A German Football Legend turns 75 – A tribute to the incomparable Uwe Seeler

There is a lot of excitement surrounding Hamburg nowadays.  In Thorsten Fink, they have secured the services of one of the most exciting up and coming coaches in Europe and before that, Frank Arnesen had already kickstarted his own football revolution in the Hanseatic city.  Adding to the festivities this past Saturday was the 75th birthday of Hamburg and German football legend Uwe Seeler. It gave everyone the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on one of the great careers and personalities in German football.  And what better time to pay our own tribute than ahead of Germany’s two international matches.

In his time, Seeler was considered one of the best forwards in the game.  His career was nothing short of grandiose, spanning four World Cups and over 500 matches for club and country.  From the first time he kicked a ball with the senior Hamburg side in 1953 to his last game as an active player in 1972, Seeler was synonymous with goals and very much came to represent the heart and soul of German football. He epitomized both the skill and what would become the famous fighting spirit of German football over time. More than anything, Seeler was beloved because his on field performances mirrored his humble and hard working personality and character off it.

Statue of Uwe Seeler's right foot decorates the park surrounding Hamburg's stadium.

In a sense, Seeler was born into Hamburg’s football club.  His father Erwin, and later his brother Dieter, both played for the club and it did not take long for young Uwe to follow in their footsteps.  He joined Hamburg at the age of 12 and played his first game with the senior side just four years later.  Even at 16 one could see that Seeler was destined for great things.  A year later Seeler scored his first goal for Hamburg and never looked back.  Between 1956 and 1962 Seeler was the leading goalscorer in the Oberliga Nord (Hamburg’s regional league) six times, firmly establishing himself as Germany’s best forward.  Hamburg went on to win their regional title nine times in a row and make the German national championship two times.  Seeler scored twice in the 1959/60 final against Köln and was subsequently made the first recipient of the German Footballer of the Year Award. He would receive that honor two more times in 1964 and 1970.  Seeler also became Bundesliga’s first top goalscorer when the league was finally unified in 1963.

Because of his prodigious talents, Seeler was also drafted into the national team at an early age and it was perhaps there that he made his greatest impact. In 1953 Germany participated in FIFA’s first sanctioned youth tournament at the U-18 level.  Seeler scored 15 times in 10 matches. A year later,while the senior team was making history at the World Cup in Switzerland Seeler participated in another youth tournament with Germany, scoring 13 of their 20 goals.  Not oblivious to his talents, National team coach Sepp Herberger quickly took note of the young Seeler and sure enough, a month later Seeler made his official debut for the senior national team at the age of 17. Seeler’s breakthrough would come at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden though where he spearheaded Germany’s attack and helped them reach the semi finals where they were eliminated by hosts Sweden.  Responding to how he would replace Seeler for their third place match after he picked up an injury, Herberger replied, “no one can replace a talent like Seeler.”

Germany’s World Cup campaign in 1962 in Chile was more disappointing thanks to an early exit at the hands of Jugoslavia in the quarter finals but Seeler still managed to score two goals and was made team captain soon after following the retirement of Hans Schäfer.  His biggest moment would come at the 1966 World Cup in England where Seeler valiantly led his country to the final, scoring another two crucial goals in the process. Despite the loss, Seeler was selected as one of the tournament’s outstanding players and the English press hailed his performances.  In 1968 Seeler announced his retirement from international football but Germany coach Helmut Schön convinced him to reconsider and sought to include him in his squad for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.  His inclusion was meant to provide experience to a rather young side and the decision paid off tenfold.  The then 33-year-old Seeler scored three goals, including a legendary header with the back of his head against England in the quarterfinals.  That also proved to be his last goal for Germany, retiring later that year. Despite never winning a World Cup his international career was nothing short of remarkable. After his last international match against Hungary that year Seeler overtook Paul Jenas’s record as Germany’s most capped player.  Seeler scored 43 goals in 72 appearances for Germany, a goals to games ratio bettered only by Gerd Müller.  Alongside Pele, Seeler is also the only player to participate in and score in four World Cups.  Lastly, Seeler also became the first player to play 20 World Cup matches, a record that was eventually broken by Lothar Matthäus in 1998.

Seeler with fellow German football legend and friend Fritz Walter

Goals and caps are not all that define Uwe Seeler though.  His legend and popularity are also based on his character. Germany did not have a nationally unified professional league until 1963 so Seeler spent a large part of his career playing in an environment unfamiliar to most star players in those days.  When playing in the Oberliga, Seeler made a measly 420 marks a month but money was never a motivator for Seeler. That is not to say that Seeler did not have the opportunity to move to a bigger league and club.  In 1961 Seeler turned down a lucrative offer from Inter Milan.  The 1.2 million mark offer would have been one of the most opulent transfer of the time but Seeler decided to remain loyal and stay in his beloved city. Two years later Seeler and Hamburg won the DFB Cup, beating Borussia Dortmund 3-0 in the final.  Seeler scored all three goals. More important than those goals though was the loyalty and dedication to his home town club and supporters.

Curiously enough, Seeler actually played his last game for Irish side Cork Celtic in a one-off sponsored event in 1978 with former teammate Franz-Josef Hönig. As it were, the game actually turned out to be an official league match.  And as you would expect, Seeler scored the team’s only two goals in that match, which meant that of his 404 goals at club level 2 were scored in Ireland’s top league.  While many rightfully consider Gerd Müller as Germany’s most prolific goal scorer, Seeler still holds the record for most goals scored by a German player in the league and cup combined.

Seeler’s resilience and longevity is also legendary. He was renowned for his remarkable ability to recover from injuries.  In fact, a year before the 1966 World Cup final doctors had prognosticated the end of his career as a result of an Achilles injury.  Half a year later Seeler defied medical expertise and scored the decisive goal against Sweden in World Cup qualifying, guaranteeing Germany a place in the 1966 World Cup where he led them to the now legendary Wembley final.  To this day Seeler remains seemingly impervious to senescence. Seeler needed two operations on his spinal cord and lost hearing in his right ear following a car accident last year but a year later Seeler has made another remarkable recovery and says he feels no pain.  Seeler is back on the golf course and even driving again, occasionally taking a trip down to Hamburg’s U-17 matches to watch his grandson play.

Perhaps nothing typifies Seeler better than his response when asked what he wished for on his 75th birthday. Seeler cheerfully responded, “health and a point for Hamburg against Leverkusen.”  Humble, loyal, to the point and marked by his continued dedication to football.

 

 

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

9 Comments

  1. Thanks Samrin. Important to know the history since it laid the foundation for all that followed. Seeler especially is a huge part of German football culture.

  2. To be honest, I ever heard about him but I consider him was a lesser figure in German football compared to Walter, Beckenbauer, Maier, Netzer, Breitner, and so on. I think that mainly because he didn’t win any cup with Germany NT. He definitely quite unfortunate to perform in 4 world cups which he never won, sandwiched by WC victory in 1954 and 1974.

    But still, he personified how a professional athlete should be, a great example to this generation. Happy birthday Uwe!

  3. Thank you Isabell, much appreciated!

    He is the type of player all young footballers can look up to as a role model and I think it remains understated how much he did for German football.

    I imagine he can’t walk down the street in Hamburg without a horde of supporters heaping praise on him, and rightfully so.

  4. I think this article calls for my first comment on the “Bundesliga Fanatic”-blog! Great job, Cris! 🙂

    Uwe Seeler will always remain one of my favourite players of all time eventhough I am too young to have actually seen him play. He’s simply a HSV legend! Unbelievable what he achieved in his time as a professional footballer.

  5. Thanks Eric. Had a great time writing about him, what a class player and individual. Wonder who the Seeler of this generation will be.

  6. Well, he got his birthday wish, and even as a Leverkusen it would be hard to begrudge him that point. Great write-up, Chris!

    Uns Uwe!

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