Monday, May 13, 2013

West Germany played the opening match of the finals, an honour reserved for the current holders of the title. A match against Poland – extremely promising fixture: world champions vs the bronze medalists, two of the brightest teams in 1974. 75 000 attended, expecting great show. The match was a disappointment – tough, but cautious physical struggle, not pleasant to the eye and displaying a host of problems both teams had. Neither looked like 1974, Poland somewhat more problematic than the Germans. A record – not a plausible one – was set: for 4th consecutive time the opening match ended in scoreless tie. 0-0 was firmly established as the result of the first match – cautious, not yet at their peak teams, still trying to find their best eleven.
A struggle, not the great match fans were hoping for. Old and new heroes – Gorgon and Zmuda (Poland) vs Fischer and Russmann (West Germany) – fighting for the ball. A very different sight: in the times of Gerd Muller such pictures rarely occurred. Now, it was energetic jumping for high balls – with Fischer new era of West German centreforwards started. Not very pretty, unfortunately.

West Germany started with unusual team: Vogts, Russmann, Kaltz, and Zimmermann in defense; Bonhof, Flohe, and Hansi Muller in midfield; and Abramczik, Fischer, Beer in attack. Initially it looked like like dangerous surprise – the young trio Zimmermann, H. Muller, and Abramczik the secret weapon, but nothing materialized. It was the same as the beginning of 1974 campaign: the team did not play well and repairs had to be done immediately. After the game it was 1974 again for sure: clearly Schon had to improvise and experiment, especially in the attacking line.

Abramczik, Beer, and Zimmermann were replaced by Dietz, Dieter Muller, and Rummenigge for the second match and the change seemed to work – Mexico was destroyed 6-0. Rummenigge scored 2 goals. Flohe too.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge makes it 3-0. The pose of the helpless Mexican keeper Reies summarizes the match – Mexico pummeled down. Two minutes after this goal Reies was substituted by Sotto, who was to receive the same number of goals too. West Germany seemingly came back to the familiar well-oiled machine – they scored with precise regularity: 14th, 29th, 37th, 44th, 71st, and 89th minutes – from start to the very end. Interesting tactics were observed: it appeared that Schon returned to the ancient by now W-M system. It worked fine... Helmut Schon said after the match that he was sure his team cannot play two poor games in a row. Hardly a revelation.

Before the third match there was little intrigue – West Germany needed only a tie to qualify and they had to play against the initial outsider Tunisia. The Africans played well so far, even surprisingly well, but nobody expected them to be serious opponents to the Germans. For all practical purposes, the 'quiet' Group 2 continued to be quiet: without anything exceptional, the favourites were going ahead. Seemingly, Schon discovered his perfect team earlier than in 1974 – he fielded the same players who annihilated Mexico. It looked like the Germans were going to play something close to a training match, mostly working on some fine points.

Tunisia had only theoretical chance of advancing – they had to beat the world champions and even a victory was not to qualify them immediately, but depended on the result of Poland-Mexico too. Practically, Tunisia had no chance at all – but still they decided to put a fight. And surprised not only the Germans, but almost all observers. The fans at the stadium witnessed strange spectacle – the world champions played badly again, but the outsiders were aggressive and competent. Curiously, it was well attended match – 43 000 went to see initially meaningless match, a higher number equal than the combined public of Poland-Mexico and Poland-Tunisia. No doubt, people went to be entertained by the champions of the world, but were entertained by the lowly African team instead. Yet, Tunisia was still not the team able to crash a German squad: the match ended 0-0.
Once again West Germany disappointed and this time there were no excuses – West Germany had big problems. Sep Maier was the biggest German star by now – and not only because he kept clean sheet in three games already: he was by far the best player by now. And when the best German player is the goalkeeper it means deep crisis. Now critics – especially German ones – unleashed their wrath, backed by solid evidence. Opinions changed: for the first time it looked like West Germany was no longer favourite and unable to defend the title. It was massive change: a quick return to the end of 1977 shows entirely different picture – in February 1977 the West German magazine 'Sport Kurier' asked leading coaches who they thought will be favourites at the 1978 World Cup. Milan Miljanic, Ladislao Cuballa, Don Revie, Willie Ormond, Stefan Kovacs, Jacek Gmoch, Lajos Baroti, and Michel Hidalgo placed West Germany first. Four coaches were at the finals with their teams... to eat their words. These guys were entirely wrong in their predictions, for they included among the favourites also USSR (Kovacs), Yugoslavia (Baroti and Gmoch), Czechoslovakia (Gmoch, Kovacs, Ormond, and Revie), Belgium (Revie), and DDR (Hidalgo) – countries, which did not even reach the finals.

But West Germany advanced to the next stage. The Germans did not allow a single goal – the best defensive record in the first stage. Still favourites... they did not shine in the first stage in 1974 either, but delivered much better football later. Yes, they had problems... but just wait until 'real' games start.