Of course it didn’t come to penalties in the end. Philip Lahm’s last-minute winner sent the Germans through, as expected, to Sunday’s final in Vienna. That Turkey was the better side doesn’t matter. Or rather, that’s precisely the point. The Germans win even, make that especially, when they don’t deserve to.
Today’s question then, is: Does Germany’s record in international soccer confirm: (a) the absence of God, (b) the capriciousness of justice, or (c) the futility of romance? Or: (d) all of the above?
Battling, tenacious, organized, efficient, ruthless: These are the qualities that define German football. They are, to be sure, useful, perhaps even necessary attributes. But they do not stir the soul. They do not sing. Germany campaigns in prose, refusing to even nod in the direction of poetry. As the Turks, masters of the improbable comeback three times in this tournament themselves, discovered, the old cliché still has legs: The Germans never know when they’re beaten.
This stubbornness has unfortunate consequences. Though one of soccer’s charming aspects is a level playing field that, relative to other sports, permits less talented sides to hang with, and sometimes overcome, their betters, the Germans have tested our tolerance for this endearing feature to its breaking point.
Specifically, the Germans have been responsible for two of the shabbiest moments in the long and too frequently disgraceful history of the World Cup. We should remember this each time we praise their undeniable spirit or their unquestionable fortitude.
In 1954 the West Germans (as, of course, they then were) took advantage of the tournament’s eccentric format to avoid meeting Brazil, the reigning champions, in the quarterfinals. They achieved this by deliberately fielding a weakened side against Hungary, which duly thrashed them 8-3, but not without Werner Liebrich, the German central midfielder, deliberately injuring Hungary’s greatest player, the incomparable Ferenc Puskás. Though Puskás would return for the final, he was not fully fit and was unable to assert himself in his customary style.
Germany’s shenanigans ensured they would meet Turkey in a playoff to decide the last quarterfinal place, which they won 7-2. The Germans then proceeded to defeat more talented Yugoslav and Austrian sides before a rematch, this time at full strength, against Puskás ’s “Magical Magyars.” Hungary, by common consent the greatest side in the world and unbeaten in 32 games, scored twice in the first eight minutes, before Germany pegged them back. Naturally, Germany took the lead before Puskás , despite his injury, had a late equalizer erroneously chalked-off for offside. “The Miracle of Berne” was complete, and Hungary, the better side, had lost. It would not be the last time.
Twenty-eight years later, in 1982, Germany was once again able to take advantage of FIFA bungling to make a mockery of the tournament. Thanks to the governing body’s obtuse scheduling, Germany and Austria faced one another in their final group game knowing that a 1-0 German victory would in fact send both sides through at Algeria’s expense. Horst Hrubesch scored for the Germans after ten minutes, after which neither side made any effort to score again. Despite this, neither the Germans nor the Austrians were disciplined. The Anschluss Game persuaded FIFA that in the future the final group games should be played simultaneously. No one had thought this necessary before the Germans corrupted the tournament.
But the cynicism of the German’s performance that year was not restricted to their willingness to cheat the poor Algerians. Harsher methods were needed to get past the great French team that boasted a swaggering midfield that included Platini, Giresse, and Tigana. In a classic Beauty vs. the Beast match-up, German ruthlessness prevailed, on penalties, over French flair. But not before Germany’s goalkeeper Toni Schumacher committed perhaps the worst foul in World Cup history as France’s Patrick Battiston bore down on goal. Astonishingly, Schumacher wasn’t booked, let alone sent off for this assault. Naturally, the inferior German team won the tie on penalties, leaving France, the purists’ darlings, defeated. Four years later the French Musketeers’ panache would again be undone by Teutonic efficiency.
The French could have asked the Dutch how it felt. Fairness demands we acknowledge that Germany’s 1974 squad was well-stocked with great players. Their football had a sense of style, and they were worthy finalists--no disgrace to the roll call of champions. But they were not the Dutch. The technical complexity and thrilling virtuosity of Rinus Michel’s Cruyff-led Orange Revolution produced glorious football, and yet, once again, the Germans triumphed. A very good team beat a great one.
Alas, the roll call of dishonor does not end there. Let us observe a discreet silence about the 1990 edition of the World Cup, save to note that it was the worst tournament in the modern history of the competition, and it was, naturally, won by a drab but efficient German side. It’s true that (we) Scotsmen could ignore the angels of our better nature and enjoy watching Germany defeat England on penalties on a wet and windy Turin evening, just as they (we) would appreciate the same outcome six years later in the semifinals of Euro 96. But even Scottish football supporters might (grudgingly) acknowledge that England was (probably!) the better side in both games.
And now the Germans are at it again. Helped by a fortuitous schedule which put Spain, Italy, Holland, and Russia in the other half of the draw, an ordinary German side has reached yet another final, despite being well-beaten by Croatia in the group stages and outplayed by Turkey in the semifinal. Why should this be a surprise? It is, after all, the German way: no romance, no flair and precious little glory; just cynicism, grit, determination and monstrous servings of good fortune. It’s magnificent in a fashion, perhaps, but it’s not football fit for the theaters of our dreams.
Which brings us to Sunday’s final. “Die Mannschaft” will take on a Spanish side that, for once, seems capable of matching on-field performance to its on-paper potential. Spain, trophy-less since 1964, has earned the support of neutrals everywhere. For all our sakes--and for football’s--let the cry ring out: Vamos Espana!
Alex Massie is a Scottish journalist who wrote about David Beckham for The New Republic and blogs at The Debatable Land.
By Alex Massie