By Ken Pendleton - EUGENE, OR (Nov, 10, 2005) USSoccerPlayers – In the end, what makes sports in general, and soccer in particular, so compelling is that there is always the possibility but never the guarantee of high drama. Sometimes, the most highly anticipated match never gets off the ground or it is settled all too quickly. But, every once in a while, lost causes are salvaged and, to paraphrase a soccer broadcasting company, the thrill of victory is suddenly transformed into the agony of defeat. What’s more, the player who should be the hero, who is named Man of the Match, leaves the field gutted, while the player who has earned the part of villain turn out to be his side’s savior.
The Victorian ideal suggests that the value of sports lies with the hope that it teaches players and spectators how to reconcile competition with sportsmanship. The reality is that the most compelling performances sometimes expose the horrifying lengths we will go to succeed.
Going into the 1982 World Cup semifinal in Seville, France seemed destined to be the good guys. In part because they played with such panache, but mostly because the Germans already fit the black hat. Both teams had lost their opening matches in the competition, France 3-1 to England (who never lost but gradually faded as the tournament progressed) and the Germans were shocked 2-1 by Algeria. The difference was that the French had progressed by raising the quality of their play while the Germans had done so by contriving a result with Austria.
Both teams knew they would advance at the expense of Algeria if West Germany won by one goal. Sure enough, soon after the Germans scored in the tenth minute, both teams shut up shop for the rest of the match. The fans and press jeered and the Algerians asked FIFA to disqualify both teams for violating the spirit of the sport. As expected, FIFA were too demure to demur, presumably because they had not violated the letter of any law. It was disgraceful and it portended both how low the Germans would stoop to win and how far FIFA would go to ignore their conduct.
To be fair to the Germans, they were too banged up to display the same overwhelming quality they had in winning the European Championships in 1980. Paul Breitner, a star of their World Cup triumph in 1974, had returned, this time as a dynamic central midfielder rather than as a left back, and an exciting two-footed winger, Pierre Littbarski, had emerged. Unfortunately, through injury they had lost two midfielders, Hansi Mueller, who was exceptionally versatile, and Bernd Schuester, who would go on to form a formidable attacking partnership with Diego Maradona at Barcelona.
As if this was not bad enough, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, their diagonal right-winger and reigning European Footballer of the Year, could not start the match against France because of a pulled muscle. The Germans, it seemed, would have to rely on their sturdy defense, with goalie Tony Schumacher, who was proving a worthy successor to Sepp Maier, and a typically solid back four, led by their sweeper Uli Stielike and centerback Karl-Heinz Foerster.
The French were not particularly strong in either defense or attack, but they had four gifted attacking midfielders. Some critics wondered whether too many cooks wouldn’t spoil the broth, and there certainly was no one to do the prep, but Bernard Genghini, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana, and Michel Platini combined beautifully. Platini, who had been rejected by Metz because of a “weak heart and poor respiratory capacity” (not to mention his stiff ankles and passion for pasta), was nonetheless, well, the heart of the team. Given these limitations, the fact that he did not do a midfielder’s share of marking or running should not come as a surprise. In fact, sometimes he would step aside and survey the bigger picture unfolding for a couple of minutes. But the point is that both these failings conserved his energy and thoughts for making and taking goals. That he did as well as almost anyone.
The class the French possessed soon became apparent, but the Germans started out very well. Littbarski caused the young French leftback Manuel Amoros all sorts of problems, Hans-Peter Briegel, whom Brian Glanville described as “a human Panzer division in himself,” threatened to overwhelm the French when he ventured forward, and Breitner was busy making surging runs and deft passes. In the 18th minute, he put Klaus Fischer clean through. The French keeper, the 5’9″ Jean Ettori, managed to parry the low shot but Littbarski drove the rebound home from just outside the penalty.
Breitner was doing well going forward but really struggling to come to terms with Giresse, who was combining superbly with Platini. Platini nearly sprung him before Littbarski’s goal and the two combined on a free kick in the 25th minute that led to a penalty after Bernd Foerster dragged down Dominique Rocheteau. Platini converted and France more or less assumed control.
Just after the half, France manager Michel Hidalgo decided to replace Genghini with the more workmanlike Patrick Battiston. The point, presumably, was to find someone to do the prep work, but within a matter of minutes Platini had released him through the center channel with a perfectly weighted pass. Maybe he would have scored, but we will never know because Schumacher flattened him, with his body and a forearm to the face, like a truck veering and accelerating into a dog. Battiston was concussed, lost two teeth, and laid on the ground for minutes before being stretchered off, with some fearing that he might die (the fact that the Sevilla police banned the Red Cross from the match didn’t help).
Remarkably, the Dutch official Charles Corver did not expel Schumacher or even award the French a penalty. The Germans were allowed to restart play (surely they had not earned a free kick) and the French had to replace Battiston with Christian Lopez. It was a disgraceful incident, perhaps even criminal, and one cannot help but wonder whether FIFA has an unwritten rule that says that Germany, and perhaps Maradona, are allowed to cheat whenever they see fit.
Be that as it may, the rest of the match was even more superb. Platini continued to run the show and Germans attacked resolutely. Ettori had to make several fine saves and Amoros struck the underside of the crossbar from 25 yards during injury time. It would have been a glorious fitting winner, but there were no goals until extra time. Then they came fast and furious.
In the 93rd minute, the French sweeper Marius Tresor somehow found himself completely unmarked in the center of the German penalty area and this gave him all the time he needed to volley home Giresse’s free kick from just outside the right side of the penalty area. The Germans introduced Rummnigge and made the lead look fragile, but six minutes later Giresse appeared to have settled matters after finishing off a sustained passing movement with a powerful shot directed to the lower left hand corner.
Justice appeared to be have been done, but the Germans, as history teaches us over and over, never quit. Fischer headed home less than a minute later. Although that effort was correctly disallowed for being offside, three minutes later Ruminigge and Littbarski exchanged a series of passes before the former passed the ball in off the near post. This would have been fine, except for the fact that the Germans only gained possession after Corver ignored two clear fouls by the Germans. The second one, Stielike’s studs up challenge on Giresse, was particularly nasty.
The Germans, rightly or wrongly, now had the initiative and they scored a great goal just minutes into the second period of extra time. Littbarski crossed to Horst Hrubesch at the back post. He nodded the ball back across the area and Fischer bicycle kicked the ball cleanly past Ettori and just inside the post. Fischer nearly scored gain, with a powerful shot from just outside the area, but, for the first time, a World Cup match would be settled by penalties.
I simply cannot conceive how FIFA came up with such an unjust, hair-brained way of resolving a match. If a replay is not possible, perhaps the team that has committed the fewest fouls should be declared the winner. This would reward clean play (those ubiquitous “Fair Play” posters have not done the trick) and actually minimize fouls and open up matches.
To make a long story deservedly short, West Germany won after the sixth penalty attempt by each side. The hero, sad to say, was Schumacher. He consoled Stieleke after he missed and saved two penalties, from Six and Maxime Bossis. The French, not surprisingly, complained bitterly after the match. FIFA, also not surprisingly, allowed Schumacher to play in the final (the letter of the law does say that players cannot be punished if the referee does not cite him in his report), but the Italians – every neutral person’s favorite team for perhaps the one and only time – put three past him in the final.
There was, in the end, some measure of justice.