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
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.