Saturday, May 11, 2013

Group 2. The easiest group, thanks to the draw. No controversies, no objections, no scheming. West Germany, Poland, Mexico, and Tunisia. There was no need even to watch – the European teams were going to advance, Mexico was to put some fight, but inevitably ending third, and the only question about Tunisia was how many goals the others will score in the African net. So it was at first.

West Germany declined after 1974, struggled to qualify for the European championship, but suddenly recovered form and almost won the continental championship in 1976. It was not a superior team anymore, but still very strong. That was the last competitive football the Germans played – as a reigning world champions they did not have to participate in qualifications. Which was good and bad. By 1978 the changes were profound and worrisome – the stars of 1972-74 started quitting the national team right after winning the World Cup. Inevitably, some retired from football and others were getting too old. Grabowski, Netzer, Breitner, Overath, Hottgess, Gerd Muller were gone already. And now – Beckenbauer. Hoeness, plagued with injuries, was practically at the end of his short career. Heynckes was coming to the end of his. The dark prophecy of Beckenbauer, ignored in 1974, was fulfilled – West Germany struggled to replace the big stars. Helmut Schon tried many players, tinkered with selections, but it was becoming painfully obvious that the new German versions were of lower quality. Or inconsistent and not really up to expectations – like Dieter Muller, the bright new hope of German football, promising smooth transition in 1976. By 1978 he was no longer the leader of German attack. Schon was not a man embracing radical changes either – he followed long established tradition of succession: a core of experienced veterans combined with young talent and whoever was in consistently good form. In part, he had no choice – West Germany still had vast pool of talent, but the players were increasingly similar on one hand and the old stars were still much better than the younger competition. Some positions were particularly troublesome, for after the giants left there was hardly anyone at similar level to replace them. The biggest problems were replacing Beckenbauer, Overtath, Netzer, and Gerd Muller. That is, the most creative players, who shaped the German play, and the fantastic goalscorer. The only player capable of imaginative and influential playmaking was Breitner – but there was no way to convince him to play again for the national team, for he quit in bitterness. The other possible choice was Uli Hoeness, but his injuries were becoming permanent, cutting short his career. Kaiser Franz was called again and he declined – the hopes of convincing him to come back remained until the last minute, but he was firm. Yet, there was no such big fuss as the similar problem Holland faced with Cruyff – perhaps his patriotism was called into question, but it was clear that he contributed a lot to the German success already, and he was over 30, so replacing him was inevitable – and soon. To a point, asking him to come back was a rather desperate attempt to patch problematic squad. Temporary measure at best – not a real remedy. The problems were permanent. But that was mostly a German problem and not even terribly big one: West Germany was widely considered a favourite and possible winner of the World Cup. Everybody knew the fantastic ability of the Germans to rise up to the occasion – no matter how they played recently, at the World Cup they were to be something entirely different. They did it already in 1976 and now the stakes were even higher, for they not only had to defend their title, but make up for losing the European title. And they were in the easiest group, so it was not only sure thing they were going to advance, but also to do some fine tuning of their team and wet their appetite.

1   GK  Sepp Maier                   28 February 1944 (aged 34)    Bayern Munich
2   DF   Berti Vogts                   30 December 1946 (aged 31)  Borussia Mönchengladbach
3   DF   Bernard Dietz               22 March 1948 (aged 30)        MSV Duisburg
4   DF   Rolf Rüssmann              13 October 1950 (aged 27)     Schalke 04
5   DF   Manfred Kaltz               6 January 1953 (aged 25)        Hamburger SV
6   MF  Rainer Bonhof                29 March 1952 (aged 26)       Borussia Mönchengladbach
7   FW  Rüdiger Abramczik        18 February 1956 (aged 22)    Schalke 04
8   DF   Herbert Zimmermann     1 July 1954 (aged 23)              FC Köln
9   FW  Klaus Fischer                 27 December 1949 (aged 28)  Schalke 04
10 MF  Heinz Flohe                    28 January 1948 (aged 30)      FC Köln
11 FW  Karl-Heinz Rummenigge  25 September 1955 (aged 22) Bayern Munich
12 DF  Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck 3 April 1948 (aged 30)      Bayern Munich
13 DF  Harald Konopka               18 November 1952 (aged 25) FC Köln
14 FW Dieter Müller                     1 April 1954 (aged 24)           FC Köln
15 MF Erich Beer                         9 December 1946 (aged 31)   Hertha Berlin
16 MF Bernhard Cullmann            1 November 1949 (aged 28)  FC Köln
17 FW Bernd Hölzenbein              9 March 1946 (aged 32)        Eintracht Frankfurt
18 MF Gerd Zewe                        13 June 1950 (aged 27)         Fortuna Düsseldorf
19 FW Ronald Worm                    7 October 1953 (aged 24)     MSV Duisburg
20 MF Hansi Müller                       27 July 1957 (aged 20)          VfB Stuttgart
21 GK Rudolf Kargus                    15 August 1952 (aged 25)      Hamburger SV
22 GK Dieter Burdenski                 26 November 1950 (aged 27) Werder Bremen
The 1978 World Cup West German squad.

Helmut Schon eventually distilled the starting eleven to the line which played a friendly against USSR. It was a bit strange team. Seven players from the 1974 team remained – Maier, Vogts, Schwarzenbeck, Bonhof, Holzenbein, Cullman, and Flohe. It was painfully clear: former reserves and generally support players, and except Bonhof – all getting old. It was a team of second stringers somewhat – Vogts was the captain by now and one could not help but recall the nagging words of Cruyff during the 1974 final: 'Berti, you are not Beckenbauer, no matter how hard you try.' Many problems were plain – Vogts and Kaltz duplicated each other on the right side of defense. Schwarzenbeck without Beckenbauer was useless. Dietz, as stable, tough, and reliable he was, was nothing like Breitner – more like Hottgess. Bonhof apparently was to be the key midfield player, but he was defensive midfielder, not real playmaker, and thus poor substitute for Overath, Netzer, and even Hoeness. The major hope was versatality – Vogts by now was often used in midfield by Borussia Moenchengladbach; Kaltz was capable of playing in the middle of defense; Bonhof – useful at any midfield position; Cullmann – able to play either midfield or defense; and the young star Rummenigge – at any position in attack. Yet, it was not so great – Kaltz inevitably was moved to the centre of defense, paired with Russmann – a good pair, but not equal to Beckenbauer-Schwarzenbeck duo. Kaltz had no playmaking ability – he was rather adventurous stopper, contributing to attack, scoring often, but also often late to come back. To a point, Kaltz doubled Bonhof - long runs ahead, deadly long shots, good fighter, but with limited creativity. Rummenigge had no permanent place, rather filling up at the wings, and not because he was still young member of the team giving way to veterans, but because he was the only one able to change position – the rest of the German strikers were typical centreforwards, entirely useless in any other position – Beer, Fischer, Worm, even Dieter Muller. Russmann and Fischer suffered from the old bribery scandal, when they were suspended – like the whole Schalke 04 team of that time, their development was somewhat halted – somewhat they never developed into the stars they promised to become in 1971. They were banned from the national team for awhile, but something else was more important: the whole team was disrupted back then and never became really great after that. The very inclusion of Russmann and Fischer in 1978 was more a sign of desperation than recognition of their qualities – there were no better options. Schwarzenebeck without Beckenbauer was clearly a reserve player – and God forbid his services to be needed. Culmann and Flohe were precisely in the same position they were in 1974 – back ups. Holzenbein was more or less desperate option in 1974 – and just like 1974, he went to Argentina as a reserve. It was weaker team, depending on physicality, determination, discipline, energy, but creatively – very poor squad. Hansi Muller was just emerging and not yet thought a key player. No wonder Schon was criticized heavily long before the World Cup – mainly for the absence of Beckenbauer, Breitner, and Stielike. Criticism was unfair – Beckenbauer did not want to play, neither Breitner, who was still firmly against joining the national team. As for Uli Stielike, already the best option in midfield and perhaps the only one able to conduct and control the game similarly to Beckenbauer, Overath, and Netzer, his absence was not Schon's fault – the German Football Association foolishly decided not to include foreign based players in 1978. A very strange decision, for apart from Stielike, who moved to Real Madrid in 1977, there was not other German star playing outside the Bundesliga. Paul Breitner returned in 1977, joining Eintracht Braunschweig, so even he was no longer outside. Given the problems of the German national team, it was weird to leave out Stielike, but the GFA stubbornly enforced its decision, curiously applicable only to the most needed German player.

It was obvious in Germany that the team was weak – perhaps that was the real reason for Beckenbauer to decline playing for it, although the excuse more or less went into the convenient line of opposing the military regime in Argentina. The Kaiser was accused for preferring to play for Cosmos (for the money) instead for the national team (for patriotism and glory), but not much – after all, NASL season coincided with the world cup finals. Helmut Schon was the target of the bulk of criticism. Another thing – really noticeable from a time distance – was the aging of the team: the beginning of older and older teams, just because there was not enough younger talent, started in 1978. Nothing drastic yet, but 7 players were in their early 30s. Thirteen players were over 25. Almost the whole squad were known players during the glory of 1972-74 – and back then nobody argued in favour of Beer, Zewe, Russmann, Fischer, Dietz. They were second and even third stringers. Even Kaltz was not a potential option – he played for the Olympic team in 1972, along with Breitner and Hoeness, but they were already starters in the national team. Kaltz was not even considered.

But who could dismiss West Germany? The reigning world champion arrived in Argentina as one of the favourites and possible winner.