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Germany - A history of comebacks

The most amazing thing about Germany's 4-4 draw with Sweden on Tuesday was not so much that one of the two teams managed to erase a four-goal deficit but that this team was not the German one.

For decades, it was a German speciality to come back from the brink, especially in important games. Nobody else pulled off this feat with such regularity.

Of course, the 1954 World Cup final comes to mind first, "The Miracle of Bern", when West Germany beat Hungary after going 2-0 down. Then the 1986 World Cup final, which West Germany eventually lost, but only after coming back from a two-goal deficit.

Not quite but almost as famous are the 1970 quarter-final and the 1982 semi-final, both of which Germany won despite trailing England 2-0 and France 3-1, respectively, in both cases with only 22 minutes left on the clock.

Personally, however, I have the fondest memories of two other such cases, which happened within three days of each other and in what may be the most forgotten major tournament of the past 40 years.

As you'll see in a moment or two, the Sweden game is not the only reason I'm digging up these two games and this tournament. But since the other reason is very sad, let's start with the fun stuff.

I got my first television set for Christmas 1975. I was nine, going on ten, but this was long before people suspected watching television was bad for kids. The first film I saw on this black and white set with the fake wood veneer was John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk. The first football tournament it brought into my room was the 1976 European Championship.

Or, rather, what other sports would call the final-four tournament of the competition. It was the last time the Euros, as we now seem to refer to them, were contested under the old rules, with the four survivors of the qualifying rounds meeting in one country for the semis, the silly third-place playoff and the final.

In 1976, those four teams were Netherlands (who had demolished Belgium in the previous round), West Germany (winners over Spain), Czechoslovakia (who had eliminated Soviet Union) and Yugoslavia (who'd beaten, well, Wales).

As far as I'm concerned, this was perfect. There was my own country's team, then the stylish Dutch with superstar Johan Cruyff, and two mysterious sides nobody knew much about. Well, I didn't. That's why people used to look forward to World Cups so much, to see all those foreign players you only heard rumours about.

To top it off, the games were hosted by Yugoslavia and staged in Zagreb and Belgrade, impossibly alien places that promised the sort of washed-out television picture and strange, echoing sounds you vaguely knew from the coverage of European Cup games. Best of all was that I'd be watching the games alone and didn't have to listen to anyone's comments. My parents had no interest in football and, while my older brother was so mad about the game that he travelled all across the country to see away games in the second division, he didn't care about the national team one bit and probably spent the tournament evenings in a smoke-filled club listening to Led Zeppelin records.

I wasn't to be disappointed, though things didn't look well at first. National coach Helmut Schon had decided to blacklist players who were earning their money abroad, which meant that Gunter Netzer and Paul Breitner, both at Real Madrid, weren't called up. And two weeks before the squad left for Yugoslavia, Kaiserslautern's bright young hope Klaus Toppmoller, whose goal against Spain had gotten Germany to the finals, totalled his Ferrari. Dazed and confused, he climbed out of the wreck, stumbled into a forest in shock and wasn't seen again for the next 16 hours.

With Toppmoller sidelined, Schon needed a new centre forward. As if on cue, Gerd Muller scored five goals against Hertha Berlin four days before the squad was to leave for Belgrade. People pleaded with him to come out of his self-inflicted international retirement - but to no avail. However, there was a second Muller scoring freely in the Bundesliga, so Schon called up Cologne's Dieter Muller, only 22 years old and untried at this level.

Which is why Schon shunned the risk of putting Muller in the starting XI for the semi-final against hosts Yugoslavia. Instead, West Germany had only two men upfront, Uli Hoeness and Bernd Holzenbein, while Rainer Bonhof and Hertha's Erich Beer were supposed to be the creative forces in central midfield. Muller sat and watched from the bench, together with his Cologne team-mate Heinz Flohe, an inventive midfielder, whom Schon didn't really rate because Flohe was volatile and tended to dribble too much.

Muller and Flohe, and I, watched in dismay as Yugoslavia dominated the first half and went into the interval with a thoroughly deserved 2-0 lead. The day before, huge tournament favourites Netherlands had been knocked out by the Czechs in an ill-tempered and, at times, ugly match. Now it looked as if the reigning World Cup winners would be eliminated, too.

Schon brought on Flohe for the second half and slowly the complexion of the game changed. Yugoslavia wasted a glorious chance to decide the match four minutes after the restart, but then Flohe made his presence felt. He set up a Bonhof goal that was chalked off on account of offside, and then he scored with a slightly defected shot from 20 yards on 65 minutes.

All through the second half, Germany's assistant coach, Jupp Derwall, had asked Schon to bring on Muller and, 11 minutes from time, Schon finally relented. Barely 60 seconds later Bonhof took a corner and with his first touch of the ball as an international the unmarked Muller headed home to make it 2-2 and send the game into extra time. The turnaround was all the more surprising since many German players were visibly tired after a long season. Some of the Bayern players, the papers reported, had played 100 matches including friendlies.

There were good chances at either end during extra time, but it looked as if the game would go to penalties - until five minutes from time, when Flohe beat two opponents and crossed for Holzenbein, who laid the ball off for Muller. The striker was unmarked again and struck immediately. Josip Katalinski's desperate attempt to block the shot with his outstretched leg came a fraction of a second too late and the ball hit the back of the net. It decided the game. Four minutes later, Muller even made it 4-2 with a tap-in.

Germany had come back from two goals down thanks to Flohe and Muller, who had scored a hat-trick on his international debut! I'd never seen anything like it. One man had, though. "This is German football's forte," the Dutch legend Piet Keizer said. "The players never give up. I remember a kickabout some years ago when I was on holiday. We played against German tourists - and they were the same! We were 3-0 up and they kept telling each other: come on, we'll win this."

Schon, meanwhile, had doubts that his players would be able to repeat such a performance in the final three days later. Or, for that matter, in a possible replay another two days later, on Tuesday. While the tournament rules said the two semi-finals would be decided through a penalty shootout if need be, the final was supposed to be replayed if it was tied after extra time.

The president of the German FA (DFB), Hermann Neuberger, had been complaining about the competition's system for days, saying the DFB was losing money and the European Championship should be contested like the European Cup.

His mood grew even worse on the day of the final, because there were barely 30,000 people in the huge Marakana, which could hold 110,000. If the final went to a replay, Neuberger figured, nobody at all would show up. Add to this Schon's concerns - who said "a third game would be murderous" - and the solution was obvious: the DFB asked UEFA, the tournament organisers, and the Czech FA to change the rules on short notice and decide the final on penalties if there was no winner after 120 minutes.

All parties involved felt it was a sensible idea and gave their okay. However, this agreement was reached only shortly before the match kicked off, which is why hardly anyone in the crowd knew about it. Even some of the players would later say they weren't aware of this late change to the protocol.

At first it didn't seem that this would become important. After just 25 minutes of the final, Germany were trailing 2-0 yet again. But this time Muller, now a starter, hit back quickly. Three minutes after the second Czech goal he volleyed home from a Bonhof cross for his fourth goal in only two games. But that's how it stood - until the final minute. Bonhof took another corner and Hozenbein deflected it into the net with the back of his head. One imagines Piet Keizer will have let out a hearty, knowing laugh.

In extra time, the Cologne duo, Flohe and Muller, forced saves from goalkeeeper Ivo Viktor with shots from distance. Then came the final whistle and a few players, such as the Czech defender Koloman Gogh, made for the dressing rooms, but were waved back by their team-mates and informed there would be a shootout.

Schon had great problems finding five takers. Bernard Dietz said he was tired. Franz Beckenbauer, in his 100th international, said his shoulder was hurting. Muller said he didn't have the nerves as it was only his second game for Germany. Flohe and Bonhof said they felt fine and would give it a try. Hoeness, probably recalling the penalty he missed against Poland at the 1974 World Cup, said he would prefer not to step up. At this point, goalkeeper Sepp Maier volunteered, whereupon Hoeness changed his mind. Schalke midfielder Hans Bongartz also stepped forward and Beckenbauer agreed to be the final taker despite his shoulder problems.

Of course I didn't know any of this watching at home. I only saw the Czechs convert their penalties and Bonhof, Flohe and Bongartz scoring for Germany. Then Hoeness produced one of the most famous images in our football lore when his shot cleared the crossbar and he held his head in despair.

But it wasn't over yet. Germany still had a chance if the last Czech taker, Antonin Panenka, also missed his penalty. And he did. Or so it looked on my small tv set. Maier dived to his left and Panenka's shot made a very strange arc. For a second I lost track of the ball and since the net didn't seem to bulge I thought the shot had gone wide. Then I saw that Panenka was raising his arms in triumph. It was only when the replay came that I realised he had gently chipped the ball straight into the middle of the goal.

It was yet another thing I had never seen before, which explains why the 1976 European Championship, forgotten by so many people, produced many images that have stayed with me and why I remember it fondly, despite the outcome.

And why I have always had a soft spot for Heinz Flohe and Dieter Muller. That's why it deeply saddens me to report that Flohe, whom they lovingly called "Flocke" - flake - has been in what is called a persistent vegetative state for the past 29 months. In May 2010, Flohe broke down with a heart condition and was put into a medically-induced coma. He was supposed to wake up within 24 hours but hasn't yet done so.

Some two weeks ago, on October 5, Muller suffered a heart attack so serious that his girlfriend had to reanimate him. For three days, he too was in a coma. For three days, I thought back to June 1976, when Muller and Flohe became a little boy's heroes and wondered why fate had first treated both of them harshly - Flohe had many health issues throughout his career and in later life, and Muller lost his 16-year-old son in 1997 - and then put them into the same state halfway between life and death.

On May 8, Muller woke up and his girlfriend said that "he is feeling well considering the circumstances". I wish him a speedy recovery and hope the same for Flohe, too.


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