Think of a footballer who personifies all of the old-fashioned qualities and virtues we bemoan as absent from the players of today – think of West German centre forward Uwe Seeler.
Modesty, decency, determination, loyalty, longevity, hard work and, of course, footballing excellence all wrapped up in a surprisingly small package; Uwe Seeler was the sort of player we would all wish had played for our club. He only did play for one club, though, SV Hamburg, and he was the epitome of the local boy turned local – and national – hero.
Let’s paint a picture of Uwe Seeler in action for those who have never had the particular pleasure of seeing him play. Well, imagine a 5ft 7” striker who was a hybrid of Karl-Heinz Riedle (for prodigious leaping and heading ability), Rudi Völler (for the unerring instinct to find space), Jurgen Klinsmann (a penchant for acrobatic overhead kicks) and Gerd Müller (for prolific, dead-eyed finishing). Yes, he was that good.
Seeler made his debut for Hamburg in 1953 and was a fixture in their team all the way through to his retirement in 1972, spanning almost 500 games. His international career was just as illustrious encompassing four World Cup tournaments, 16 years and 72 appearances. And then there were the goals, lots of goals, totalling 446 for Hamburg and 43 for his national side. Only Gerd Müller has scored more in German football history.
A striker of such rare talent was always going to attract the attention of the wealthy glamour clubs of Italy and Spain, but Uwe Seeler’s devout loyalty to his boyhood team and home city meant he spurned the numerous offers that would have transformed him into a wealthy man – rather than one who needed a second job outside football to make ends meet.
Demonstrating his renown good humour and modesty, Seeler never displayed the faintest whiff of bitterness about what his career could have been, whether financially or in terms of personal honours. As the late Bobby Moore could attest, this was an age when great players could end their days having won little – Seeler himself won merely a single German championship in 1960 and one DFB-Pokal success in 1963 during his long career.
In European club football he only participated in the European Cup on one occasion and played in just a single final – the 1968 Cup Winners Cup, which he lost to Milan, despite him, predictably, finishing the tournament’s top scorer. Even his seemingly outstanding international career with West Germany was bookended by World Cup wins that came before his debut and after his retirement.
Not that he had much regard for such notions, but he was honoured as West German Footballer of the Year on three occasions, the last time as a 33-year old in 1970 in recognition of his role as West Germany’s best player at that year’s World Cup in Mexico.
If all of this is still not enough to convince of the joy of Uwe Seeler, a minor career postscript might just swing it for you. In 1978, and six years after his official retirement, our Uwe was persuaded to turn out for Irish side Cork City in what he thought was an unofficial friendly. It transpired that this was an actual league game and the 41-year old’s two goals that day are duly forever preserved as a tiny, and most unlikely, part of League of Ireland history.