It is often said you have to be mad to be a goalkeeper, John Osborne – once of West Bromwich Albion – summed it up nicely when he stated you had to be slightly mental to play in that position given you are akin to a ‘tail-end Charlie’ in the old World War Two bombers – there to be shot at. If any goalkeeper was the epitome of said madness it had to be the incomparable Oliver Kahn.
Kahn, born in Karlsruhe in then West Germany, fifty years ago, started out at his local club Karlsruher SC – the club his father played from 1962 to 1965 – and although he would go on to be arguably Germany’s best ever keeper, it didn’t start out that way. He joined the club aged six and began there as an outfield player but that all changed after a present from his grandfather. The gift was a goalkeeper shirt embroidered with the signature of the legendary German keeper Sepp Maier. As a favour to his grandfather, Kahn wore it the next time he played, gave goalkeeping a go – and never played out of goal ever again.
Young Oliver soon worked his way through the youth ranks of the southwest German side making his way into their second team by the age of 18 playing in the Verbansliga and Oberliga, then roughly the third tier of German football. Within three years he was playing for the first team and was quickly gaining a reputation as a very good goalkeeper. It was only during the 1993-94 season though that he really came to not just national but international attention too when Karlsruher made it to the semi-finals of that season’s UEFA Cup beating Valencia 7-0 en-route. That’s when Bayern came knocking.
The summer of 1994 saw him move to the Bavarian giants for what would now be around €2.5 million, and soon learnt he had much to do if he was going to be good enough to actually play for them. Maier was the goalkeeping coach for Bayern when Kahn signed for them and it was after a particularly demanding training session with his hero that he quickly realised just what was needed if he was going to make it at the Bavarian club. Succeed he clearly did becoming one of the most decorated German players in history in the process; by the time he retired in 2008 he had won eight league titles, six German cups, six German League cups, a UEFA Cup, a Champions League and an Intercontinental Cup in his 632 appearances for the club, setting a Bundesliga record of 204 clean sheets along the way. Whilst his career was clearly fruitful it wasn’t necessarily his skill as an excellent shot-stopper that he was best known for by the time he reached the end of his playing career.
The man himself had agreed that goalkeepers needed an element of insanity to do their jobs, ‘who else would stand there and allow people to shoot balls at their face or stomach and still think it’s great’ he once asked, but perhaps not quite the level of craziness he often displayed. He was also quoted as saying ‘I use my body language to show my team complete presence and to instil respect, or even fear, in my opponents’ and that was certainly the case whether team-mate or opponent when it came to Kahn. There were many examples of his commanding, aggressive style throughout his career but a little look through YouTube highlights some of his more notorious incidents. I’m sure Dortmund’s Heiko Herrlich thought twice about ever challenging Kahn for high ball ever again after such an incident in 1999 saw Kahn square up to him and appear to nibble his cheek. Likewise, Stephane Chapuisat was probably a little wary in one-on-ones after seeing Kahn fly at him kung-fu style on one occasion around the same time.
German striker Miroslav Klose was not exempt from the wrath of his national team-mate when he came up against him at club level getting a poke in the nose for daring to challenge the keeper, and then there was Thomas Bradaric who genuinely feared for his life after being grabbed by the neck by Kahn. The keeper’s defence for that incident? ‘It’s a man’s game’! You weren’t exempt if you were playing on the same team as him either with defenders physically man-handled if they weren’t doing their jobs in his eyes. Mehmet Scholl, a team-mate of Kahn’s at both Karlsruher and Bayern was once quoted as saying ‘I fear only two things in life, war and Oliver Kahn.’
He was a perfectionist, obsessed with winning and didn’t care what he did to be victorious. To the Bayern fans, it made him a hero with my favourite nickname they had for him being ‘Vol-kahn-o’. That attitude made him unpopular with fans of other clubs though, a figure of fun to some given his wild outbursts, but opinion changed on him over two incidents. The first came in 2000 in a game at Freiburg where he was hit by a golf ball thrown from the crowd. Bleeding profusely from his temple he refused to be replaced and instead was stitched up beside the pitch and played on.
The other incident came after the 2001 Champions League Final where Bayern made up for the pain of their infamous defeat to Manchester United in the competition two years earlier by beating Valencia on penalties. Kahn was the hero of the shoot-out saving three spot-kicks including one stunning save where he had already dived to his left but with the ball rocketing towards the middle of the goal stuck out a giant right-hand to stop it. Remembering the pain of 1999 Kahn was seen to be consoling his opposite number, Santiago Canizares, as his team-mates celebrated and earned a UEFA Fair-Play award in the process.
There was one ‘match’ though that perhaps defined the man, due to become Bayern’s CEO in 2022, more than any. That story isn’t the one that many define him by – the 2002 World Cup Final where Kahn almost single-handedly got his country to that final, earning the nickname ‘The Man with Thousand Hands’ along the way, only to then make an error for Brazil’s opening goal and leave him with the World Cup as the only major honour he didn’t win. The actual story is one that has emerged recently in the book ‘Tor! The Story of German Football’ that shows how focused Kahn was and just how obsessed he was about winning. It involved a charity penalty shoot-out involving a bunch of 9-year-olds, with money being paid out to the charity involved for every goal the lucky children could put past ‘The Titan’. The charity was to be found wanting by the end of the day – Kahn saved every one of the attempts to beat him by the youngsters. Even for charity, even for an event that would have meant everything to those kids to have beaten the great ‘King Kahn’, he still wasn’t prepared to accept being a ‘loser’.