Uwe Seeler, one of Germany’s greatest soccer players and arguably the world’s best striker of his era, who captained West Germany in their dramatic and controversial 1966 World Cup final defeat to England, died July 21 at his home in Norderstedt, near Hamburg. He was 85.
He played in four World Cups — held every four years — for what was then West Germany, and he scored in all four tournaments, in 1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970.
In all, “Uns Uwe” (Our Uwe) as Germans fondly called him, scored 43 goals in 72 games for West Germany, 40 of them as team captain. For his club Hamburg, where he spent his entire career of almost 20 years, he found the net 490 times in 580 appearances, a remarkable average. In those days, he was known as a center forward, now called a striker, the goal-scoring front man.
The legendary Brazilian Pele once said Uwe Seeler (pronounced OO-vay ZAY-lir) was one of the greatest players he had ever faced. “His handling of the ball was perfect, his shot precise, and what really amazed me was his ability to head the ball,” Pele told the Brazilian news network O Globo in 2004.
And that despite the fact that Mr. Seeler stood only 5 feet 7 inches and was often referred to by fans, again fondly, as “Dicker” (Fatty). Even his wife, Ilka, jokingly called him that. Squat and stocky he certainly was, but he made up for his build by his balance and remarkable ability at heading, making the ball go precisely where he wanted.
He also became a master of the overhead, or scissors kick, often scoring when he had his back to goal. He was named West German Footballer of the Year three times, in 1960 (when he scored 36 goals for Hamburg), ’64 and ’70 and remains Hamburg’s top goal scorer of all time.
Uwe Seeler was born in Hamburg on Nov. 5, 1936, just as Hitler was consolidating his power and already planning to annex or invade neighboring countries. Uwe’s father was a barge worker in the port of Hamburg who had previously played for the Hamburg soccer team, and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Seeler signed for Hamburg in 1953, at age 16, and got his first international cap for West Germany against France the following year. His first appearance in the World Cup finals came in Sweden in 1958, the year the 17-year-old Pele burst upon the world stage as a star of Brazil’s winning team. Mr. Seeler scored in that first game, a 3-1 win over Argentina.
He became known, among fellow players and opponents such as Pele, for his humility, sense of fair play and loyalty to his hometown club. In those days — the 1950s and ‘60s — it was relatively rare for soccer players to join clubs outside their homeland.
Mr. Seeler received offers to leave Hamburg for Spain or Italy, always turning them down out of loyalty and his desire not to disrupt his family. One offer from Inter Milan in 1961 would have made him a millionaire overnight. The West German TV Channel ZDF at the time quoted Inter Milan’s manager, Helenio Herrera, as saying: “I’ve never seen anyone turn down so much money.”
With Hamburg, Mr. Seeler won the German league championship (now known as the Bundesliga) in 1960 and the national German Cup in 1963, although failing to win a European trophy.
He married Ilka Buck, who played handball for Hamburg, in 1959. In addition to his wife, survivors include three daughters, Frauke, Kerstin and Helle; and seven grandchildren, one of whom, Levin Öztunali, plays for the club Union Berlin in the Bundesliga.
“Uwe Seeler stands for everything that characterizes a good person: down-to-earth, loyalty, joie de vivre, plus he was always approachable” to fans, said Jonas Boldt, a board member of Hamburg soccer team, on their website.
What might have become the highlight of his career came when West Germany faced England in the World Cup final at Wembley Stadium, London, on July 30, 1966, watched by almost 97,000 in the stadium and more than 32 million TV viewers in the U.K. alone and 400 million worldwide.
After the full 90 minutes, the score was 2-2 and so went into 30 minutes’ extra time, during which England scored one of the most controversial goals of all time. A shot by English striker Geoff Hurst hit the crossbar and, with some backspin, appeared to hit the goal-line. A Soviet linesman ruled that all of the ball had crossed the line, and it was therefore a goal.
Modern technology suggests it had not, and until his dying day, Mr. Seeler, the team captain that day, insisted the whole ball had not crossed the line. West Germany were demoralized, and Hurst himself whacked in a further goal in the dying seconds to make it 4-2. Mr. Seeler had played in the tournament despite rupturing an Achilles’ tendon the previous year and having it replaced with an artificial one.
He went on to play in the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 when West Germany finished in third place and Pele’s Brazil beat Italy to take the title in Mexico City’s Azteca stadium. He would soon be replaced for West Germany by another stocky striker, Gerd Müller, for whom he became something of a mentor.
After retirement, Mr. Seeler became a representative of the German sportswear company Adidas, founded by his friend Adolf “Adi” Dassler, before setting up his own sportswear company among other small businesses. He also served as chairman of Hamburg soccer club during the 1990s and rarely missed a home game.
In 2005, he was honored with a giant bronze sculpture of his right foot outside the Hamburg club’s ground, the Volksparkstadion.
In an interview with the German ZDF channel last year, he said: “The best thing in the world is just to be normal. I’m boringly normal, and I like that.”