Paul Breitner: Playing on the left

From his earliest days, it was clear that Paul Breitner was no ordinary footballer; as a young player with Bayern Munich in the early 1970s, he was described in the New York Times as "the newest hero of German counter-culture".

"At the age of 16, the death of Che Guevara had a great impact on me," he said. "That was a very important stage of my development." He made little secret of his political leanings in his early days, as Die Zeit noted: "At the age of 20, Paul Breitner would react to stupid questions from reporters with provocative answers. Who do you admire most? Mao! What do you read? Marx! What is your greatest desire? A defeat for the Americans in Vietnam!"

Born in Bavaria in September 1951, Breitner had attracted attention from a young age as a footballer. After learning his trade as a striker, he made his name as a full-back - nominally on the left, fittingly enough, but forever on the rampage. He was a powerful player, strong in the tackle and strong in the shot, but he had other ideals. "The most important thing is to play with many ideas, with technique, and with creativity," he once said.

He broke into the West Germany Under-18 side as a 17-year-old during his time with ESV Freilassing. On his debut, he scored a consolation goal in a 4-1 defeat to Yugoslavia and, when proudly returning to the dressing room in search of praise, was instead told he should cut his hair. The seeds of his distrust of the DFB were sown early.

In 1970, he joined up with Bayern, but his path to the first-team was not helped by the fact he received a draft notice from the army soon afterwards. He had attempted to avoid his military service, as he explained to Bild ahead of his 60th birthday: "I was sharing a flat with Uli Hoeness. At 2am, 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."

He would thus have to spend time cleaning toilets for the military on weekends while his team-mates were playing in the Bundesliga. It was not until February 1971 that he established himself in the Bayern first-team, and even then he had to play in an unfamiliar position. "I was, until February or March 1971, light years away from being able, knowing or even wanting to play as a defender," he said in a recent interview with UEFA.com. "All of a sudden I became a defender. Before a game in Hannover we had two or three players missing and our coach at the time, Udo Lattek, asked me if I could play as a full-back to help the team. Then, for the first time in my life, I played in defence." By June, the makeshift left-back would win his first trophy as part of the side that defeated Cologne in the DFB-Pokal. Three days after the final, he made his senior international debut in a 7-1 win over Norway. Breitner, with his distinctive Afro hairstyle and beard, was making himself impossible to ignore.

In 1972 - a year in which he began a course in child welfare in Munich - he helped Bayern to the Bundesliga title before representing one of the finest ever West Germany sides in their victorious Euro 1972 campaign under Helmut Schon. However, speaking to Die Zeit in the weeks after a tournament that had seen him clash with the DFB, he sounded less than enamoured with the international football lifestyle. "It's just airport, hotel, airport," he said.

Playing for Bayern did not fit with his ideals, either. "The Bundesliga is big business. Almost everything revolves around money. There is no room for socialism. I have to keep my ideas private because of the public, but my friends know I'm still the same person." While his team-mates teased him and laughed at his views initially, he overcame the jibes. "Now they know it doesn't bother me. And as long as you deliver in games, nothing else is of interest ... I can get away with anything, even political opinions."

He put that theory to the test the following summer when, after Bayern had retained the title, he was photographed dancing naked by a swimming pool. Helmut Schon described it as "pornography", while Bayern president Wilhelm Neudecker issued him with a heavy fine and had even looked at the possibility of selling him. Breitner, unimpressed with the club's refusal to share in his jubilation, said: "This shit club can't even celebrate properly."

The following season, he would have more cause to celebrate than at any other time in his career. Bayern won the Bundesliga for the third time in succession and, for the first time in their history, became continental champions as they defeated Atletico Madrid 4-0 in a European Cup final replay. It was a victory Breitner would come to describe as the most enjoyable of his career.

It was in the 1974 World Cup on home soil, though, that Breitner would really make his mark. He scored West Germany's first goal of the tournament with a stunning 25-yard strike to secure a 1-0 win over Chile in the opener. In the second group stage, he scored the opener in a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia with a thunderous 30-yard shot. In the final, he would only need to score from 12 yards, but the nerveless manner in which he equalised against Netherlands was perhaps the most impressive feat of all.

The Dutch, led by Johan Cruyff, had been firm favourites for the match and took the lead through a Johan Neeskens penalty after only 63 seconds in Munich's Olympiastadion. There was bitterness between the countries - in addition to lingering resentment from the Second World War, the Bild newspaper had set up Cruyff in a sting ("Cruyff, Champagne, naked girls and a cool bath") ahead of the final - and as winger Johnny Rep later recalled: "We wanted to humiliate the Germans."

Netherlands sat on their lead, knocking the ball around at will, but came undone when handing West Germany a penalty on 26 minutes. With star striker Gerd Muller having missed several penalties in the Bundesliga, there was no obvious taker, so Breitner stepped up. "If it had gone wrong, I would have had to have taken the rap," he said. His goal energised the hosts - "The equaliser had activated a turbo in our team," he later told FIFA.com - and they took the lead through Muller shortly before the break to secure an eventual 2-1 win.

Breitner, forever the antihero, announced after the World Cup that he no longer wanted to represent West Germany. There were many explanations. Ahead of the tournament, he had encouraged Franz Beckenbauer, the captain, to controversially demand substantial win bonuses for the players. Breitner had fallen out with Schon, who held him responsible for the whole debacle, while the player felt the coach acted as though he were beholden to the "amateurs" at the DFB rather than the actual team. There was also talk Breitner's post-final celebrations had been disrupted by the DFB. "There must be some changes to the DFB board," he said.

His behaviour was increasingly under the spotlight in West Germany and, given that he was highly paid, lived in a large house and made a hobby of driving expensive sports cars, his political views were inevitably going to come under scrutiny. That summer, he left Bayern for Real Madrid and made clear to his critics that he was happy to leave - he said the decision made him "incredibly happy" and that he had "no friends except Hoeness" at Bayern, a club he described as a "nouveau riche money-based aristocracy". Not being able to take his sports car with him to Madrid was, he said, "actually the saddest thing for me personally". He would later add that Lattek was "the only coach in the Bundesliga without any authority". Most controversially, he renounced his roots: "I don't feel German at all, and I certainly don't feel Bavarian." The Bavaria remark - which his wife later claimed had been taken out of context - led the residents of his hometown to ask the mayor to strip him of his World Cup winners' medal.

In Madrid, under coach Miljan Miljanic, he was moved into midfield, where he played alongside compatriot Gunter Netzer. The pair became friends - and Netzer would prove pivotal in helping to facilitate Breitner's short-lived return to the West Germany set-up in 1975 - but otherwise he did not get much involved with his team-mates. "I played football and spent the rest of my time with my family," Breitner recalled in 1982. "Nothing else. No other interests." Nonetheless, he said it was the happiest time of his career.

Speaking to The Times in England the year after his move, he gave a more cool-headed explanation for the transfer. "I left Germany for Spain because deep down I wanted to play for Real," he said. "It was a dream. Besides, I wanted to move on and widen my experience not only of life but on the field. I felt that my play might expand in a Latin style where there is greater freedom of personal expression than in the more compact Teutonic style. The money itself is a means to an end. That end, I hope, is that one day I shall own and run a school for child welfare." He also attempted to tone down the statements made early in his career. "It is true that the teachings of Mao are paramount to me, but a wider reading is of great interest and important to my thinking and my personality."

He had left Bayern after the first of three successive European Cup victories, but his first season in Madrid brought success in La Liga, although he missed out on the Copa del Generalisimo victory over Atletico Madrid through injury. They retained the title in 1975-76, finishing five points ahead of Barcelona, and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, where they were defeated by eventual winners Bayern.

Breitner continued to attract attention. In 1976, he starred in the film Potato Fritz, a spaghetti western about Germans who come across some gold thieves. The notion of theft was seemingly on his mind late that year when, in an interview with Playboy, he indicated that he had wanted a slice of the 3,000,000 DM (£500,000) his club had paid for his services. "The whole business of transfer fees is unlawful," he said. "It's contrary to human rights and basic human dignity." It was not difficult to see why his critics felt his Marxist principles had been stretched to breaking point.

At the end of the 1976-77 season - a season in which Madrid suffered an alarming dip in form, finishing ninth and exiting the European Cup in the second round - Breitner returned to his homeland in accordance with his wife's wishes. Only Eintracht Braunschweig, with the funding of Jagermeister tycoon Gunter Mast, were able to pay his 1,600,000 DM (£400,000) transfer fee, and he would spend only one season there as the club finished 13th in the Bundesliga. He spoke out about the "amateurish attitude" of his team-mates and found everything about the team to be small-time, likening it to "a village shop where everyone just gibbers about horse apples".

In the summer of 1978, he would return to a Bayern team in a transitional phase. "The club was on its knees - almost finished," he later told Bild. Breitner had little time for coach Gyula Lorant, and Bayern had to settle for fourth place in the league (it was, incidentally, a campaign in which Breitner agreed to wear a microphone under his shirt during a game against Hamburg for a documentary. The microphone picked up on a suggestion Breitner made to the referee: "Lick my arse"). In 1979, when Uli Hoeness was installed as business manager, Pal Csernai was appointed coach and Breitner was given the captaincy, the revival began.

In the 1979-80 season, Breitner was inspirational and would strike up a famous partnership with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge as Bayern reclaimed the Bundesliga title for the first time since 1974. They won the title again the following season, and his influence at the club was growing ever stronger. After he and Rummenigge were sent off in a 1981 Trofeo Santiago Bernabeu game against Real Madrid, Breitner was apparently responsible for the team's decision to abandon the game. "The coach, Csernai, wanted to keep playing," El Mundo Deportivo reported, "but it became clear to everyone who is charge of the team: Paul Breitner." It should be noted that his influence was not without merit: he was named the country's player of the year in 1981, as well as finishing runner-up to Rummenigge for the Ballon d'Or.

He also made his return to the national set-up in April 1981, after Rummenigge had pushed for his recall and Breitner had retracted a dismissive remark about the DFB. That he had also taken to publicly insulting Jupp Derwall, who had been assistant coach until 1978 before being promoted to the top job, was also pardoned (Breitner had nicknamed him "Linkmichel" - "linken" meaning "to screw over", and "Michel" a term implying a naive country type).

His 1981-82 season was frustrating on the whole - although he scored a career-best 18 goals, Bayern finished third in the Bundesliga as well as losing the European Cup final to Aston Villa. He did score in the 4-1 DFB-Pokal final victory over Nurnberg but, as he prepared for the 1982 World Cup, he was determined to make amends - indeed, he would say after the first group stage that he was struggling to produce his best form as he was investing too much emotion in his performances.

He was considered one of West Germany's star men but, ahead of the tournament, he had courted controversy when accepting a 150,000 DM fee to shave off his beard for a cosmetics company. It was not the only such incident - in 1977, he had advertised with a Dutch cigarette company - but, nonetheless, there was a sense of outrage over the perceived hypocrisy. "Nobody knows me," he said in Der Spiegel. "Nobody is in a position to judge." Increasingly, he had become vexed that he had to justify himself on the basis of comments he had made in his youth. "I'm just a guy who will always admit his past mistakes," he had said in 1979, "and who also assumes the freedom to change his mind."

After a poor start to the tournament, the Germans progressed to the final, with Breitner among the scorers in the semi-final shootout victory over France. In the final against Italy, Breitner scored West Germany's consolation goal as they succumbed to a 3-1 defeat. As after the 1974 tournament, though, there were strong suggestions that he held a negative influence over a squad that, off the field, was badly divided, and he did not play for his country again.

He remained key to Bayern but, midway through the 1982-83 season, the 31-year-old announced that he would retire at the end of the campaign. When he sustained an injury in April that ruled him out of the run-in, Rummenigge said Bayern - two points behind Hamburg and Werder Bremen with six games to play - had no chance of claiming the title. In his absence, they would finish fourth, eight points off top spot.

Breitner thus bowed out not with a bang but with a whimper and, although he would remain a divisive figure in his retirement, there had been a sense throughout his playing career that he was unhappy in the spotlight where his political ideals, shifting with age, were often held up to ridicule. During his time at Real Madrid, he had spoken of his hope that he would "one day be free", and certainly he felt restricted by his vocation. As he told kicker in 1972: "Only after training do I become a human being."