Uwe Seeler, German soccer champ, dies at 72

Uwe Seeler, one of Germany’s greatest footballers and arguably the world’s best striker of his time, who captained West Germany in the dramatic and controversial 1966 World Cup final defeat by England, died at his home in Norderstedt near Hamburg on July 21. He was 85.

His longtime club, Hamburger SV (SportVerein), announced his death citing his family without giving a reason. But he’s been struggling in recent years after a car crash in 2010 and a broken hip in 2020. He was also fitted with a pacemaker.

He played in four World Cups – held every four years – for the then Federal Republic of Germany and scored in all four tournaments, 1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970.

Overall, “Us Uwe”, as the Germans affectionately call him, scored 43 goals in 72 games for the Federal Republic of Germany, 40 of them as team captain. For his club Hamburg, where he spent his entire career of almost 20 years, he scored 490 times in 580 appearances, a remarkable average. At that time he was called a center forward, today called a striker, the dangerous front man.

Legendary Brazilian Pele once said that Uwe Seeler (pronounced OO-vay ZAY-lir) was one of the greatest players he had ever met. “His handling of the ball was perfect, his shot was accurate and what really amazed me was his ability to head the ball,” Pele told Brazilian news channel O Globo in 2004.

And that despite the fact that Mr. Seeler was only 1.60 meters tall and was often and happily called “fat” by the fans. Even his wife Ilka jokingly called him that. Stocky and stocky, he certainly was, but he made up for his physique with his balance and remarkable aerial prowess, putting the ball exactly where he wanted it.

He also became a master of the overhead or scissors punch, often scoring goals while standing with his back to goal. He was named West German Footballer of the Year three times, in 1960 (when he scored 36 goals for Hamburg), 1964 and 1970 and remains Hamburg’s all-time top scorer.

Uwe Seeler was born in Hamburg on November 5, 1936, when Hitler was consolidating his power and already planning to annex or invade neighboring countries. Uwe’s father was a bargeman in the port of Hamburg and had previously played for the Hamburg soccer team; his mother was a housewife.

Mr. Seeler signed for Hamburg in 1953 at the age of 16 and played his first international for West Germany against France the following year. His first appearance at a World Cup was in Sweden 1958, the year 17-year-old Pele burst onto the world stage as the star of the winning Brazilian team. Mr. Seeler scored a 3-1 win over Argentina in that first game.

He became known among teammates and opponents like Pele for his humility, sense of fair play and loyalty to his hometown club. Back then – in the 1950s and 1960s – it was relatively rare for footballers to join clubs outside of their home country.

Mr. Seeler received offers to leave Hamburg for Spain or Italy, which he always declined out of loyalty and the desire not to disturb his family. An offer from Inter Milan in 1961 would have made him a millionaire overnight. At the time, ZDF quoted Inter Milan manager Helenio Herrera as saying: “I’ve never seen anyone turn down so much money.”

With Hamburg, Mr. Seeler won the German Championship (now known as the Bundesliga) in 1960 and the German Cup in 1963, although he did not win a European Cup.

In 1959 he married Ilka Buck, who played handball for Hamburg. Beside his wife are three daughters, Frauke, Kerstin and Helle; and seven grandchildren, one of whom, Levin Öztunali, plays for club Union Berlin in the Bundesliga.

“Uwe Seeler stands for everything that characterizes a good person: down-to-earth, loyalty, joie de vivre, he was always approachable,” says Jonas Boldt, board member of the Hamburg football team, on their website.

What could have been the high point of his career came when West Germany faced England in the World Cup final at London’s Wembley Stadium on 30 July 1966, in front of almost 97,000 spectators at the stadium and more than 32 million television viewers in the UK alone and 400 millions worldwide.

The score was 2-2 after the full 90 minutes and it was into 30 minutes of extra time in which England scored one of the most controversial goals of all time. A shot from England striker Geoff Hurst hit the bar and appeared to hit the goal line with some undercut. A Soviet linesman ruled that the entire ball had crossed the line and it was therefore a goal.

Modern technology suggests that was not the case, and up until his death, Herr Seeler, the team captain that day, insisted that the whole ball had not crossed the line. West Germany was demoralized and Hurst himself scored another goal in the final seconds to make it 4-2. Mr. Seeler took part in the tournament, although he had torn an Achilles tendon the previous year and replaced it with an artificial tendon.

He played at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico when West Germany finished third and Pele’s Brazil beat Italy to clinch the title at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium. He was soon replaced for West Germany by another burly striker, Gerd Müller, to whom he became something of a mentor.

After retirement, Mr. Seeler became a representative for the German sportswear company Adidas, founded by his friend Adolf “Adi” Dassler, before founding his own sportswear company alongside other small businesses. In the 1990s he was also chairman of the Hamburg football club and rarely missed a home game.

In 2005 he was honored with a huge bronze sculpture of his right foot outside the Hamburg club’s premises, the Volksparkstadion.

In an interview with German ZDF last year, he said: “The best thing in the world is to just be normal. I’m boringly normal and I like that.”

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