to the club’s number one jersey that would last until 1979, when a car accident brought the curtain down on his career at the age of 35. With other goalkeepers of his era, Dino Zoff for example, playing past the age of 40, there would surely have been many more games left in Maier had the accident not occurred. In between those dates though, he would still become one of the legendary figures of German football.
Unsurprisingly, the peak years of Maier’s career coincided with the most successful periods for both Bayern and West Germany. For his club, it was an ascendancy that took root in his early years as the club blossomed in the decade between 1965 and 1975. DFB-Pokal triumphs in 1966 and 1967 were the prequel to a period of dominance to follow for Bayern. The first of those successes opened the door to a European adventure and a run in the Cup Winners Cup that ended with victory over Glasgow Rangers in extra-time. A first success in Europe would certainly not be Maier’s last. A league and DFB-Pokal cup ‘Double’ was garnered in the 1968-69 season, followed by another cup success the following year. By now though, the league was becoming Bayern’s competition of choice and three successive titles were secured between 1972 and 1974, marking them out as an exceptional team. Not only did Bayern have the estimable Maier as their last line of defence, in front of him, Franz Beckenbauer was strutting his stuff in a ‘libero’ position he would redefine, ably assisted by the robust Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck and Paul Breitner. Further forwards, Uli Hoeneß and Gerd Müller destroyed opposition defences. For all the quality in front of him though, Maier statistics for the period stand out.
In the first of the three successive title seasons, Bayern conceded just 38 league goals across a 34-game season. It was a total only bettered by runners-up Schalke 04’s tally of 35. It’s worth noting however, that the Bavarian club’s emphasis on going forward in that season also meant they topped Schalke’s goals scored by some 33% or more. The difference was emphasised by Bayern’s goal difference being 63, whilst the club from Gelsenkirchen could only register 41. Bayern lost only three league games that erm. In the following season however, the defence with Maier in goal would be even more miserly.
Opposition forwards were regularly shut out as Maier patrolled his goal-line. In this season of 34 games, his defence was only breached 29 times. Considerably less than a goal per game, and yet the team still registered 93 strikes at the other end. Despite this, Bayern’s lost games now amounted to five. It was still a mightily impressive performance, and one that would be reprised the following term.
The dominant performances in domestic competition were echoed in Europe. Bayern’s first European Cup triumph with Maier in goal arrived at the end of the 1973-74 season. Despite a shaky start in the First Round, when only a penalty shoot-out brought victory over the Swedish part-timers, Åtvidaberg, and a 7-6 aggregate victory of East Germany’s Dynamo Dresden, things got into gear against Bulgaria’s CSKA, and in the semi-final a 4-1 aggregate win over Újpesti Dózsa was locked out by Maier’s clean sheet in the home leg whilst his forwards put three past the Hungarian club’s defence.
The final against Atlético Madrid was played in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels and the first game ended in a 1-1 draw. Both goalkeepers had kept clean sheets into extra-time, but tired legs and brains were frayed around the edges as both conceded late. There were no penalty shootouts to decide the final in those days, and a replay was organised for two days later. Whilst Maier again prevented any goal being conceded, his opposite number at the other end failed to keep up the goalkeeping standard. Miguel Reina conceded four times across the 90 minutes and Bayern lifted the trophy.
As holders for the following year’s tournament, Bayern had a bye through the First Round before facing East German opposition for the second time in two years in the shape of Magdeburg. This would be a different proposition though from the games against Dynamo Dresden. Under the canny management of Heinz Krügel, Magdeburg had developed a young team driven on by a coach that, in more enlightened times, may well made a fortune plying his trade at a top club in the west. He had taken Magdeburg on an extraordinary run into Europe the previous season, and whilst Bayern were picking up European club football’s premier trophy, Krügel’s team had lifted the Cup Winners Cup, defeating holder’s AC Milan in the final. Bayern still managed to win both legs though to progress.
The semi-final tie against Ararat Yerevan of the Soviet Union would require a robust display by Maier in both legs. Playing in Munich first, entering the last dozen minutes, the game remained goalless. In such circumstances, concede at home and Bayern may well have had difficulties. Maier kept the visitors at bay though and two late strikes gave Bayern something to defend when they travelled east.
Despite strong home pressure and the roar of 70,000 spectators in Yerevan’s Hrazdan Stadium, Maier and his defence kept the Armenian team to a single goal and Bayern squeezed into the last four and a semi-final against France’s Saint-Étienne. This was a classic Les Verts vintage. Robert Herbin’s team was full of attacking potential who played with joie de vivre. They had secured the French league title by a clear eight points, winning 23 of their 38 games and in their attack, they also had the mercurial Dominique Rocheteau, iconoclastic darling of the avant garde left of the time and the talismanic ‘Green Angel’ presence on the field who could intoxicate opposition defences in the same way that the spirit after which he was named.
The first leg was to be played in France and despite the pressing of the green shirts, Maier’s back line stood firm. Returning with a goalless draw was a highly creditable result, but the job was not yet done. Concede at home, and Bayern would need to score twice to get into their second successive final. An early Beckenbauer goal eased the nerves of the home fans, but still a French strike would see them eliminated. Maier didn’t buckle though and when Dürnberger hit the second goal, with the home defence’s record still intact, the tie was done.
Going into the final, Maier and his defence had kept a clean sheet in five of the previous six European Cup games. Facing England’s Leeds United in the final would be a challenge and a repeat of Maier’s achievements would come in very useful. Late goals from Roth and Müller settled the game in Bayern’s favour, and Maier ticked off another clean sheet. Bayern had retained the trophy in some style.
Bayern went into the following year’s tournament having not secured domestic silverware for two seasons. Lose out in this competition and suddenly, the Bayern cupboard would begin to look a little bare. The club were also embroiled in the Intercontinental Cup. Pitched against Brazil champions Cruzeiro the first leg was played in Munich on 23 November. Yet another Maier clean sheet, coupled with late goals from Müller and Kappellmann gave Bayern a two-goal lead to take to South America. It would take a sound defensive performance in Brazil though to keep the home team at bay. In front of 123,715 fans the German nerve held and a goalless draw, and yet another clean sheet, made the journey worthwhile. The German club took the trophy back to Europe.
Borussia Mönchengladbach had won the Bundesliga and entered the European Cup as German champions, with Bayern’s place secured as holders. The Bavarians skipped through the First Round, defeating Luxembourg’s Jeunesse Esch 8-2 on aggregate, before beating Malmö FF 2-1 to reach the last eight and a pairing with Benfica. A solid 0-0 draw in Lisbon and a crushing 5-1 home win meant another place in the last four. They would face the mighty Real Madrid.
Travelling to Spain in March, the Bavarians were in trouble early on when Roberto Martínez achieved the feat that had eluded so many other forwards, beating Maier to put the Spanish club ahead after a mere seven minutes. All of the German backline’s fortitude, especially from their goalkeeper would now be required to stem the flow of attacks and keep the holders in the game. In typical fashion though, the task was achieved, and when Müller squared the scores just ahead of the break, it brought the visitors a creditable draw that was maintained until the end. Maier shut out the Spanish forward line back in Bavaria, and a brace from Der Bomber finished the job. Another European Cup Final beckoned.
At Glasgow’s Hampden Park, Bayern met Les Verts again. It was hardly a classic encounter. Bayern played solidly, comfortable in their defensive solidity, and struck at the opportune moment to win 1-0 and lift their third trophy. It had been an amazing run by the club and at the heart of it was their goalkeeper whose always consistent, often breathtakingly brilliant, displays had played a fulsome part in delivering the triumph. Confidence in a secure back line had led to a pattern of paly that was often more pragmatic than dynamic but playing to their strengths had brought the club ample rewards. Certainly no Bayern fans were complaining. Maier would deliver similar such assurance in the international arena.
Maier would be selected for four consecutive German World Cup squads, although his place in the 1966 squad was merely as a back up to the established starter, Hans Tilkowski. By the time the next tournament rolled around though, the position between the sticks was safely in the gloved hands of Sepp Maier. In the opinion of many pundits, the German squad that travelled to Mexico and eventually fell to Italy in what a plaque outside of the Azteca stadium describes as the Partido de Siglio (Game of the Century), was superior to the one that triumphed on home soil four years later.
Certainly, in South America, there was a dynamic style to the German play that delivered copious amounts of goals, whilst perhaps leaving gaps at the back. Five games brought no less than 16 goals, but at the back ten were conceded by Maier and the back line. Whilst the Germans returned with great honour and Müller collected the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer, after losing controversially in the 1966 final, it was time for a rethink for the 1974 tournament.
Before that though, there was a European Championship to complete. Played in Belgium, the competition at the time was very different to the jamboree experienced these days, with just four teams playing out semi-finals and a final to establish the winner. West Germany defeated the hosts 2-1 and then trounced an uninspiring Soviet Union team 3-0 in the final, and Maier had his first international trophy. More would follow.
Back on home soil the German side that featured in the 1974 World Cup had a much more pragmatic style to it compared to the one that had plundered so many goals in Mexico four years earlier. Averaging more than three goals a game in the previous tournaments, this was shaved down to slightly under two in 1974, but the goals against column showed the benefit of a more balanced team. The two goals per game conceded in Mexico was reduced to less than one per game. It made all the difference in the final analysis, and again Maier’s defensive record was at the hear of the success. In the first group fixtures, the only goal conceded was in the game against East Germany. It was an encounter that reached beyond mere playing ability for both fraternal and political reasons, and was therefore a far from ‘normal’ encounter. Whilst not suggesting the result should be ignored of course, it was the only time that the two halves of the separated nation had faced each other in such a manner, so was clearly a ‘special case’ of sorts. Strangely, the defeat propelled West Germany into a more comfortable second group section and allowed them to progress fairly comfortably to the final where they defeated Johann Cruyff and the Dutch Totaal Voetbal. Franz Beckenbauer lifted the trophy and Maier had a World Cup Winner’s medal to add the European Championship one he had gained two years earlier in Belgium.
The 1976 version of the European Championships took place in Yugoslavia and again comprised just four teams. As in Belgium, the Germans defeated the hosts to move into their second successive final where they would meet the tournament’s surprise packet, Czechoslovakia, who had defeated the Dutch 3-1. The Germans were twice behind in the game, before a goal by Bernd Hölzenbein squared things in the last couple of minutes, and a penalty competition decided the event. It was here that the defining moment of the championship occurred, when Anton Panenka introduced his clipped penalty to the world. Whilst Maier gambled on a save, plunging to one side, a calm chip down the middle brought instant fame to the player and took the trophy to Prague. Maier had been the unwilling dupe in one of football’s iconic moments.
In 1978, West Germany crossed the Atlantic to Argentina as the World Cup’s defending champions. Still the automatic starting choice, Sepp Maier was now 34 years old, and despite the longevity granted to goalkeepers over and above that afforded to outfield players, it was inevitable that his considerable powers would now be somewhat on the wane. He was however still favoured above Hamberger SV’s Rudolf Kargus and Dieter Burdenski of Werder Bremen. It was a choice that few would have questioned.
Belying age and perceptions of impending loss of ability, Maier played through the entire first group stage without conceding s goal. Things would change in the second stage though. After another clean sheet in a goalless draw against Italy, the Germans faced their old foes, the Dutch, and midfielder Arie Haan, who had been pressed into a defender’s role in the 1970 tournament, exposed the first chinks in Maier’s armour. Exploding a long range shot past the German goalkeeper to bring the scores level and put the first goal into the German net so far in the tournament, Maier suddenly seemed fallible. A second goal conceded would follow as the game ended in a draw. In the last game, Austria rode roughshod over their neighbours, defeating Germany 3-2 and ending the erstwhile champions’ interest in the tournament.
Perhaps the great man was on the slide, with calls from some quarters that a new goalkeeper should be tried. The debate was ended in the cruellest of ways though. In 1979, a car accident saw him badly injured and he was forced to retire from playing. He had turned out in 536 league games, and just one short of 600 in all competitions, for Bayern Munich. He had not missed a single league encounter for his club from the start of the 1966 season, until injury forced his retirement. He had featured 95 times for his country and was German Footballer of the year three times (1975, 1977, 1978), was awarded the national service medal in 1978, and was recognised as Germany’s ‘Keeper of the century’. But it was now time to hang up those big gloves.
Big gloves are somewhat akin to big shoes and although both Bayern and the German national side have seen a succession of outstanding goalkeepers step up to try and fill those gloves – Kahn, Lehmann and Manuel Neuer to name but a few – none have really assumed the stature of Sepp Maier, and perhaps no-one ever will. Sepp Maier remains a legendary figure in German football and there seems little that’s likely to change that any time soon.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ website).