Shortly after Germany's World Cup win in July 2014, Franz Beckenbauer was asked about the team's prospects. Wasn't the future glowing, with all those young players waiting in the wings?
"The German team will be very hard to beat," the man they still call the Kaiser replied. Then he smiled and added: "But I'm not going to make the mistake again of saying Germany will be unbeatable for years to come."
He'd made that famous mistake in 1990, as the outgoing coach of the team that had won the World Cup in Italy, also after a final against Argentina. "We are now the No. 1 in the world and have been the No. 1 in Europe for a while," Beckenbauer said at the time. "I'm sorry for the rest of the world, but we won't be defeatable in the coming years."
Needless to say, it was a misguided parting gift for his successor Berti Vogts, who was under enough pressure already. Less than 11 months after Beckenbauer's prediction, a Welsh left-back by the name of Paul Bodin hit a tremendous long ball above the heads of the entire German back line. Ian Rush had anticipated the pass and timed his run so well that Guido Buchwald, despite his best efforts, couldn't catch up with him. With his trademark lethal finishing, Rush knocked the ball through the legs of goalkeeper Bodo Illgner from 10 yards out.
It was the only goal of a historic night in Cardiff, sealing Wales' first-ever win against Germany. And it was the first defeat for Germany as a re-unified country.
Beckenbauer had made his prediction based on their class. He had seen his highly talented team, full of international stars such as Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann, beat the best teams in the world. And he knew that his successor would not only have these men at his disposal but also many well-schooled and hungry players from the former East Germany (GDR) such as Matthias Sammer, Ulf Kirsten, Thomas Doll, Andreas Thom and Rico Steinmann.
Of course football doesn't work like that. You can't just pile up good players and figure the whole will always be at least the sum of its parts. Still, the huge untapped talent pool -- coupled with the Kaiser's notorious inability to choose his words carefully -- made Beckenbauer's overconfidence understandable. Yet the past should have taught him to be less optimistic. After all, the German national team had a long history of struggling after big triumphs.
For instance, Beckenbauer -- who idolised the great Fritz Walter -- must have remembered how the 1954 World Cup winners opened the season after their miracle win with three straight defeats, at the hands of Belgium, France and England. Of course there were some obvious explanations for that bad run. National coach Sepp Herberger was beginning to rebuild the team (a 17-year-old Uwe Seeler debuted against France), then a jaundice epidemic sidelined half a dozen internationals and fired rumours of doping.
But there were also more intangible factors at work. In a newsletter dated Aug. 20, 1954, a solid five weeks before the new season was to kick off with the game against Belgium, Herberger reminded his players of his mantra "the next game is always the hardest." He also told them the whole world would be watching them now and added: "Everybody has to be in top shape!"
Everybody wasn't. Quite the contrary. When the team came together for that first post-World Cup game in Brussels, it took the experienced Herberger just one look into his players' eyes to know that all was not well. Later that day and before the game, he wrote in his notebook: "The extraordinary strain of the World Cup hasn't only resulted in a physical slackening but also in a mental one." Put differently, the Heroes of Berne just weren't ready for more heroics in the near future. Belgium won 2-0, the country's last win against Germany to date.
Twenty years later, the next generation of German World Cup winners did only marginally better. Helmut Schon's 1974 team may not have lost any of the first three games after lifting the trophy, but that doesn't mean all was rosy -- far from it.
Paul Breitner, Jurgen Grabowski, Gerd Muller and Wolfgang Overath had retired from international duty after the 1974 World Cup (though Breitner later came back.) It would soon become apparent that they couldn't be properly replaced, particularly Muller. The first game of the new season was won, 2-1 in Switzerland, and Schon later said he was pleased with both the result and the performance.
However, there were also a few worrying signs. Even though the Germans were the dominating side, they created only few real opportunities and never scored the third goal that would have put the game away, while Switzerland's Jakob Kuhn came close to equalising at the other hand, hitting the post.
All the deficits became glaringly obvious during the next game, a Euro 1976 qualifier in Piraeus against Greece, back then a second-rate team. Again West Germany clearly lacked a playmaker and a goal scorer. They fell behind twice and only came away with a draw because the hosts inexplicably kept attacking the reigning World Cup winners despite being in the lead. Seven minutes from time, Schon's men hit them on the break and Herbert Wimmer headed one of only four goals he ever scored for his country to make it 2-2.
The third game after the 1974 World Cup was another qualifier, away on Malta. West Germany won 1-0 and, as the scoreline indicates, this match was nothing to write home about, either. In fact, maybe the team would have suffered a truly historic defeat if Malta's centre-forward Gennaro Camilleri had converted his great chance on the half-hour, when the game was still scoreless.
But Camilleri's fine header was turned round the post by the German goalkeeper. His name was Norbert Nigbur. He was making only his third appearance for his country, while there were no fewer than five players celebrating their international debut. (One was Bernard Dietz, who would years later captain the side.) The same went for the man on the sideline. Schon hadn't made the trip to Malta so his assistant Jupp Derwall called the shots in La Valetta.
It would be another three and a half years before Derwall officially became the main man, but his prominent role on this day may have been another reason the writer for Kicker magazine reported that he had seen "the beginning of a new era." Both the 1972 European championship and the 1974 World Cup, still so fresh in many fans' minds, were already in the distant past as far as the men in charge were concerned.
A new era was also what Vogts was supposed to be facing when he took over the team after the 1990 World Cup. Not because of retirements (only Klaus Augenthaler had finished his international career), but because of the East German players who had to be eased into the side. However, Vogts' first three games -- away at Portugal, Sweden and Luxembourg -- were all scheduled before the GDR's national team was to be officially disbanded with a final farewell game between East and West on Nov. 21 in Leipzig. It meant Vogts was in the strange situation of selecting sides while knowing that additional players would soon become available.
Thus the team that came away from Lisbon in late August 1990 with a lukewarm 1-1 was entirely West German. It was not, however, worthy of a side that was supposed to be "the No. 1 in the world." Wolfgang Tobien, one of the country's premier football writers, noted dryly that the Germans had proved once more "that winning the World Cup is one thing, being World Cup winners is another altogether." Klaus Augenthaler, watching at home on television while enjoying a wheat beer, said "you can't expect a top performance so soon after the World Cup" and asked the fans for patience.
Things were indeed much better in October, when Klinsmann, Rudi Voller and Andreas Brehme scored before the first half was over and Germany defeated Sweden 3-1 in Stockholm. "It was an excellent game," Vogts said. "We've built a lot of confidence with this win and can be happy." His praise proved premature. Two weeks later, what was still West Germany travelled to tiny Luxembourg for a Euro 1992 qualifier.
It was not the best of days for German football. Outside the ground, German hooligans rioted. Since there were no opposing thugs to fight with, they hurled bottles and flares at passers-by. Two weeks later, the German FA would call off the game between West and East because it felt unable to guarantee the safety of the public.
The match itself wasn't encouraging, either. Again the Germans raced into a 3-0 lead, but then the minnows came close to pulling off a major coup. In the 56th minute, Robert Langers, one of the few professionals in Luxembourg's team, lobbed Illgner to make it 3-1. Ten minutes later, he went past Jurgen Kohler and scored his second on the turn. Another four minutes later, a man by the name of Marc Birsens almost became a national hero -- but Illgner somehow managed to turn his shot round the post. "We were lucky," Voller said after the game, "that Luxembourg were happy with the result and didn't throw everything forward in the final stages."
It was a yet another reminder that there's a lot of truth to Tobien's quip about winning a World Cup and being World Cup winners.