Over the past few World Cups, Germany have gotten off to flying starts. The exciting 4-0 win over Australia in South Africa will be as fresh in people's minds as the entertaining 4-2 win over Costa Rica that kick-started the 2006 World Cup on home soil. Or what about the implausible 8-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia four years before that?
- Honigstein: 'False nine' defying German convention
That's 16 goals in Germany's three previous opening games before Monday's match against Portugal. The side also won the two before that, in 1998 and 1994, and of course everyone remembers the fantastic curtain raiser to Italia '90: a 4-1 thrashing of a talented Yugoslavian side that included the likes of Robert Prosinecki, Dragan Stojkovic and Dejan Savicevic.
This is a truly astonishing run because during the two decades that preceded the Yugoslavia game, West Germany were not known for getting off to a running start. Quite the contrary. The team had a reputation as slow, even dismal starters. That's why the clichéd "tournament team" tag began making the rounds, and it was meant to describe how the Germans would improve (in terms of performance or results, sometimes both) from round to round.
The most disappointing and dramatic opening debacle was certainly a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Algeria that kicked off West Germany's ugly but long 1982 World Cup campaign. But you don't have to lose your first game to set off alarm bells back home. In 1970 and 1974, for instance, the Germans got off to winning starts yet managed to thoroughly sour the mood.
Mexico 1970 began with a game against Morocco, the first African team to qualify for the World Cup tournament. Nobody knew much about the side, and Kicker magazine reported that the German fans debated only what the score line would be, as winning was a foregone conclusion.
The only warning words came from substitute Willi Schulz, who said that what counted most was not to concede an early goal: "It will be very tough to come back from behind in the Mexican afternoon heat."
Helmut Schon's team lined up in 4-2-4 formation with a sweeper. (No, not Franz Beckenbauer. He was still a central midfielder at the time. The sweeper role generally fell to Karl-Heinz Schnellinger at this World Cup.) An unforeseen side result of the formation was that the Germans often found themselves swamped in midfield, especially because the forward line found tracking back hard to do in the heat. At 22 minutes, Germany got hit on the break, Morocco took the lead, and not only Schulz began to worry.
Uwe Seeler equalised for the favourites in the second half, but it looked as if West Germany would drop a point they had counted upon until Schon took off a defender, Horst-Dieter Hottges, and brought on yet another striker, Hannes Lohr. The Moroccans couldn't contain those five attackers, and 10 minutes from time, Gerd Muller scored the winner.
Still, West Germany had looked so bad that some travelling fans approached Helmut Haller after the next day's training session. They told him they had not paid a lot of money for this trip to Mexico just to watch him standing around in midfield. It was an unfair accusation, but it tells you how tense nerves were after this opening game. The team improved a lot during the next games -- and turned coming from behind into an art form en route to the semifinals.
Four years later, in 1974, Germany went ahead against Chile before 20 minutes were up through a fine long-range shot from Paul Breitner, but that doesn't mean the game was any better than the Morocco match. If anything, it was worse. On one of the few warm and sunny days at this notoriously rainy World Cup, the hosts lost the plot so thoroughly after the break that Schon later felt forced to remark that "the heat played into the Chileans' cards."
Later that day, the match report on West Germany's premier television news service described the game as "boring" and the result as "meagre" while complaining that West Germany couldn't even create chances when Chile had been reduced to 10 men for the final 22 minutes. This was also how the impressive crowd -- more than 80,000 had come to Berlin's Olympic Stadium -- saw the game, as they heartily booed their own players after the final whistle.
The TV news service's announcer finished his commentary by quoting the foreign media, which said that West Germany wouldn't win the title with performances like that. He then added: "This seems like a premature prediction to me, because the German team have a reputation for being late starters at tournaments." As predictions go, this one proved to be pretty precise.
Four years later, however, the Germans failed to live up to this reputation. After they delivered another lukewarm first match, they never really got started at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Back then, the tournament's opening game was not contested by the hosts but by the defending titleholders, which is why West Germany's encounter with Poland served as the curtain raiser.
The three previous official opening games had all finished scoreless, a run that came only rarely under threat in Buenos Aires on June 1, 1978. A fine Polish team was more inspired and more dangerous than the Germans but was denied a few times by Sepp Maier.
The best chance of the game fell to Kazimierz Deyna, when Wlodzimierz Lubanski got behind the German back line and pulled the ball back for his captain, but Maier saved Deyna's shot from 8 yards and a somewhat tight angle. The final whistle from the referee was followed by a thousand shrill ones from the stands.
Then in June 1982 came the first of two memorable matches in the Spanish city of Gijon. The second one, against Austria, would be dubbed the "Disgrace of Gijon" by the German media, although the same could be said of the first one. Two days after Kicker magazine said that "anything but a commanding win would be classified as a disappointment," West Germany lost their opening World Cup game 2-1 to Algeria.
National team coach Jupp Derwall, looking pale as a ghost under the Spanish sun, opened his postmatch news conference with these sentences: "This result is hard to grasp for me. I can hardly believe it." He also used the words "catastrophe," "misery" and "shock" during his analysis.
The players said very little. Only Pierre Littbarski had the courage to face the media. Breitner, a man never described as taciturn, had been the worst player on the pitch and probably knew it. He walked past all microphones and cameras after the final whistle and disappeared into the bowels of a stadium that would soon see an even more infamous German match.
According to kicker, almost six hours after the Algeria match had ended, a solitary German fan positioned himself in front of the Principe de Asturias, the team's hotel. "Breitner, give back the money they pay you!" he yelled. It was way past midnight, and there was no reply. "Rummenigge, you're a dog!" he screamed. Still no reply. "Phooey," he said and walked off. Nine days later, West Germany and Austria played out a result that denied Algeria of a place in the next round. Twenty-five days later, West Germany played in the World Cup final.
West Germany did the same in 1986, even though the World Cup in Mexico began only marginally better for them. A week before their first game against Uruguay, West Germany barely managed to beat a local team, Atletico Morelia. The 2-1 score line was unfortunate for the club side, as the Mexicans missed two fine chances to equalise.
New national team coach Beckenbauer had scheduled this preparation match for noon local time, so that his team would become familiar with the heat. But during the opening stages of the Uruguay game, it seemed the exercise had done them little good. With barely five minutes gone, Lothar Matthaus played a lofted(!) back pass from the halfway line(!) that was so dangerous it could only be explained by a sunstroke. Antonio Alzamendi picked up the ball and brought Uruguay ahead.
West Germany defender Hans-Peter Briegel later said that the team could have "packed the suitcases" if they had lost that game. He's probably right, considering that Beckenbauer's men finished only second in their group (behind Denmark). Ten minutes from time, the great Enzo Francescoli should have sent the Germans packing. But instead of feeding an unmarked teammate, he tried a shot at goal and hit only the side netting.
Five minutes after this opportunity, Klaus Allofs tied the game. It was a deserved equaliser, as the Germans had created many chances and had never stopped moving forward under a relentless Mexican sun. Still, when the final whistle blew, very few observers would have thought that the men in green looked like World Cup finalists. Unless, of course, they knew that the Germans back then had a reputation for being late starters at tournaments.