Political Footballers XI: Left-back Paul Breitner

‘I can really identify myself with this [McDonald’s advertising] campaign, I was born for this commercial.  I have travelled with my family since 1978 to America and have been a McDonald’s fan since then.’ 

This was Paul Breitner speaking to the ‘Sales and Advertising’ features section of Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2010.  The same Paul Breitner who posed for this photograph in the 1970s, when he was busy cultivating his image of a left-wing football rebel.

In this ludicrously posed picture he is seated in front of a poster of the enigmatic Chairman Mao, reading a Chinese propagandist newspaper, with a Boxer dog at his feet (get it?!).  The symbolism is none too subtle.  He looks every inch the teenage rebel flirting with taboo subjects for shock value.

Yet it also seems that his principles were sometimes not just for show.  He was the only well-known player to withdraw from the 1978 World Cup in Argentina on moral grounds.  He also read Lenin and Marx as well as Mao, and when he was called up for compulsory national service he famously hid in a coal cellar, as his friend Uli Hoeness covered for him with the military police.

As Simon Kuper says, Breitner seems to have been a rebel in an unfocused way.  He grew his hair long (became known as Der Afro) and grew a beard.  His points of reference matching with the student uprisings of the late 1960s, while at the same time he was becoming one of the best footballers in Europe, and earning a commensurate wage packet.

Throughout his playing career Breitner had many such moments of controversy.  He signed for Bayern Munich only after first giving his word that he would sign for city rivals 1860 Munich (Hesse-Lichtenberg:178).  He is believed to have been at the heart of the German national team players’ strike before the 1974 World Cup.  His manager Helmut Schön named him as a ringleader and was going to suspend him.  Breitner was preparing himself to walk out on the team before Beckenbauer finally negotiated a deal suitable for players and the West German Football Federation (Hesse-Lichtenberg:190).

On another occasion he was chastised following the publication of a naked photograph of himself dancing next to a swimming pool after winning the league with Bayern in 1973.  He angrily responded, ‘At this shitty club, they can’t even celebrate’ (Hesse-Lichtenberg:177).

As a player on the field his record is excellent, he is a World and European champion, he won the German league on 5 occasions and the Spanish league twice.  He is even one of only four players to have scored in two World Cup Final games, joining legends Vavá (thanks Football Ramble), Pele and Zinedine Zidane.

As a political footballer though, he is far removed from someone like Volker Ippig.  Yet Breitner was still the focus of much controversy in 1970s Germany due to his perceived radical nature.  Breitner’s political posing and comments may have been shocking for the time, but when the occasion arose for him to make some money from the capitalist system, he didn’t hold back.  He shaved off his legendary beard for a shaving foam promotion, and later appeared in commercials for McDonalds;

…and Volkswagen (notable for Breitner’s ‘I’ll play on the left’ double-entendre.  In the end perhaps he was only playing on the political left).

The controversy naturally followed him after he stopped playing.   He was given the job of national team coach after Berti Vogts resigned in 1998, only to have it taken off him a few hours later following opposition to his appointment (Hesse-Lichtenberg:268).  He was seen as a character too polarising to have the job of restoring the national team’s pride.

Breitner makes more sense as a rebel than as a politically engaged footballer.  After he retired from playing he wrote newspaper columns criticising whichever authority figure in German football took his fancy.  Now he is the chief scout at Bayern, and is reportedly back on good terms with some of those he once criticised.

He earns his place in this team though because through his flirtation with political imagery and through striving to be a counter-culture icon, he is a good example of the interplay between political and popular culture in the modern world.  He was a fantastic player but he typified the triumph of style over substance when it came to politics.

Breitner is not alone though.  Many other people have readily adopted left-wing, and occasionally right-wing, imagery as a means to shock or to stand out.  It lasts as long as it takes for the pressures of the modern world to enforce conformity.  For other players (Ippig or Oleguer Presas for example) their political beliefs inform who they are as people and the way they live their lives.  However deeply held Breitner’s political views were in the 70s, his life choices since then negate whatever it was he once stood for.

Go here to read the other articles in this series: Political Footballers XI


Hesse-Lichtenberger, Ulrich (2003) ‘Tor: The Story of German Football’ WSC Books, UK.

Kuper, Simon (2007) ‘Political Football: Beckenbauer vs Breitner’. http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/sports/political%2bfootball%2bbrbeckenbauer%2bvs%2bbreitner/642067.html

Winderl, Daniela (2010) ‘Keine schwachsinnige Werbung mitmachen’. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/medien/werben-und-verkaufen-keine-schwachsinnige-werbung-mitmachen-1.943163

Winner, David (2008) ‘But was this the beautiful game’s ugliest moment?’. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e6347c16-3f2a-11dd-8fd9-0000779fd2ac.html#axzz1UTWg20TK

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