On their way to the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup, West Germany struggled to put Mexico to bed at the quarter-final stage and needed a penalty shoot-out to finish the job.
In response, the man who would eventually lift the trophy that year, Diego Maradona, declared that ‘the Germans felt Rudi Voeller’s absence’.
High praise indeed, yet there was no underestimating Rudi’s importance or standing within the game at the time. In fact, his popularity was such that his hometown of Hanau requested and was granted permission to print stamps bearing the centre-forward’s face, in order to help balance the local budget.
Hanau was the setting for Voeller’s first few steps in the world of football, a game he began playing in his father’s team at the age of eight. He would have to wait until he was 17 for his first move into professional football, when he signed with Kickers Offenbach.
The Hesse-based outfit set about toughening up the young Voeller, who only weighed 65kg at the time and was immediately christened ‘Beanpole’ by his new team-mates.
In truth, Rudi was never the strongest player around, but he would leave his opponents for dead with an irresistible turn of pace. In the summer of 1980, Voeller moved to 1860 München, where he endured a tough season that reached a nadir with the club’s relegation. Yet Rudi became the driving force behind 1860’s promotion charge the following year, scoring 37 goals to fire the club back into the top tier of German football.
With his name on the lips of half the clubs in Europe, Voeller signed for Werder Bremen, where he claimed a Bundesliga top-scorer gong with 23 goals. Clubs in Italy began to circulate, with Torino and Fiorentina attempting to sign the German, though the strongest push for Voeller’s signature came from AC Milan.
Nils Liedholm – in charge of the Rossoneri at the time – believed him to be the perfect forward to spark a revival in Milan’s fortunes and set about convincing him to up sticks and move to Italy.
Fellow German Karl-Heinz Schnellinger was dispatched to try and sew the deal up, but just when everything seemed in place, Rudi decided he was not yet ready to leave Germany.
Voeller would suffer two serious injuries in the years leading up to the 1986 World Cup, but recovered in time to make it onto the plane to Mexico. He was somewhat patched together, but nonetheless scored three important goals that brought Germany within a whisker of football’s biggest prize.
Rumours of a transfer again began to arise in 1987, with Bayern Munich desperate to sign him. And yet, because of sporting rivalry, Voeller declared that he would play for any team in the world except the Bavarians.
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