Frankfurt - From his days as the backbone of the defense to his days roaming the sidelines, Franz Beckenbauer has been synonymous with the best of German soccer.
"Der Kaiser" won the World Cup as a player and a coach, and then brought soccer's marquee tournament back to his homeland as leader of the 2006 bid committee.
It's in that role, in which Beckenbauer worked with FIFA and other corrupt world soccer officials, that the former Bayern Munich great's image could be stained.
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A recent inquiry into bribery allegations surrounding Germany's successful bid has raised more uncomfortable questions for the 70-year-old Beckenbauer and his role in complex financial deals before the tournament.
Der Spiegel magazine published allegations in October that tournament organizers used a slush fund to buy four Asian votes to land the World Cup. To the relief of the soccer establishment and ordinary Germans, the inquiry found no evidence of vote buying ahead of the tournament, although the probe could not rule it out either.
At the same time, the report by the Freshfields law firm noted Beckenbauer's involvement in dubious money transfers before the tournament was deeper than previously known, and includes speculation that it is linked to funding Sepp Blatter's re-election as FIFA president in 2002. Now, the public is demanding answers from its best known soccer personality, who holds no official position.
Beckenbauer, who led the bid and then became the president of the organizing committee when Germany won the hosting rights in 2000, has denied any wrongdoing or vote-buying.
"We did not buy votes. It was about providing (financial) security," said Beckenbauer, a former teammate of Pele when both played for the New York Cosmos. "In order to get a financial contribution from FIFA. Otherwise, we would not have had a World Cup in Germany."
Beckenbauer said he knew nothing about a joint bank account with his then manager Robert Schwan, from which a multimillion dollar transfer went to the now disgraced Mohamed Bin Hammam, a former high-ranking FIFA official from Qatar. Schwan died in 2002.
"Robert took care of everything, from changing light bulbs to important contracts. I only learned on Wednesday that the money went to Qatar," Beckenbauer told the newspaper Bild. "Looking back, maybe I made mistakes. You are always smarter in hindsight. But the World Cup was not bought."
Such nonchalance, on and off the field, had endeared Beckenbauer to his countrymen. But the easy-going manner is getting old with the public, which wants explanations.
The national federation, which commissioned the Freshfields inquiry, has been reluctant so far to put more pressure on the man who is a symbol of German soccer. For decades, Beckenbauer was forgiven no matter how grave the faux pas, from adultery and illegitimate children to careless, loose-mouth statements.
But the kid gloves are coming off. Kicker magazine has called him the "teller of fairytales." Beckenbauer's explanation that the payment at the center of the affair was in return for a financial grant from FIFA "looks like an attempt to repeat the story as often as necessary until the public starts believing it."
Freshfields also criticized his claim of ignorance.
"We can hardly believe that someone does not notice such transfers on his own account," the firm said.
Beckenbauer's name appears 564 times in the 361-page Freshfields report following a four-month inquiry, according to Kicker's count.
At the heart of the affair is series of payments that appear to have landed Bin Hammam 10 million Swiss francs, roughly $7.3 million or 6.7 million euros.
According to Freshfields, 6 million Swiss francs went through a Swiss law firm in 2002 from Beckenbauer to a Qatar company solely owned by Bin Hammam. Later that year, in September 2002, former Adidas boss Robert Louis-Dreyfus paid Beckenbauer 6 million Swiss francs and Bin Hammam 4 million francs, both via the same Swiss law firm's account.
Then, in April 2005, the German soccer federation paid 6.7 million euros to a FIFA account in Zurich, from where the money went to Louis-Dreyfus. The payment was falsely declared as the federation's contribution to a FIFA cultural gala that never took place. The Freshfields report said the money was clearly intended as repayment to Louis-Dreyfus, who is no longer alive.
Why the money went to Bin Hammam, who has denied receiving it, remains a mystery. One theory is that it was used to finance Blatter's re-election campaign. The now suspended Blatter declined to talk to Freshfields, which said the former FIFA president had been aware of the 2005 payment to Louis-Dreyfus.
The purpose of the payment may not become clearer until German and Swiss authorities conclude their separate investigations, along with FIFA.