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The 10 most influential captains of the modern era: Oliver Kahn

SAITAMA, JAPAN – JULY 31: Oliver Kahn of Bayern Munich makes a save during the friendly match between Urawa Red Diamonds All Stars and Bayern Munich All Stars on July 31, 2006 in Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

There is this thing about the Germans that attracts me. No glitz, no glamor, no superstars that appear more often on page 3 rather than the sports section. If they are footballers, they will play football and keep it limited to the pitch. They are not part time models like Beckham and Ronaldo, no endorsing brands for personal income, just pure football, fluid, dynamic, effective, almost machine like.

Of course, not all machines are flawless, and each one needs a tweaking or two occasionally.

The entire German armada was horribly dejected after the shock 3-0 loss to Croatia in the World Cup of 1998, and following the departures of legends such as Klinsmann and Tarnat, the group stage exit at Euro 2000 wasn’t a surprising one either. The German team no longer had any ‘legends’ in them, just players. To be honest, there was a man knocking on the door of the hall of legends, while standing between the sticks. Two years later, the German squad suffered the same fate, but there was still something different about it. The German goalkeeper was no longer vying to be a legend, he had become one.

A legend that is Oliver Kahn.

Some people are just made to play football, while others take it a step further, being suited for a single role only. One look at Kahn and you knew the guy was a goalkeeper. Fitting the bill of a stereotypical goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn stood tall at 6″2, and his frame (not to mention face) was good enough to scare the living daylights out of any striker audacious enough to think about scoring. Loud mouthed and hard pressing, Oliver was not the gentle giant his teammates and opponents would want, but definitely the captain a manager would desire. Most modern day goalkeepers have a weakness or two in them, whether its set pieces, dead balls or one-on-ones. Kahn probably managed to scare his weaknesses away, because the only way it seemed anyone could get past the goalkeeper aptly named ‘Der Titan’ (The Titan), was to have their moment of genius, and if Kahn was having his moment of pure genius, the strikers would be better off coming back another day.

One would believe spending 14 years in service of a club generally involves being born in the city, growing up there, starting your youth training there and retiring there. Kahn however spent five less years in Bayern Munich, the club he actually captained, than he did at Karlsruher, the club he launched his career with. Starting out from the youth academy, where he initially attempted to play in an outfield role before attending his natural calling, Oliver progressed through the ranks of the Karlsruher goalkeepers, earning his spot in the first team around the age of 19. Kahn was heavily involved in the amazing 7-0 route of Valencia in the Euro cup quarter final, and made Kalsruher a force in itself in the Bundesliga.

The Bavarian giants from Munich noticed this giant’s saves at Karlsruhe and his victory in the annual poll for ‘Best Goalkeeper in the League’, and they decided to sign him for a the then record fee for his position, and, as the meme goes, ‘One does not simply’ decline joining a team like Bayern. Oliver moved south to earn his trade, and ended up earning rewards, respect and accolades as well.

Bayern Munich were going through a bit of a lean patch when Kahn joined them. Although they was still performing on the domestic level, the ‘Bestia Negreda’ (‘Black Beast’ in Spanish, nickname given to them by Madristas, who were on the losing end of the mighty Bavarians’ European conquests in a black jersey) of the mid 1970s was nowhere to be seen. Oliver joined them and quickly earned a rightful place in the starting XI. He, along with other Bayern legends of the time, put their team back on the European map in 1996, when they won the UEFA Cup with a massive four-goal margin.

MUNICH, GERMANY – JANUARY 30: Oliver Kahn, goalkeeper of Bayern Munich takes the ball during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Munich and VfL Bochum at the Allianz Arena on January 30, 2007 in Munich, Germany

A few seasons into his career at Bayern Munich came the fated night in Barcelona, which was probably one of the darkest, if not the darkest, moment in Kahn’s illustrious career, where a magical Manchester United seemed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Although not Kahn’s fault, he did have his share of accepting responsibilities and blame as the team captain, since their first choice captain was suspended, and people started doubting their team’s capabilities in taking on all of Europe and actually making the conquest. Kahn continued being the main man manning the nets, and he continued shining as he dove incredibly or gestured at his teammates to lead to yet another clean sheet. He answered any critic who doubted his ability by winning awards personally, and made sure his team won awards too.

The crowning moment arrived for Kahn two years after the major heartbreak, where he turned out to be a very influential member of the 2001 Champions League-winning Bayern Munich team, being the Man of Match in the finale, where his team won emphatically against a very capable Valencia side after taking the game to penalty shoot outs.

His escapades at Munich were far from unnoticed, as he was the runner-up to the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2002, which was perhaps the year with the most mixed emotions for Kahn. The year had witnessed Kahn obtaining a podium finish in every individual competition on the face of the footballing planet, with a gold medal for each poll limited to his position. Very few players can claim to be peerless in their prime and in their position, but Kahn wasn’t just peerless, not a chip off the old block, he was a new block altogether.

A revolutionary even, for he had singlehandedly changed everyone’s mindset regarding the extremely unappreciated role of a goalkeeper, especially in Asia, since Japan and Korea hosted the Football World Cup that year.

The World Cup brings about an entirely different story altogether, a story comprising of melancholy and ecstasy at the same time for Kahn. If the recent Chelsea team can be accused of parking the bus to win the Champions league, the German team of 2002 can be accused of placing the titan in front of goal, who single handedly dragged a very mediocre German team, that would have become an embarrassment to the mighty West German team of the past had Kahn not been there, right up to the finals. Cruelly, it was this match that proved to be an injured Kahn’s undoing, where his consistent performances were still not enough to prevent Ronaldo from drawing blood twice, leaving German hopes for a fourth World Cup shattered. Fewer faces have been as dejected as Kahn’s was while receiving the Golden Ball of the tournament, undoubtedly the highest award for outstanding performances in an International competition.

YOKOHAMA – JUNE 30: Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn of Germany takes a goal kick during the Germany v Brazil, World Cup Final match played at the International Stadium Yokohama in Yokohama, Japan on June 30, 2002. Brazil won the match 2-0.

Oliver went on to achieve numerous individual and domestic team honours in the next few years, and his ability to arrange the back four grew from prodigious to miraculous. As someone very rightly said, “a superior goalkeeper uses his superior organizational skills to prevent a situation from arising where he would have to use his superior skill”.

Kahn encountered very few shots on target during his time at Bayern, and the few ones that managed to get past the German defense would just be safely palmed. Oliver remained as hard charging as ever, rash, reckless, easy to fly into a rage, and yet, an inspirational leader. Oliver was, in effect, a second manager on the field, constantly forcing his team, especially the defensive lineup, to bend to his will and follow his orders, which were rarely incorrect or ineffective.

Kahn took over the reigns of Bayern Munich completely following the World Cup, and while his performances as a keeper had dipped a little from his stellar form at the World Cup, his experience and maturity grew along with his appointment as Captain. Leading the team from the back isn’t the easiest of tasks, but Kahn stepped up to it admirably, leading them to numerous victories and being one of the major reasons Bayern Munich performed in such a dominant manner in the Bundesliga and in Europe.

But he was no longer first choice when the World Cup came to his homeland in 2006. He was second choice behind then Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann. Nevertheless, he was installed in goal for the third-place match, and also captained the German team in that match, again due to an absolutely stunning  performance from Kahn, who continued to lead by example and inspiration.

Kahn played well into his 30s and still remained athletic enough to be Bayern Munich’s first choice goalkeeper. He finally decided to hang up his boots and fold his gloves in the year 2008, following a match in what is considered the largest stadium in the world, the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, where a crowd of 120,000 people turned up to watch the legend one last time, as he dazzling those who had gathered with his dives. Having played over 400 matches for Bayern Munich, a majority of them as captain, was more than enough for the Bayern Munich board to name him as an honorary Captain for life.

A fitting tribute to ‘Der Titan’, the greatest goalkeeper and one of the most pragmatic captains to have graced the game.

A true legend of the Allianz, a man who was Bayern Munich himself, always Mr. Dependable at the back, the old guard, the staunch, stoic champion…a man who was more than a ceremonial captain, a true leader in every essence of the word.

Here are some of Kahn’s best moments with Bayern Munich:-


Catch the rest of this series here: The 10 most influential captains of the modern era

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