Saturday, October 1, 2011

Group 8 was originally seen as the easiest group – West Germany, Bulgaria, Greece, and Malta. Two non-entities and half dead Bulgaria – and the World Champions. Even prediction was pointless. It was the group not to be commented… it was so clear: West Germany casually will qualify and only then one should be looking.
It turned out differently. Very differently, in fact, although the development was not based on great football and fun. Malta was not to be counted at all, but so was Greece – the Greeks were expected to beat Malta and lose from both Bulgaria and West Germany. Bulgaria was still considered superior to Greece, but not a challenge to the Germans. The final table was made at the moment of the draw. Then games started…
Bulgaria was in big crisis – the disgrace at the World Cup alarmed and outraged everybody concerned with football in Bulgaria. The usual way of dealing with disappointments was a call of ‘massive change’, typically amounting to making a new team. At least in words – in reality, it was always a chaos: new players, old players, different coaches, but no visible program in place. Unfortunately, the Bulgarians were unable to really evaluate the state of football in the country: it was considered that only the squad at the World Cup was getting old and lame. The true picture became clear when the qualifications for the European championship started: things were worse than imagined. In short, Bulgarian football in the 1970s was in a big crisis – there were not really good players emerging. The pool of talent was terribly short. The slap in the face came Greece: instead of easy win, Bulgaria struggled to win a point in Sofia – 3-3, and the Greeks played better. At the end, the only wins Bulgaria got were against Malta and the ‘best’ match was the home against West Germany. Bulgaria finished third.
Greece was the surprise team: neither Bulgaria, nor West Germany managed to win against the Greeks. However, Malta did – the only points Malta got, a surprise on its own.
Greece, surprising even themselves: left to right: A. Glezos, K. Eleftherakis, H. Terzanidis, S. Sarafis, Y. Delikaris, T. Palas, Y. Firos, K. Iosifidis, A. Andoniadis, P. Ikonomopoulos, D. Papaioanou.
A great team they were not, but a beginning – certainly. From 1975 the progress of Greek football was getting steady and increasingly visible. The first real fruits were come in few years time, but the first steps were made by this squad – players already having experience and confidence with Panathinaikos. Olympiakos was improving as well; the impact of foreign players was good for Greek football; some players were well known, if not considered big stars, around Europe – Andoniadis, Ikonomopoulos. Younger players were eager to follow in the steps of the Greek stars – Domazos was increasingly challenged by others and finding that he had no longer a guaranteed place in the national team. Glezos, Eleftherakis, Papaioanou, and especially Delikaris were getting well respected in Europe. Greece was no longer a weakling, a donor of points to others – and it happened during the qualifying stage for the 1976 European championship. Greece was still not strong enough to go ahead, but it was getting close. A team on the rise.
1.WEST GERMANY 6 3 3 0 14- 4 9
2.Greece 6 2 3 1 12- 9 7
3.Bulgaria 6 2 2 2 12- 7 6
4.Malta 6 1 0 5 2-20 2
At the end it mattered not who ended second and who third – the World Champions quilifyed, as expected. The final table looks neat: the Germans did not lose a match; scored most goals; received least - no problem, clear domination. But the table misleads.
The line-up for the home game with Malta on February 28, 1976: left to right: Beckenbauer, Maier, Schwarzenbeck, Heynckes, Wimmer, R. Worm, Holzenbein, B. Dietz, E. Beer, U. Stielike, Vogts.
Strange names? Well, against Malta – nothing strange: just an opportunity to try new candidates. And rightly so – the new Germans won 8-0. As they should… except closer look brings questions: before this match, their last in the group, the Germans scored only 6 goals in 5 games against inferior teams. Greece scored more… and had equal points. It was this match with Malta to save West Germany from disgrace and to create a final record which looks great on paper. The reigning World Champions barely qualified for the second round and were ridden by troubles during the campaign. They did not play a single good game! Experiments with the squad were not real experiments, but almost desperate efforts to make somewhat strong team – and the experiments were failing.
It all started at the end at the 1974 World Cup – when Franz Beckenbauer voiced a heavy warning. German football was on the verge of crisis, he said. There were no new bright players and there was a need of radical change in training methods and vision in order of producing stars. What German football was making was sameness: mass production coming out of a factory. Beckenbauer’s criticism was discarded – it was party time and what could be wrong in a country just winning a World Cup? Let’s go for the beer and the cake… we are best!
Cake and beer. It was normal after all – if one is not celebrating conquering the world, then what? Joyous months of countless celebrations and receptions. Everybody happy, posing for the next photo.
Schon cuts the cake. Hoeness, Muller, and Maier behind looking not picture-perfect happy.