Earlier this year, Toni Kroos recently signed a contract extension with Real Madrid, but the Merengues are no strangers to dashing German midfielders. After all, once upon a time they poached Bernd Schuster from Barcelona to the chagrin of cules everywhere. A decade before Bernd, though, another West German arrived in Madrid and set the town aflame: Gunter Netzer.
The dashing blondie lasted only a short time in Spain, but left an indelible mark.
Gunter won league titles at his first pro club Borussia Monchengladbach and, of course, Real Madrid. Still, what set him apart was this: he was a mess of contradictions. He combined traits we normally only see in opposite players. For example, in a single play, he could get the ball at his own eighteen yard box, turn, dribble sixty yards, and, in full gallop, thread a perfect pass between the lines.
In that one play, he combined the deep-lying preferences of Pirlo, the bull run of a Robson, and the soft attacking touch of Kaka. In modern football, we are used to three clear roles in the center of the park: a holding midfielder, a passing midfielder, and a support midfielder that plays off the striker in the attack. Netzer, though, played all those positions… often at once.
The same is true for his skillset. Some players, like Ricardo Quaresma, dribble because they can’t really pass that well. They lack vision and/or timing. Other players pass because they can’t pull off a move. Netzer could and did do both. He could skin a defender like Pablo Aimar, but also thread in that final slide rule pass like Riquelme. Go ahead and drool over the following highlight video:
Gunter’s freekicks were also a study in contrasts. He loved to use his right foot to sidefoot the ball from 30 plus yards; however, the shot didn’t bend or curve. Instead, he would unleash a rocket of a knuckle ball that found the top corner more often than not. However, not all his free kicks were shots. When he whipped in crosses, the aerial passes were so soft you’d swear they were bubbles or a balloon. The ball spun wickedly, but took an eternity to reach the forehead of a teammate.
Sadly for Gunter, he played for West Germany at the same time as Franz Beckenbauer. I think they could have played together, but the national team coach disagreed. Thus, Gunter’s only two international medals were the hollowest of victories. He played a key role in the 1972 European Championship, but there were only four teams competing. In the 1974 World Cup, he was on the roster, but only got garbage minutes in the loss to East Germany.
The most dramatic, and perhaps sweetest, moment of his career came while at Gladbach. The team reached the finals of the German Cup, but Netzer’s mother had died recently and he had privately informed the club of his impending departure for Real Madrid. The coach left him on the bench. When the coach asked him if he wanted to play, he shrugged and said “They don’t need me.”
However, at the end of regulation time, a teammate collapsed from cramps. Netzer stood up, took off his tracksuit, walked over to the coach, and said “I’m ready now.” He then scored the winning goal a minute later.
Elliott yells about soccer on Twitter. You can find out about his new soccer novel here.