What Pele is to Santos, Uwe Seeler is to Hamburg or Alessandro del Piero is to Juventus, Wolfgang Overath is to Cologne. What unites these four is that they were all world-class players, and they all played out their careers primarily or exclusively for just one club – something very rare in modern football.
In the 1960s and '70s, Overath helped to write some of the most important chapters in West German football. The playmaker was one of the best midfielders in the world for over a decade, all the time embodying a certain German ideal.
His passion for football began in 1953, just a year before Germany won their first ever FIFA World Cup™. Overath was ten years old at the time, and joined his local club Siegburger. Nine years later, he found himself in Germany's top division and joining newly-minted league champions, Cologne.
"When the Bundesliga was founded in 1963, Cologne had the kind of status in Germany that Bayern Munich currently have," recalled Overath. "Back in those days, players in other clubs had to get changed in the car park, while we already had our Geissbockheim clubhouse."
In the first season that he was eligible to play, he, along with such players as Toni Schumacher and Hans Schefer, won the championship, while he also went on to win the DFB-Pokal on two occasions, in 1968 and '77.
Overath plied his trade with Die Geißböcke for 15 years, treating the fans to incredible skill on the ball and an eye for a perfectly-weighted pass. Indeed, after West Germany's 1954 hero Schafer retired, Overath was the heart and soul of the team from the banks of the Rhine, and though he received plenty of solicitations from other clubs at home and abroad, he remained true to the club until he hung up his boots.
Dazzling on the world stage
His prowess soon earned him a call-up for West Germany, and after he had made his debut at the age of 20, he was to remain a fixture in the side for many a year. He and Gunter Netzer were the lynchpins of the German midfield of the early 1970s, both of them capable of flighting a 60-yard pass, trapping a ball in mid-flight or tying an opposing defence in knots with mazy runs.
In 1966, '70 and '74, this 'No10 par excellence', as he was known, played all West Germany's matches at three World Cups. He ended his career having appeared in 19 matches in the competition, with 15 wins, one draw and three defeats. A tidy record by anyone's reckoning that saw him win the title in 1974, finish runner-up in '66 and third in '70.
Mexico was doubtless Overath's finest hour. Pundits at the tournament were in raptures at his ball skills, particular when he scored the only goal of the game in the third-place play-off against Uruguay.
"Overath has the grace of a prima ballerina, the staying power of an astronaut, the intelligence of an Einstein and the footballing qualities of… well, what is the greatest superlative we could possibly find? Yes, he has the footballing qualities of a Wolfgang Overath," said a Brazilian sports paper at the time.
Overath himself remembers the tournament in Latin America only too well. "For me, Mexico 1970 is the greatest World Cup there ever was," he said in an interview with Zeit magazine. "I rate it above the 1974 tournament, even though we obviously won that one on home soil. All the greats were there like Pele and Bobby Charlton. The quality of the football and the fantastic atmosphere in the stadiums were second to none."
The real high point of Overath's career nevertheless came four years later with the World Cup title secured on home soil. After 81 caps and 17 goals, he was part of the team which defeated the Netherlands in the Final in Munich's Olympiastadion – a fitting conclusion to his career on the international stage.
His domestic career came to a less auspicious end in 1977, however, when he hung up his boots aged just 33 after a dispute with club coach Hennes Weisweiler. "I look at it from a positive aspect," he said magnanimously.
"I'd never have managed to take that step or strike the right balance [about when to retire] otherwise," continued Overath, whose club career finished after 536 matches and 117 goals for Cologne. "Weisweiler was one of the best coaches of his day, but his one weakness was probably that he never managed to get on with on-the-pitch leaders."
He continued to follow the fortunes of his beloved Geißböcke, but it was not until 1991 that he finally accepted the club's offer to become a member of the board, a position he occupied until 1998. In 2004 he was then elected as club president and served for seven years. "FC Cologne has always been a love affair of mine," he said at the time. "It's an honorary position and it means that I can give something back to the club."
Off the pitch Overath has also demonstrated a big heart, in particular with his sense of social commitment. In 1994 he founded the Overath Fund to provide people in need who had exhausted all legal means with quick, effective and unbureaucratic aid. He has also organised various matches featuring other former internationals to raise money for those in need.
"When I was younger, the only thing that I was aiming for was to be financially independent," he explained. "It was only when I reached my mid-40s that I thought to myself, 'This can't be all that your life is about'. And so I began to work on behalf of others.
"You can't possibly believe how satisfying it is when you are able to help someone who is in need. The only thing that I regret is that I never got around to doing it a lot earlier, but when you're younger, you're too taken up with yourself. I like being around people and it's exciting to get to know new people. I want to give back some of the enormous fortune that I've had in my life."
Overath's exemplary work saw him rewarded with honorary citizenship of the city of Siegburg and then in 2008, he was awarded the Order of Merit, first class, of the Federal Republic of Germany. Yet despite all of these activities on and off the pitch, he has never lost sight of what is most important to him: "Family always comes first for me," he said. "Always."