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The Greatest Defenders Who Never Met

How the lives of Franz Beckenbauer and JPR Williams share more than a date



Alongside the horrendous wind and rain, with January came an altogether more gut-wrenching blow to the global sporting community. On the 8th, headlines were dominated by news of the passing of two totemic figures, icons recognisable by silhouette alone, legends whose deaths leave a gaping hole in the heart of their respective worlds. Within twenty-four hours, football had lost Franz Beckenbauer, and rugby, JPR Williams. 

 

When one sets about exploring their storied lives, reliving moments of sheer brilliance and getting to know them through those who knew them best, the echoes in their lives begin to appear. Despite rugby and football having little more than an offside rule in common in the modern era, during the 60s and 70s the two defenders revolutionised the very understanding of their roles on a pitch. JPR and ‘Der Kaiser’ did more than excel on the field. The way they played their games defined an era, irrevocably changing them to this day, yet it was their infectiously sincere characters that left a more indelible mark than any trophy ever could. 

 

Franz Beckenbauer and John Peter Rhys Williams’ lives share an almost poetic resonance, and their accolades only begin to shed light on this. Neither one could have achieved more in his career. Where Beckenbauer “completed” football, missing out on only one final in every international tournament in which he competed, as full-back Williams won everything he could have won in both Wales and British Lions shirts. Beckenbauer’s two Ballon d’Ors account for as many as every other winning defender combined, and Williams boasts an unbeaten record against England during his playing career, some eleven internationals. It would be somewhat easy to continue to draw parallels in this way. But, as impressive as any list of trophies, awards and records could be, it would do a disservice to what epitomises, and unites, these two greats. 

 

Prior to the 1960s, both games had clear delineations of roles on the pitch. The numbers adorning the backs of jerseys in football and rugby came with a rigid set of instructions that risked a stagnation of tactics and entertainment. In football, defenders simply defended. Across the divide, a full-back was tasked with catching, kicking, and little else. Beckenbauer and Williams were the catalysts for fundamental change in the functioning of a defensive line. Some credit ‘Der Kaiser’ himself with the creation of the libero role, the figure of the playmaking sweeper from whom attacking momentum was generated, scything up through the midfield and slotting in passes with pinpoint precision. He was the prototypical attacking defender, a scalpel in a toolbox of hammers, without whom the Iniestas and Pirlos of future decades would have had little foundation upon which to build. Williams’s impact was similarly revolutionary. As Wales’ greatest full-back, he played his “own, natural, instinctive game,” attacking the line at speed as an additional offensive force, adding a new and unquestionably effective dimension to rugby in the amateur era. He ran, he tackled, he passed; one could argue he became a libero in his own right, complementing with aplomb the likes of Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards and Barry John in an all-conquering Wales side. Testament to his attacking nature, he was the first Welsh full-back to score a try in over 70 years. 

 

Determination and competitiveness may be overused terms in sports. They are often the expected norm rather than the surprising exception. Yet, when applied to Franz Beckenbauer and JPR Williams, they hardly seem adequate. Various anecdotes come to mind, but two stand out even without their unnerving symmetry. At around the 70-minute mark of the 1970 World Cup Semi-Final against Italy, Beckenbauer suffered a severe dislocation of his shoulder. An injury that would sideline most, Beckenbauer instead instructed the medics to strap his arm to his chest, his hand over the West German crest, so that he could continue the match. In a match that has come to be known as “The Game of the Century”, Beckenbauer was Germany’s backbone, drawing level twice before finally succumbing after two periods of extra time, with only the use of one arm. As Geoff Hurst commented, “That day, Beckenbauer showed that he could play as well with one arm as most players could with two.”


 

Eight years later, Williams would display a similar amount of unbridled grit and willpower. While playing for his beloved Bridgend, he faced a fearsome touring All Blacks side. During the game, he was the victim of a brutal stamp to his face from John Ashworth, an act that looked for all intents and purposes to be revenge for his tour-winning drop goal against New Zealand in 1971. Much like Beckenbauer, Williams left instructions for his team, ran to the touchline to receive medical attention from his father, and returned to play out the game with thirty stitches in his cheek and scarlet staining the blue and white of his Bridgend jersey. Fittingly, the Welsh club narrowly lost a match whose 17-6 scoreline did not represent the fight put up by Williams and his men. According to many of his contemporaries, teammates and opponents alike, it was as if JPR Williams never seemed to get hurt. 

 

The quality of leadership is one that rarely comes naturally to most. JPR Williams and Franz Beckenbauer were, however, undeniably suited to leading from the front, despite often playing closer to their own goalposts. Both captained club and country, yet it was their personability and deep-rooted nature that meant they did so with such undeniable success. In his first international tournament as captain, Beckenbauer led Germany to victory over the Soviet Union in the ’72 Euros. Two years later, at a home World Cup, he stepped up to the plate once again. Following a tense lead-up, fallouts with the federation, bomb threats, and losing the lead of the group to East Germany, Beckenbauer brought the team and staff together and announced his takeover. There was no backlash. Everyone agreed and followed his command. No other player could have performed such a coup. As a leader, he never asked his teammates anything he would not do himself, and he would put himself through hell for his team. 1970 had proved that. 

 

JPR Williams captained Wales on five occasions, and London Welsh and Bridgend on many more, but even when not wearing the armband, Williams was an integral part of a team’s hierarchy. With Williams on the pitch, there was an expectation for teammates to give what he gave in a game, if not in terms of ability, then in terms of effort, which oftentimes was the greater challenge. Rarely did he leave the field without wounds from the preceding battle. But what it achieved was that, through his example, he got the best performance out of those who surrounded him. As such, he was fundamental to the three Welsh Grand Slams between 1971 and 1978. This desire to lead the charge extended even beyond the regulations of rugby; when a match during the 1974 Lions Tour of South Africa descended into chaotic brawling, as many did during that unbeaten run of the Invincibles, it was Williams who was first into the melee to confront the domineering South African opponents. It was little wonder that he was the only back deemed worthy to drink with the forwards.

 

Legacy is another of those well-worn terms in sporting spheres. And yet, the lives of Franz Beckenbauer and JPR Williams seem to echo one another again. Following a problematic time in his life, Beckenbauer took the difficult decision to leave Germany and travel across the Atlantic to join Pelé in the NASL at the New York Cosmos. Considered a “joke” league at the time, the effect of ‘Der Kaiser’ travelling to the US gave the league the weight it needed to gain a foothold in the American market that is still there today. Following his retirement, he struggled to stay away from the game, and with his tenure as national coach, remains one of only three people to win a World Cup as a player and a manager. Williams’s swansong was smaller but equally impactful. After his retirement, he went on to practise as an orthopaedic surgeon but found he missed the game so much that he began playing every weekend for Tondu Rugby Club’s third team, appearing regularly for 15 years. When he received the club’s award for Player’s Player, he shed a few tears as former colleague Gareth Edwards presented him with the trophy. 

 

Outside of his legacy as an international coach, and his fundamental, albeit controversial, role in bringing the World Cup to Germany in 2006, Beckenbauer’s legacy is most keenly felt at Bayern Munich. It is difficult to conceive of the team that has won the last eleven Bundesliga titles as anything other than dominant, but, having been decimated by Hitler due to the club’s Jewish connections, when Beckenbauer joined they were close to bankruptcy. Without his skill, his leadership both on and off the pitch, and his sheer tenacity, the last five decades of German football would look markedly different. The very same can be said for JPR, whose contribution not only to Bridgend but also to grassroots rugby throughout Wales, stands as a testament to his unwavering dedication to a game that shaped his life.

 

On 8 January, tributes poured in from every corner of the world for both Beckenbauer and Williams. Their impact globally was plain to see. But what shone through was how they affected the lives of those they met for the better. Now, as Bayern Munich said, “Suddenly, our world isn’t the same as it once was  darker, quieter and worse off.” On and off the turf, they shone with elegance, power and skill. They led, supported, and exemplified a humanity that seems increasingly hard to find in sport. Both would have excelled in the modern game, but they came to epitomise their own era with their comprehensive ability and trademark styles. It is their dedication, their mastery of the games they played, and the legacy they leave behind that unites these two icons, icons whose games share little and whose paths never crossed, more than a date ever could.

 


Images: Wikimedia Commons

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