Ask Franz Beckenbauer, a German legend and one of the most respected figures in the history of football, what gave him the greater pleasure: captaining a World Cup-winning team or coaching one? The answer is surprising. Neither.
"Winning the World Cup is the highest achievement that you can have in football and it means the same as a captain or a coach," he said. "But you get the chance to win the World Cup every four years, so I would rather regard my greatest achievement as bringing the World Cup to Germany in 2006 [Beckenbauer headed the country's bid]. That is something that you can perhaps do only once in your lifetime."
Germany did not capitalise on those hosting rights when they failed to win the trophy four years ago - unlike in 1974, when Beckenbauer orchestrated a triumphant campaign for West Germany in his ground-breaking role of "libero", a versatile defensive role that gave him the licence to start and join in attacks from the back. But they still managed to claim a creditable third place in 2006 to enhance an overall record of three wins and three runners-up places in football's showpiece event.
Beckenbauer, 64, known as as "Der Kaiser" all over the football world, first caught the football bug as an eight-year-old schoolboy when watching his 1954 predecessors win the original Jules Rimet trophy for the first time. He is expecting another respectable performance from the German class of 2010 under the guidance of Joachim Loew, their coach, who must initially plot a Group D qualification route past Australia, Serbia and Ghana.
"Germany are always involved in the closing stages of World Cups so you automatically make them one of the favourites when you look at the contenders," Beckenbauer said during his recent visit to Abu Dhabi for the Laureus Sports Awards. Beckenbauer, whose beloved Bayern Munich were recently deprived of Champions League glory by Inter Milan, said he believes the decision to take the finals to South Africa represents the best chance yet of success for a European nation outside of Europe.
Italy, the holders, were the nearest to breaking that non-winning streak when they lost on penalties to Brazil when the tournament was staged in the United States in 1994. "We have some great teams in Europe," Beckenbauer said. "Spain are European champions and they have an excellent chance to win the World Cup for Europe along with England, France and Germany. It would be nice if a European team could win outside Europe for the first time."
While Beckenbauer is expecting his countrymen to eliminate Ghana from the World Cup reckoning, he believes there is a decent chance of an African nation reaching the quarter-finals to emulate Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002. "I hope it happens and it could do because it looks an open race this year," he said. Germans have been complaining for 44 years about what they consider to be the officiating injustice that led to their 1966 final defeat at the hands of England. The statesmanlike Beckenbauer, who first emerged on the global scene at that tournament, is not one of them.
He refused to add his powerful voice to the lobby contending that the second of Geoff Hurst's three goals in the 4-2 extra-time triumph at London's Wembley Stadium should not have been allowed because the West Ham forward's shot did not cross the line. He said: "It would have been good to have an extra official on the goal-line that day. But if we had used technology then nobody would be talking about 1966 today. Football is an emotional game so let's have that emotion."
Beckenbauer has been an interested observer as the game he has served so well has moved with the times. "It is always difficult to compare players from 30 or 40 years ago with those from today," he said. "It is a totally different game. The reaction of the players was different. So was the preparation of the squad, different food, etc. "Even the television makes it different. When I played in the 1966 final there was only one camera. Now there are so many it looks completely different. It is much more attractive to watch than in my day.
"I actually watched the 1966 final again recently - the first time for such a long while. Both teams had liberos but they were 20 or 30 yards behind. "The pitch seemed much bigger than today. Nowadays the players try to keep the game tight and challenge their opponents to make mistakes. In our day you could stop the ball, put your foot on it and have a look around before deciding what to do. I reckon it was much easier for me to play than it is for those currently in international football."