How Italy became Germany's true international rivals
It may come as a surprise to the reader, but Germany have a losing record against almost all major footballing teams on the planet, meaning against sides that have reached at least one World Cup final in the past 50 years.
Although they are such feared opponents themselves, the Germans can point to a positive record only against Spain and Netherlands, while they have lost more games than they have won against Argentina, Brazil, England, France and Italy.
There are reasons for this statistical oddity. One is that it took the German national team a while to become good. For instance, after Saturday's 3-2 defeat, the Germans now trail England by four wins. But this deficit is in no small part due to a series of defeats suffered in the early 20th century at the hands of the England national amateur team. It should be noted that the German FA have always treated these matches as proper internationals, while the English FA don't.
But there's another reason, obvious to everyone who saw the game on Saturday. International records cover both friendlies and competitive games. Germany, however, have a well-founded reputation for being at their best when it really counts -- and leaning towards the nonchalant whenever it doesn't.
And indeed, the German record against the top teams dramatically improves if you only look at competitive matches. It jumps from 1.22 points per game against France to 1.75 points if you disregard all friendlies. It improves from 1.18 points overall against Argentina to 1.8 points if you count World Cups only. The same happens with the German records against England and Brazil.
Well, and then there's that other team. Italy.
The Azzurri not only have a very strong overall record against the Germans (won 15, lost seven), their showing actually gets better when you ignore all those meaningless friendlies. In fact, Germany have yet to win a single competitive match against what is surely their bogey team -- and may very well be their only true footballing rivals left.
As befits a country that has no less than nine neighbours, Germany nurtured many rivalries over the years. With France, for instance (the term Erbfeindschaft, hereditary enmity, was regularly used to describe the relationship between the two nations for almost two centuries). There were also periods when beating the Austrians and the Dutch at sport was very important.
None of those rivalries really survived the decades, though, at least not when it comes to football. Somehow the French never seemed to truly care about the game (until the late 1990s, their heart rather appeared to be in things like rugby or cycling). The Austrians fell by the wayside as proper opponents at some point in the 1980s, while the Dutch were never taken seriously until the 1970s.
But Italy were always there. They were always good, and it always meant something to them. Germany and Italy are not technically neighbours, but it's just a three-hour drive from Munich to Merano, where half of the population's mother tongue is German.
What's more, the meetings between the two teams often seemed heavy with meaning right from the start. And more often than not there was something epic about them.
In April 1929, for instance, two Germans became celebrities beyond the world of sport during the match between Italy and Germany in Turin: the young radio commentator Paul Laven and goalkeeper Heiner Stuhlfauth.
It was the first time that an international played outside of Germany was covered live on German radio. We can't say with any certainty how many people listened to the broadcast, but the number must have been vast. In fact, football on the radio was so popular that the German FA (DFB) had initially vetoed live coverage from Turin in an attempt to show solidarity with the clubs, who feared radio was hurting attendances.
In the end, though, the broadcast went ahead and Laven described for the people at home how Italy took an early lead in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 30,000 at the compact, intimate Stadio Filadelfia. A few minutes later, though, the ball fell to Nuremberg forward Josef Hornauer and his strike from six yards tied the game.
Laven sat right next to the pitch, only a chainlink fence separated him from the first row of seats. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, he breathlessly reported that the scoreline flattered the visitors, who were under tremendous pressure. But no matter how many corners Italy won or how many crosses sailed into the German box, the result was always the same: The tall, intimidating Stuhlfauth, wearing his trademark grey wool jumper, left his line, brushed aside friend or foe and punched the ball clear.
Legend has it that Italian officials asked Stuhlfauth to change into a red sweater at half-time to become more easily discernible for their strikers. The goalkeeper politely declined and continued to produce a string of saves after the break that would garner him the nickname the Hero of Turin.
With 10 minutes left, Fortuna Dusseldorf's Ernst Albrecht broke away down the right wing and his cross found Furth striker Georg Frank who brought Germany ahead. In the final moments of the dramatic encounter, Laven told his listeners how Enrico Rivolta was certain to score, only for Stuhlfauth to block the close-range volley with his left leg.
It was Germany's first win over Italy, and it would remain the only one on Italian soil for the next 57 years. Which tells you that from a German viewpoint, the story of this rivalry is mainly a tale of hard-fought draws and bitter defeats.
The most memorable encounter between the two sides is probably still, after almost five decades, the 1970 World Cup semifinal -- a partita del secolo, or the match of the century. It produced seven goals, no fewer than five of them in extra time. Italy's dramatic 4-3 win made another radio commentator famous, as well as a Peruvian-born Mexican of Japanese ancestry.
The latter gentleman's name was Arturo Yamasaki. He refereed the game and was, according to the German radio reporter Kurt Brumme, the principal reason why Italy won the match and reached the final.
Brumme, dubbed the "Voice of Germany" by his fan and friend Muhammad Ali, repeatedly accused Yamasaki of favouring the Italians. He called his decisions "impossible" and labelled him "the worst referee of this tournament." He also accused the Italians of playacting and roughness. At one point, after Gianni Rivera had kicked Berti Vogts, Brumme exclaimed: "Boo! Boo! Boo, Rivera! That was mean! That's not football, that's brutal."
This was strong stuff, especially coming from a man who was noted for his reserved, objective style. Add to this the heroic image of Franz Beckenbauer -- bravely battling on with his right arm in a sling after dislocating his shoulder on 65 minutes after a professional foul from Pierluigi Cera on the edge of the box -- and it comes as no surprise that the 120 minutes at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City led to simmering resentment in Germany.
However, some German reporters pointed out that their side had doled out as much as they had received. Former national coach Sepp Herberger, a national icon, reviewed slow-motion replays and called Yamasaki's decisions "unbiased." But none of this could change the public perception. After 1970, Italian footballers would invariably be viewed with suspicion.
These circumstances also explain why the next World Cup defeat against Italy felt less painful to German fans, although even more was at stake. When the Azzurri triumphed 3-1 in the 1982 World Cup final, they did so fair and square. What's more, the West German side which contested this tournament was very unpopular at home and heavily criticised by the German press.
On the day before the final, German player Paul Breitner gave a bizarre interview at poolside, surrounded by half-naked tourists, in which he accused the media of "spreading lies." Looking and sounding supremely arrogant, he also maintained his team was wrongly accused of arrogance.
Over the next two decades, the rivalry calmed down considerably. Netherlands gradually emerged as the team German fans liked to dislike and German players felt they had to beat. It's probably just a coincidence, but the results against Italy improved. Germany even beat the Azzurri twice on foreign soil (in Avelino in 1986 and during a 1995 tournament in Zurich).
Then came 2006.
In early March, Germany were dismantled 4-1 in Florence. It's not an exaggeration to say the result sent shockwaves through the country. The magazine Der Spiegel used words like "debacle" and "demolition" to describe the match and called the German defence "a gathering of jesters" (the game was played on Ash Wednesday).
As Theo Zwanziger, then the president of the DFB, disclosed a few years later, he was so horrified by the Italy match that he seriously considered sacking national coach Jurgen Klinsmann and replacing him with Matthias Sammer just a few weeks before the World Cup on home soil was to begin.
In the end, of course, Klinsmann stayed on and it all turned out well. Or at least it did until the next Italy game.
That was the semifinal, played on a fiendishly hot Monday in Dortmund. My seat was way up on the north stand, almost under the roof. In the row before me were four Italian supporters, a grey-haired man and three young men who might have been his sons.
Nobody minded their presence. The optimism among the German fans was almost palpable. Klinsmann's side had exceeded all expectations and despite Germany's terrible record against Italy, the feeling was now widespread that the hosts were the team of destiny.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi seemed to feel the same. He brought on three attacking players during regular time and then extra time, almost as if he'd rather get hit on the break then go into a penalty shootout against Germans. But there was still no score with 102 seconds left on the clock.
Then Andrea Pirlo played his no-look pass and Fabio Grosso curled his first-time shot into the far corner. Never before or since have I heard Dortmund's Westfalenstadion fall so quiet so abruptly. In stoppage time, Alessandro Del Piero made it 2-0 and I tapped the grey-haired man on the shoulder. He gave a start and covered his head with his hands, as if fearing a blow or a hit.
"Congratulations," I said. "Great game. The better team won." He smiled and we shook hands.
On my way to the train station, I heard many muttered curses and countless vows to never eat pizza again. One of Germany's great rivalries, perhaps the greatest, was alive and well again, six years before Mario Balotelli would win yet another semifinal for Italy against Germany, take off his shirt and flex his muscles.
All of which tells you that Saturday's game between Germany and England was just a friendly, while Tuesday's meeting with Italy is something else entirely. At least for Germans. For once, they won't be nonchalant about it.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.