Group A opened the championship – West Germany vs Czechoslovakia, a replay of the 1976 final. The reigning champions against one of the main favourites, hungry for revenge. The intrigue was mostly on paper... the fans had better sense. Only 11 000 attended. The Germans had only one player who played at the 1976 final – Dietz. Czechoslovakia started with 5 – Ondrus, Gogh, Jurkemik, Panenka, and Nehoda. The opening ceremony of the championship quickly proved more interesting than the game. It was easy to find excuses: the heat, the pressure on the players, the respect both teams had for foxy opponent. Excuses could not hide the obvious: the game was extremely dull. Menotti, who was unfortunate to attend, made the best comment after the match: the ugly football currently in vogue made him a chain-smoker. He smoked 34 cigarettes during the match. The strikers of both teams scored 1 goal. The reigning champions scored nil.
In the 55th minute Rummenigge scored after a cross from Hansi Muller. That was all and no wonder: West Germany had only 3 shots at the Czechoslovakian net. The Czechs – 6. The Germans won, but pleased no one. Czechoslovakia seemingly played on their current level, which was not much. Venglos blamed his goalkeeper Netolicka for the goal – it was not a big mistake, but the coach was right. A bit of hesitation, uncertainty, lateness and the match was lost. Goalkeeping was well known problem of the team, though. West Germany was heavily criticized: the team just looked as a continuation of the failed 1978 version. It seemed Derwall had no vision of his own, but only followed the approach of Schon. The tactical scheme was 4-4-2, with 6 defensive players. In the middle of defense was Culmann: the ever-present Culmann, who was elevated from a substitute to key player. But he was never more than reliable substitute – and now even less. Schon reduced West Germany to dull, physical team of fighters having no clue what to do when possessing the ball – Derwall's team was the same. Saturated mid-field with solid runners. Schuster was not fielded at all, Magath came as a substitute, Hansi Muller once again was found shaky and not at all at the level of Overath and Netzer. Any thought of comparing Culmann to Beckenbauer was laughable: not only the man had nothing to do with conducting the game, but he was a dwarf compared to Schwarzenbeck. Derwall had no friends after this match, which was voted the dullest of the whole championship. But the Germans got 2 points.
Holand vs Greece had no intrigue: it was just a formality. Holland was still considered a leading football nation – perhaps one reason this match was better attended than West Germany – Czechoslovakia. The Greeks made funny sounding statements before the game, which nobody took seriously. The Dutch started with many little known players, but it was felt that that the new names are the bright up and coming great Dutch. If not so – Krol, Haan, Rep, and van de Kerkhof twins were enough to beat Greece. Alas, it not so. The Greeks were clearly bellow the top teams even when running on enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Holland did not look better. They looked like the terrible Germans. Clueless in attack – the main quality of the great Holland of earlier years was exactly the attack. After the game Zwartkruis blamed the Greeks for their ultra-defensive approach. Nobody believed him... Holland had no creativity and was terrible. They were just lucky: in the 65th minute the Greek goalkeeper Konstantinou made a stupid foul against Nanninga. The ball was already in possession of a Greek defender, no danger, no reason for committing the foul. The referee immediately gave a penalty.
Konstantinou guessed the direction of the ball, but was not able to reach it. Kist scored the only goal of the match. Near the end Kapsis missed a good opportunity. That was all... Holland was lucky to win. In fact, Holland was lucky not to lose from incredibly weak opponent. The whole difference between winning and losing was that: if Konstantinou did not touch Nanninga and if the header of Kapsis was just a bit lower so to touch the goalpost at the other side so to go into the net, the winner would have been Greece.
Holland vs West Germany – the derby of Group A. The stakes were high – the winner was practically going to the final. Expectations were also high – West Germany and Holland had old scores to settle. Both teams disappointed a few days earlier, but it was felt that the derby will be entirely different. To a point, West Germany was repeating 1974 – back then the team also started badly and had to be reshaped in the next games until the right formula was found. Derwall did the same – Cullmann and Bernd Foster were out, replaced by Schuster and Hrubesch. Two players is not much of a change, but only on the surface: the whole structure was changed. Stielike was moved back as a libero, Schuster got the role of playmaker – not a pure playmaker like Overath before, but more like Bonhof: having some defensive role as well. Hrubesch, of course, was the center-forward. West Germany had immediately attacking shape – 4-3-3, with 6 attacking players, whereas against Czechoslovakia there were 6 defensive players. Both Schuster and Hrubesch were unknown internationally, but what looked like a risk was well justified: Kaltz and Hrubesch were lethal combination in Hamburger SV – the burly center-forward scored many a goal after long cross from Kaltz. Stielike was just right as libero – able to conduct the game and go ahead. Schuster at first was thought defensive midfielder, but immediately proved he was much more than that. He was hungry for success too. Holland had no other option, but the same players who disappointed against Greece. Five players had injuries, including Schrijvers, who had to be substituted in the 20th minute of the previous match – the real Dutch concern was to put the injured back on their feet. It was done. The game started and soon it was clear that the German changes worked. Holland, however, struggled as against the Greeks. The tempo was fast, soon the Germans clearly controlled the game and started scoring. The hero was Thomas Allofs, who was very disappointing against Czechoslovakia. He scored a hat-trick and 10 minutes before the final whistle the winner was absolutely clear: West Germany 3 – Holland 0.
Great match for Thomas Allofs – here he scores again and the picture tells it all: Schrijvers is too heavy for really quick reaction, as he always was, and van de Korput too late. The Germans were quicker, lighter, brighter. But Derwall made two substitutes, which were a bit questionable – first, Hansi Muller was replaced by Magath and in 75th minute Dietz by 19-years old Lothar Matthaus. Hansi Muller perhaps unjustly was constantly under criticism: he was thought too individualistic and underperforming. It may have been so, but Magath was no ultimately better player on one hand, and probably not the right substitute on the other, for he was doubling Schuster in midfield and the 20-years old was great. As for Matthaus, he replaced the left full back. Holland was expected to go 'all or nothing' in the last minutes, so it was clear that Matthaus must play defensive role, entirely unfamiliar position. His lack of experience showed quickly – he committed a foul inside penalty area and Rep made it 1-3. In the 85th minute Willie van de Kerkhof scored a second goal and things no longer looked bright for West Germany. To a point, the substitutes were not right – in the lats part of the match West Germany slowed down and lost efficiency. But Holland was not capable of miracle – they were not the team of 1978, far less the great one of 1974. They attacked to the end, but 5 minutes were just too short a time for this team. As a whole, West Germany was far better team, showing at moments sparks of greatness – the Gremans were back, that was the impression after the game. Holland was gone as a team – that was the other judgement. They looked just like West Germany in 1978: tough, constantly running and tackling teams with no clue what to do when possessing the ball.
Czechoslovakia – Greece attracted no interest and left almost no trace. It was a match without mystery and intrigue. The winner was certain. Less than 5000 attended. Venglos had no illusions – he just said to his team if they wanted to have a chance to play for the bronze medals, they had to win today. The difference of class was obvious – Panenka scored in the 6th minute from a free-kick, his specialty. The Greeks fought back and equalized 10 minutes later, but it was clear that they were inferior team by far. Czechoslovakia scored 2 more goals. The team did not impressed anybody – they were much better than the Greeks, yet, nothing special. With one match left, only miracle would have placed the reigning European champions on top of the group. A very huge miracle... West Germany had to lose to Greece and Czechoslovakia – win over Holland.
Czechoslvakia – Holland. Before the match Zwartkruis made grumpy excuses to unfriendly Dutch media: “What do you expect? The clubs rule – they do not free players for the national team and as a result we hardly play any friendlies. Without, say 8 friendlies a year, it is impossible to build good team.” Venglos was philosopkically-realistic: “It is possible to not lose to Holland, they are not better than us. If we are lucky to reach the 'small final' for third place our goal will be accomplished.” He fielded his usual starters, bringing back Netolicka, who did not play against Greece. Goalkeeping was well known problem without solution – Netolicka was not great, Seman was similar, Netolicka was back. The rest were the best Czechoslovakia had at the moment. Berger was out – he was substituted in the 23rd minute against Greece, which was enough indication for his worth – and Vojacek was the only new starter. Masny was moved back to midfield – defense and caution was the order of the day: 4-4-3 scheme, with 5 defensive players, for Vojacek was nominal midfielder. Zwartkruis tried to shake his team, which was difficult, given the squad he had. Haan was out. Kist was out. Nanninga, the golden substitute in 1978, was a starter. The changes were pathetic... Nanninga was used so far like in 1978 – a substitute, coming in the second half in the hope of making a miracle. Did not work. Nanninga was not a star, but rather ordinary player. For more Zwartkruis had no guts: it was obvious that van de Kerkhof twins are counter-productive. But they are constant starters. Rep was obviously beyond his peak, yet a starter. The tactical scheme was clearly defensive: 4-4-2, with Rene van de Kerkhof in front. He was more of a midfielder than a striker. Both opponents were seemingly going for a tie. The match was ugly and brutal – 52 fouls were called. Both teams managed to score a goal. Zwartkruis decision to start without Haan, but to depend on van de Kerkhof twins was obvious mistake – when Haan replaced Nanninga, Holland became more creative and dangerous. And managed to equalize. The match ended 1-1 – the result both sides seemingly aimed at, but Czechoslovakia benefited by it.
Vojacek clears the ball addressed to Haan. Ondrus watches nearby – the original scheme, in which Vojacek was placed as midfielder, fooled no one: he was a central defender. His real position. Zwartkruis said “we did what we can” - which was not much. Venglos again was 'realistic': “The game was not a question of beauty, but getting a particular result. We got it, we are happy.” Menotti was disgusted and one again criticized defensive European football.
The last group match – West Germany vs Greece – was mere protocol. Both teams made changes, giving some playing time to unused reserves. Derwall clearly kept some players fresh for the final. Cullmann was back – this time in midfield. Memmering got completed the line. Schuster, Dietz, and Allofs were out. Like the opening match, the scheme was 4-4-2. The Germans were not even interested and they appeared as arbitrary bunch of players some of which don't want to play, and some don't know how to play. The only important thing was the weird insistence of Derwall to use Cullmann – this time combined with Stielike. Why woody Cullmann, who was not even at his usual form? The Greeks were even less than usual, for some of the key players were replaced by the unused reserves. The team played as best as they could. West Germans walked and aimlessly kicked the ball around. Nobody scored. And who would expect a miracle of this match? Under the old rules, the match was not played at the same time Czechoslovakia and Holland played, but after. Derwall was crystal clear: “Who will start depends on the result of the other match. If it is tied, then Dietz, Schuster, and Allofs will get a rest.”. This match did not matter at all – even if they lost it, the Germans were finalists. The Greeks had a chance to win the match in the last minutes, but the ball deflected from the cross bar out. Panagoulias was happy and boisterous: 'We are the moral winners, we are proud. Europe will hear from us yet.' It did... 24 years later. True, the Greek team showed spirit and managed a tie against mighty West Germany, but it was absolutely clear that they are inferior to any other finalist. During the finals their only noticeable player relatively equal to the leading Europeans was Anastopoulos.
A double-edged picture: Rummenigge high above Greek defender, who is unable even to challenge. That was the objective difference of class between the Greeks and the leading European football nations. In the same time, Rummenigge and his teammates were unable to beat Greece. Rummenigge himself was substituted in the 65th minute by Del'Haye.
The final table of Group A:
- West Germany 2 1 0 4-2 5
- Czechoslovakia 1 1 1 4-3 3
- Holland 1 1 1 4-4 3
- Greece 0 1 2 1-4 1
West Germany once again going to the final – third time consecutive European finalist. Czechoslovakia, a bit surprisingly, was going to play for bronze – a success in itself, and also brave performance, for the champions of 1976 were not at all at their previous level. Holland – major disappointment and an end of an era, recognized by their own coach. Greece – nothing special, except that they reached the final stage. Success for the country, but obviously Greek football was still far behind the leading nations.