On a drab Monday a few weeks ago, thousands of West German soccer fans rushed to newsstands, not so much to read the accounts of the nation's cup final that weekend, but to check The List.
On The List were 40 names, from which national team Coach Helmut Schoen had to pick his team of 22 for the World Cup next month in Argentina. The name the fans were looking for. Franz Beckenbauer of the Cosmos of the North American Soccer League, was not on The List.
The Germans had played disappointing test matches, including losses to Brazil and Sweden. West Germany's prospects for successfully defending its World Cup title, earned under Beckenbauer's leadership in 1974 were ebbing. Soccer fans cried out for the man many feel to be the world's greatest active player.
The need for a savior was less evident a year ago. West Germany, without Beckenbauer successfully toured Latin America, beating Argentina and tying Brazil, 1-1.
That Beckenbauer's name did not appear on the recent list did not surprise close followers of world soccer. The Cosmos' star is hot property. Warner Communications, the entertainment conglomerate that owns the team, was not about to let the West German Football Association (DFB) have his services cheap in the middle of the NASL season.
The Cosmos signed Beckenbauer a year ago to a multiyear contract of about $3 million. It was a coup for the Cosmos and a blow to Beckenbauer's old club, Bayern Munich.
Beckenbauer was glad enough, at the price, to embark on a new adverture and escape West Germany's notorious boulevard press. Sensational stories about his personal life and marital problems all but drove him out of the country.
But why the fuss over a World Cup comeback? Just how good is Beckenbauer? Surely, the West Germans could find a replacement. After all, the professional league, the Bundesliga, is perhaps the world's best. It boasts players of international class, superb athletes such as Rainer Bonhof and Manfred Kaltz, a great goal scorer in Klaus Fischer, and ball artists such as Heinz Slohe and Bernd Hoelzenbein.
Truly great teams have one or two players of genius. Take the past three World Cup champions: in 1966 England boasted Bobby Moore, in 1970 Brazil had the incomparable Pele, and there was the 1974 West German squad with Beckenbauer.
Beckenbauer, now 32, may or may not be the world's greatest. There is competition in Europe from Dutch ace Johan Cruyff, who has overshadowed countrymen Johan Neeskens and Rob Rensenbrink. Cruyff has chosen not to play in the World Cup and will be sorely missed.
Other European pretenders to the throne are Denmark's Alan Simonsen; England's Kevin Keegan and brillant young Frenchman, Michel Platini, who many feel is about where Beckenbauer was in 1966.
Latin America has its candidates, particularly Brazil's erratic Robert Rivelino and Zico, who is untested in major international competition outside South America. Chilean defender Elias Figueroa, Argentine midfielder Rene Houseman and a half dozen others are great, but merely on the brink of being The Best.
Despite the NASL's clear improvement in recent years, it is not yet top level.
It is difficult to say Beckenbauer is still the world's best when he is not tested week in and week out in top competition. The pace of play in the NASL is too leisurely, the defenses not as challenging as abroad.
Without an absolute yardstick to prove his skills, it may be simply said that Beckenbauer still is among the top half-dozen players in the world, but it would be unwise to go any further. Not playing in the World Cup hurts his chances of defending his reputation of being the best.
The fact that Germany still wanted Beckenhauer for its World Cup effort indicates how good he is.
Surprisingly, New York's fans appear to appreciate his uncanny skills, although the things he does best rarely show up in statistics. No RBI, sacks, offensive rebounds. Statistics - the scourge of American sports information - can never fairly gauge the worth of a world-class soccer player.
To assess Beckenbauer's value, one might speak of his individual skills: perfect ball handling, his passes of 40 yards and more that kick holes in opposing defenses with the devastatting accuracy of a Ken Stabler, the ability to take the ball suddenly deep in his own defense, sprint 60 yards and unload a blistering shot on goal.
In short, Beckenhauer dictates the flow and pace of a match and puts his own special stamp on it. CAPTION: Picture, Franz Beckenbauer goes high to kick ball down field in recent game. Beckenbauer has $3 milliom contract with Cosmos, AP