ROME, JULY 9 -- His fame only grows. For all of West Germany's talented players, none is spoken of in the reverent tones reserved for their retiring coach and once-great defensive star. For German soccer, there's only one "Kaiser" -- Franz Beckenbauer.
"Thank you, thank you, Franz Beckenbauer for helping us reach the top," said midfielder Lothar Matthaeus, after West Germany beat Argentina, 1-0, Sunday night to win the World Cup.
Now Beckenbauer may be coming to America to face his biggest challenge.
The man who has delivered a World Cup to West Germany both as player, in 1974, and coach is a subject of interest among many American soccer fans, who see him playing some role in the 1994 World Cup to be played in the United States.
Beckenbauer insists he will not coach; skeptics say that 1994 allows plenty of time for him to take over as coach. He may start out as something else, such as "director of operations," helping market the '94 Cup and advising on the U.S. team.
Both Beckenbauer and United States Soccer Federation officials deny that the Kaiser is about to return to America, where he played in the late 1970s with the New York Cosmos of the now-defunct North American Soccer League. A once-elegant sweeper, Beckenbauer is known now for his ability to manage as well as coach on the sidelines.
In the last two years, he revised his West German team and the result was the World Cup. It was a heavily veteran team that lost to the Netherlands in the European Championship two years ago. Beckenbauer turned to youth, gracefully blending a few newcomers with his host of older talent.
He may have had a 23-year-old goalkeeper in Bodo Illgner, but playing in front of him Beckenbauer had 32-year-old Klaus Augenthaler. In Thomas Hassler, 23, Beckenbauer developed a midfielder who could take pressure off Matthaeus.
If Beckenbauer is lured to the United States to help "sell" soccer, he surely will have opinions about the American team. If he is hired by the USSF, it would be hard to imagine him not being in charge of building the U.S. team. And, eventually, coaching it.
In trying to skirt questions about his possible role in the United States, Beckenbauer revealed his interest in assembling a team. Having been part of the Cosmos along with Pele, he knows the United States can put on a show.
"I fully believe that the Americans are a people who will undoubtedly organize the World Cup successfully," Beckenbauer said. "But the American team is going to have to contribute to the World Cup.
"What they presented here were ups and downs. I think the level of play in the United States is better than what we saw here."
Beckenbauer speaks English well, and would be perfect for stirring interest in soccer in the United States. Like Pele, he is one of the game's premier ambassadors.
Sometimes Beckenbauer used English in World Cup news conferences, although he always switched to the more comfortable German when answering technical questions or sticky ones such as: Are you or aren't you going to the United States?
Beckenbauer, 44, has a presence that befits his nickname. Clearly an authority figure, he exudes the confidence of 25 years of soccer success. He has a professorial look, with short, curly hair and glasses. A trim, almost gaunt man, he still seems fit enough to play.
Like most successful coaches, he works hard. "I'm looking forward to reading," he said, talking about a retirement that may prove short-lived.
Beckenbauer is a rarity, a star player who has enjoyed similar fortune as a coach. Having assembled the squad he wanted for the '90 Cup, he fine-tuned it in the preliminaries and had it playing forceful, attacking soccer by the time it reached Italy.
Certainly, the most entertaining teams offensively were West Germany, Italy and Cameroon. Beckenbauer's formula throughout was: "Always attack. Keep the opponent under pressure so he will make mistakes."
About the only thing that surprised him was Italy's failure to make the title game. "Mentally, we were prepared to play a final with Italy," he said. "West Germany and Italy played the best football."
In a position to be gracious, he thanked the Italian League for helping him. Calling it the strongest in the world, he noted that five of his World Cup players -- Matthaeus, Juergen Klinsmann and Andy Brehme of Inter Milan, and Rudi Voeller and Thomas Berthold of AS Roma -- have gained experience from it.
"All five who play in Italy have improved," Beckenbauer said.
But once Italy was upset in the World Cup by Argentina, the way was clear for West Germany because it has, as Matthaeus put it, "technically superior players."
The younger ones, Matthaeus said, gained "confidence" under Beckenbauer.
Over the last five weeks, Beckenbauer has been straight-forward about the talent available -- setting himself up for blame if the West Germans had failed. Before their crucial second-round match with the Netherlands, he expressed concern about Dutch star Ruud Gullit but still said, "I would be surprised if Holland beat us."
He showed the same confidence before the West Germans beat Czechoslovakia in the quarterfinals and England in the semifinals. Going into the final with Argentina, he said: "West Germany is the stronger team, and we intend to prove it."
On the eve of the finale, Beckenbauer said his team was the most "unified" of any West German team he'd known -- including the 1974 team he led to the World Cup. As World Cup coach, he seemed more in control than he had been as a player when he was a supremely confident performer.
As a man who's always liked a challenge, he knows there's one in the United States. In Beckenbauer, America is close to getting a badly needed missionary who's familiar with the territory.