Saturday, July 13, 2013

The 'European' Group A started with Italian 'home' advantage – meeting West Germany in Buenos Aires. It was unusual match and records mislead: judging by the German squad and substitutes, it was attacking World Champions and defensive Italians. Holzenbein, Rummenigge, and Fischer reinforced by Beer in the second half. But it was defensive West Germany, concerned only with preventing Italy from attacking. Only Fischer was a striker during the game. On the other hand Italy did not look like Italy – it was attacking minded team, with once again superb Bettega.

Bettega goes beyond helpless Maier and... scores? Unfortunately, no... the Germans survived the Italian assault. The match ended in a scoreless draw, angering fans, specialists, and journalists. Italy deserved to win and it was clear by now that West Germany was not capable of any improvement. To some this was the end of the mighty Germans, but most were cautious: the Germans were still very much in the game. Awful team to watch, but... German.

At the same time in Cordoba Holland came back not only to life, but to the very exciting football they were remembered for. Austria was completely destroyed – and not because they played bad. Holland was simply superior by far. The Austrians had no reason to change their so far exciting team, but the Dutch came with almost entirely re-made team. Schrijvers was back between the posts, injured Neeskens was out, as well as Suurbier and Rijsbergen. Haan, Jansen, and Willie van de Kerkhof in midfield; Rene van de Kerkhof, Rep, and Rensenbrink and attack. The biggest changes were in the defensive line, where only Krol remained firm. The rest were former deep reserves – Poortvliet, Wildschut, and Ernie Brandts, who did not appear at all in the earlier matches. And he was the most important addition to the team. An enigma of a player – before the finals Brandts was listed as a striker, but in the official team list he was listed as defender. And what kind of defender? Central or full-back? Universal and flexible player, fit to plug any hole, it seems and Happel obviously found the magic player for his idea of fluid and tactically changing football. Brandts was everywhere, invigorating the team on one hand and surprising the opposition, concerned with the big names, on the other. His presence immediately brought results – Brands scored in the 6th minute. The Rensenbrink converted a penalty in the 35th, and Rep finished Austria a minute later.

Hans Krankl surrounded by no-nosence Dutch defenders. One of the best strikers at the 1978 World Cup was neutralized and the ball was going in the other direction. Holland scored two more goals in the second half. Austria managed to return one in the 70th minute, but it was not even saving grace – Holland retaliated two minutes later with their fifth goal. 5-1. Holland was back, Austria was out, as expected. Nothing was decided yet, but the huge victory tipped the scales heavily in Dutch favour. As for Austria, may it was a sour point to be destroyed by fellow Austrian... but such is life.

The second leg was expected not so much to clear the air, but rather to make the group entirely unpredictable to the end. Italy had the edge against Austria, but curiously the match was not exciting. Somehow Italy returned to its familiar careful game. Austria obviously tried to repair her team, but not having enough depth, there was little to be done – Kurt Jara was replaced by Walter Schachner. Uninspired match, in which Paolo Rossi scored the only goal in the 13th minute.

Parity: Bettega shoots, Koncilia saves. Nobody shined. It should be noted that Paolo Rossi so far was making good impression, but he was not firm regular and not at all the star he became few years later. Potential star – yes. Scoring the winning goal was good promise for the future. As for the present, Italy clinched 2 points and remained a possible candidate for playing at the final. Austria was out of the game, as predicted and expected. The match itself remained in memory, but not for football. By 1978 exchanging shirts after a game was established tradition, to which even Communist countries subscribed. But the fans in Buenos Aires saw something entirely different:

Bruno Pezzey and Francesco Graziani exchanged shorts! Strange innovation, which remains unique – the example was not followed. Perhaps not because comes close to striptease, but because shorts, unlike shirts, are less distinct. And this was the long lasting moment of this match.

Holland – West Germany generated hype: a replay of the 1974 final, with much at stake for both teams and expected desire for revenge among the Dutch. But it tough game lacking greatness and without stronger side. Happel fielded the same team used in the previous match – seemingly, he found the right chemistry at last. Schon, however, made changes, evoking 1974, when he was still searching the winning squad at the same stage. Fischer, Flohe, and Zimmermann were out, Holzenbein was moved back to midfield, Beer was a starter, plus Abramczik and Dieter Muller. Twice the Germans went ahead and twice the Dutch equalized shortly after the German goals. Maier got yellow card, something very rare for him, but Holland ended with 10 men, for the substitute Nanninga managed in 10 minutes on the pitch to get yellow and then red card. But the result remained.

The picture somehow tells it all: tough fight for every ball, but none better. Rep and Holzenbein here in equal, indecisive duel. 2-2.

Thus, nothing was decided to the last round, except that Austria was out of the race. The Germans still had a chance to reach the final – it was expected that they will beat disinterested by now Austria, but they had to score lots of goals. Not impossible, perhaps with little brotherly help by the 'other Germans'. Holland had the edge with superior goal-difference and a tie could be enough. Italy needed victory – nothing else worked for them.

Austria was the big surprise: contrary to any expectations, they were not only eager to play, but outplayed West Germany. It was close match, the Germans scoring first. Then – the turning point, becoming emblematic an symbolic for the German team of 1978: Berti Vogts scored in his own net.

Berti Vogts on his knees in front of the Austrians after doing the job for them. West Germany down – the photo pretty much represents the case of the awful West German team.

Krankl made it 2-1 in the 66th minute, but Holzenbein equalized the next minute. Three minute before the end it was over – Krankl scored one more. West Germany not only lost the opportunity to defend the title, but were out of top four teams. They did not win a single match in the second round and finished above Austria only thanks to better goal-difference. It was the worst ever performance by West German team – or at least that was the perception.

Holland and Italy played in front of 73 000. And they were not disappointed – contrary to 'common sense', Italy was attacking relentlessly and the
Dutch were in defense. Neeskens was finally fit and back in the squad. Happel once again changed his tactical scheme, starting with 3-4-3, but there was small and dangerous at first additional touch – Neeskens was assigned to shadow Paolo Rossi. It did not work well – Bettega was the main danger, not Rossi, and Holland lost creative player in the bargain. But things were readjusted eventually. Not without trouble, though... Brandts scored, but in the wrong net. In the 18th minute Italy was leading 1-0. There was obvious weakness between the goalposts too... and the first substitute was made in the 21st minute: Jongbloed replaced Schrijvers.

Holland managed to equalize only in the second half – in one fantastic turn of events, Brandts was again the goalscorer. This time in the right net.

Ernie Brandts, the hero of the match and not only: how many players score all the goals for both teams?

It was clear that Holland was going to play for a tie – Rep stepped out in the 65th minute, replaced by a defender, van Kraay. Holland controlled the game better by now, Italy was losing steam and eventually the Dutch scored again. Haan this time. It was easier to keep the result now – the match ended 2-1 for Holland and they were going to the final for a second time. Deservingly so – Italy did not score even a goal against Holland, Brandts scoring for them.

1. Holland 2 1 0 9-4 5

2. Italy 1 1 1 2-2 3

3. West Germany 0 2 1 4-5 2

4. Austria 1 0 2 4-8 2

Holland to the final and Italy to the small final – considering overall performance, fair table.