How a Japanese Electronics Company Influenced the Winner of the Ballon d’Or

These days, players moving between multiple clubs is as commonplace as sportswashing or bad football takes on Twitter, but in the 1970s, most players came through the youth ranks of a club and either remained for their whole career or moved onto a bigger club and ended their career there. Basically, most of a player’s prime was spent at a single club, and transfers between big sides and especially rival ones usually filled the back pages for weeks.


However, this was not the case for Kevin Keegan, born in Doncaster in 1951 to parents of Irish descent who had initially settled in Newcastle. His father and uncle instilled a love of football in him and gave him his first boots. Whilst working as a clerk and playing youth and amateur football, he was spotted by Bob Nellis, a player who was tasked to mark him in one of the games. Nellis secured him a trial at Scunthorpe United, who signed him on. Between 1968 and 1971, he scored 18 goals playing from the wings for Scunthorpe, and his talents were beginning to be noticed.


It was Liverpool’s head scout Geoff Twentyman who convinced Bob Shankly to sign him. Aged 20, Keegan was already a keen negotiator, haggling with Shankly over his salary. Many players targeted by Liverpool would be in awe of the magnitude of the club and accept whatever was offered. Early on in his Liverpool career, Shankly moved Keegan from the flanks to a striker position alongside John Toshack. This had devastating effects on Liverpool’s opponents and the club won three league titles, one FA Cup, two UEFA Cups and one European Cup across Keegan’s seven-year stay on Merseyside, with him proving instrumental both across the regular season and in key games in Europe.


Sometime during his Liverpool career, he had managed to work in a £500,000 release clause into his contract, which for a player of his qualities would be considered rather low. Liverpool were chasing a treble during the 1976/77 campaign when Keegan announced his wish to depart the club. The FA Cup was surrendered to Manchester United of all clubs, but Liverpool still achieved a double, edging Manchester City to the title by a point and beating Gladbach in the European Cup Final.


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Meanwhile, in the north of Germany, the sleeping giant of Hamburger Sport-Verein e.V. was beginning to awaken. The Dinosaur, as they were nicknamed, had experienced some success during the 1920s and early 60s and produced players like Uwe Seeler. However, they had not won a league title since the inception of the new Bundesliga. Just as Keegan was looking for an exit from Liverpool, Hamburg would lift the DFB Pokal and the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup the following year.


Hamburg general manager Peter Krohn was proving himself as a maverick and a pioneer of football marketing at the time with decisions like signing Campari as a shirt sponsor and having the team play games in pink shirts to attract more women to the stadium. However dubious his methods, it was paying off. Hamburg were posting profits every year and increasing their name recognition.


For our third protagonist, we need to travel all the way to Japan. Faced with the 1973 oil crisis, Japan had reinvented itself as the world’s factory. One of the pioneers of this revolution was Hitachi, who saw amazing success with the export of their air conditioning machines. Flush with cash, and wishing to continue their expansion, they were looking to branch out to the European market. All they needed was some sort of big billboard to announce their name.


Luckily, Peter Krohn had about a dozen little billboards playing in a field every weekend. Krohn, like any respectable businessman, looked to reinvest the most recent windfall and decided on Keegan. His low release clause meant that he could negotiate a huge wage by the standards of the time for himself. Keegan, who was making £12,000 per year at Liverpool, would now be earning close to £250,000 with endorsement deals. Just like four other long-haired Englishmen some 17 years prior, Keegan travelled from Liverpool to Hamburg.


At first, his move, despite being financially lucrative, was highly disappointing. Marginalized geographically, living in a hotel on the outskirts of the city, his morale was at an all-time low. His colleagues saw the permed outsider coming in and out-earning all of them, and would often refuse to pass to him during games. In a script that would be fit for Hollywood, he would face his last team in the European Super Cup Final.


Over two legs, Liverpool showed Keegan why they considered his move to be a mistake, thrashing the German side 7-1 on aggregate. His form picked up towards the end of the 1977/78 season, but Hamburg finished ninth. Continued improvements saw him become only the second Englishman to win the Ballon d’Or after Sir Bobby Charlton in 1966. This win saw Hamburg usher in their golden age, with Gunther Netzer replacing Krohn as Director of Football.


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Netzer brought in manager Branko Zebec, header king Horst Hrubesch and an aging but still golden Franz Beckenbauer. Together with Keegan, they won the 1979 Bundesliga, romping to the title with Keegan combining excellently with his new strike partner Hrubesch. On the last matchday of the season, Keegan even released a future hit single, Head Over Heels in Love. The next season, Hamburg were equally potent, both in the Bundesliga and the European Cup.


In late December 1979, Keegan won his second Ballon d’Or, becoming the only English player to win the award more than once, a record that stands to this day. In the European Cup, Real Madrid awaited them at the semifinal stage, with another Englishman in their ranks, Laurie Cunningham. A 2-0 loss at the Bernabeu was overturned with a 5-1 win in Hamburg, a game where the German side played Madrid off the pitch.


The final, however, would be a different affair, with Brian Clough’s tactical genius managing to keep Keegan quiet, securing a 1-0 win at the Bernabeu via a goal from John Robertson, their second straight win in the European Cup Final. Clough had tried to sign Keegan prior to his Hamburg move to no avail, and one can only imagine what level of destruction that Nottingham Forest side could cause with Keegan running the show.


As the title charge of 1979 was an unsuccessful one, Keegan had already announced midway through the season his desire to once again leave. Another £500,000-pound release clause inserted in his Hamburg contract enabled him to move to Southampton and later to Newcastle, where he would become a fan favourite. Hamburg, despite losing their talisman, would go on to experience their golden age, winning the 1982 European Cup as well as Bundesliga titles in 1982 and 1983. As for Hitachi, they are still producing their air conditioners to this day.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Peter Robinson – EMPICS / PA Images