Back in 1954, coaching legend Sepp Herberger handed a 17-year-old Hamburg native named Uwe Seeler his Germany debut, just months after the ‘Miracle of Berne’ in which Herberger’s unfancied team won the FIFA World Cup™ in Switzerland, comfortably their greatest triumph up to that point.
Seeler, who stands at a diminutive 5ft6ins, would go on to become one of the greatest centre forwards of all time, and is one of only four men to bear the title honorary captain of Germany, even though he never won a major trophy with his country.
The striker was a one-club man and spent 26 years as a youth and senior player with Hamburg. He made his first-team debut as a 16-year-old and rapidly became a crowd favourite thanks to a torrent of goals. He collected an astonishing nine North German championship winners’ medals in a row, and topped that with a German championship triumph in 1960.
He was named German Footballer of the Year that season, and also helped Hamburg to the German Cup in 1963. The man capped 72 times by his country then finished as leading scorer in the Bundesliga's inaugural 1963/64 season.
On the eve of UEFA EURO 2012, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Seeler about Germany's chances in Poland and Ukraine, central strikers Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez, what it takes to be a winner and recent defeats in finals for German teams.
FIFA.com: You were one of the best centre forwards of all time, although you never won a trophy with Germany. It's a fate currently shared by Miroslav Klose. Do you think Klose can remedy that at EURO 2012?
Uwe Seeler: I do believe Klose has the chance, because Germany could win the trophy this year. Germany are definitely among the favourites. I certainly hope with all my heart that it works out for Miro on this occasion. Naturally, I also rate Spain as strong candidates for the trophy, and I don't think we'll see a surprise winner such as Denmark in 1992 or Greece in 2004, although obviously anything can happen at a tournament.
Are there parallels between the way you played and Klose today?
Miro is a top-class striker. He has that special nose for goal and a killer instinct. He scores with his head and his feet, which is extremely important for a central striker. What I particularly like about him is that he's a complete team player. He’s extremely unselfish and does a lot of work tracking back. Those are certainly qualities people attributed to me. I'd be delighted if he stays fit and healthy enough to play for Germany at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and matches what I did by representing his country at four World Cups.
Would you say the role of the centre forward has changed over the decades?
A centre forward is a centre forward. Just as much as in the past, the central striker has to score goals. What matters to a striker is the ball finishing in the net, no matter how. And if the ball ends up in the net, the coach doesn't care how it got there – and neither do the fans.
At the moment, Germany boast two top-class strikers in Klose and Mario Gomez, but only one of them is likely to play. Which do you think is better?
It's fantastic we have a second great striker in Mario. And why should only one of them play at once? If they played together and kept their eyes open, so as not to get in each other's way, [Germany coach Joachim] Low could field them both. However, and obviously you don't wish it on anyone, one of them could always pick up an injury, so it’s vital the coach has a second striker who also knows where the goal is.
A centre forward is a centre forward. Just as much as in the past, the central striker has to score goals. What matters to a striker is the ball finishing in the net, no matter how.
Is there a single goal you'd call the best of your career?
I scored a number of good goals, and some important ones too. There were bicycle kicks, diving headers and some with the back of the head as well. But I was never much interested in beautiful football. The most beautiful thing for me was seeing the ball cross the line. A very important goal for me personally came in Sweden in 1965. We had to win to qualify for the World Cup in England, but I’d only just come back from a tricky Achilles tendon operation and I wasn't sure it would all hold together. Scoring in that match was vital for my confidence, because I knew I'd be able to continue at the international level.
One of your more famous goals with the back of the head came against England in the 1970 FIFA World Cup quarter-final. Is it something you can practice on the training ground?
Ah yes, the goal with the back of the head. I'm not sure it can be trained. That goal was more a case of improvisation. The ball was basically past me and I had to run backwards, something that's not exactly easy in and of itself. The ball hit the back of my head and then the back of the net, but you always need a little bit of luck for that.
Did you watch the dramatic UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea?
It's certainly unusual for a team to win the Champions League quite so luckily. Chelsea were played off the park three times in a row and still won it. But that's football. You only win trophies if you ruthlessly take your chances. That's how it was in the past, and that's how it is today.
That's the third Champions League final Bayern have lost in living memory, along with 1999 and 2010. And Germany were defeated in their last two major finals, at the 2002 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2008. Have Germany forgotten how to win?
Playing good and pretty football is one thing, but at the end of the day, football is always and only about putting the ball in the net. Bayern can pass and move their way to the edge of the box for as long as they like, but at some point, someone has to apply the finish. As I used to say as a striker, the more frequently I play the ball in the box, the greater the opportunity for my opposite number to take the ball off me. When you're in the box, you have to quickly create a shooting position and put the ball in the net. This ruthlessness has always been a trademark of German teams. Maybe this is exactly what Uli Hoeness meant when he said he thought Bayern lacked bite. I don't rate losing the shootout as particularly dramatic, because it's a lottery.
Could the defeat to Chelsea affect Germany's chances in Poland and Ukraine? There are eight Bayern players in the Germany squad…
Joachim Low will have the Bayern players back on their feet and on form again, and their team-mates have a job to do as well. But I don't think it'll be a problem. We're talking about professionals, and they have to get over defeats, even in a final. And the target of winning the European championship is a new and exciting challenge, so they'll soon get over the Champions League mentally. Maybe losing the final will make these players even more motivated and drive them to new heights.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, a leading figure for Germany, looked totally gutted when he missed his penalty…
First of all, to step up and take the decisive fifth penalty, as he did against Real Madrid, is evidence that Bastian is a big personality and strong leader. He put it away comfortably against Real, and he was just a bit unlucky against Chelsea when he hit the post. But it can happen to anyone, and I'm not going to criticise him at all. You need huge courage just to step up in the first place - and a number of his team-mates didn't actually have that courage.