European Championship Stories: 1972 – West Germany’s Spring Of Absolute Contentment
At the Heysel Stadium in Brussels on the eighteenth of June 1972, West Germany lifted their first major tournament trophy since the 1954 World Cup. Two years later, at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, they lifted the World Cup. Yet it is sometimes said that the team of 1972 is more fondly remembered than the team of two years later, and it is certainly fair to say that the road to these twin victories was not without its problems. For most people under the age of fifty, West Germany and Germany has been a footballing powerhouse at both club and international level, but the introduction of any degree of professional football to the country was relatively late to the country. By the beginning of the 1960s, West Germany still had no single, professional league – rather, the country’s leagues consisted of five regional Oberligen (Premier Leagues) - but clamours for a more unified set-up would intensify with a disappointing performance in the World Cup finals at the start of the new decade.
The story of post-war German football begins, of course, with The Miracle Of Bern. West Germany had lost by eight goals to three against Hungary in the group stages of the 1954 World Cup finals, but battled their way through to the finals and, with the good luck of seeing Hungary start the match with an injured Ferenc Puskas in their side, came from two goals down to beat the Magyars by three goals to two to lift the trophy. This victory, however, was a flash in the pan. Four years later, the West German team lost in the semi-finals to the host nation, Sweden, and they then sat out the first European Championships. Throughout the 1950s there had been calls for a single professional league in West Germany which had been withstood by traditionalists for much of the decade, but critics argued persuasively that the fortunes of the West German national team would continue to slide if they didn’t make the step towards greater centralism and professionalism, and the tipping point in this debate came at the 1962 World Cup finals, when a lacklustre performance was topped off by a single goal defeat against Yugoslavia in the quarter-finals of the competition.
It took just weeks for the new league to be formalised. On the twenty-eighth of July 1962, the new Bundesliga was formed, to start with effective from the beginning of the 1963/64 season. It would consist of sixteen clubs – which was soon expanded to eighteen – and attracted forty-six applicants from the Oberligen, and it started in August 1963. Some have argued that the early years of the Bundesliga were its golden years. Seven different clubs won the first seven titles, attendances beat many expectations and, in 1966, the West German national team reached the final of the World Cup and were only beaten by the host nation, England, with the aid of a highly controversial goal in extra-time. Four years later they were unfortunate again in Mexico, when an injury to captain Franz Beckenbauer hobbled the team in a semi-final against Italy which they lost by four goals to three.
Clouds, however, were forming on the horizon. West German club sides failed to impress in the European Cup during the opening years of the Bundesliga – although Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1966 and 1967 – and the last two of the league’s seven different winners in its first seven years would go on to dominate the Bundesliga for the next nine years, with Borussia Moenchengladbach winning five championships and Bayern Munich winning four between 1969 and 1977. More troubling than this, however, were the stories of financial irregularity that were coming from the Bundesliga. German sporting tradition had been resistant to the lure of professionalism, as can be seen from the fact that the Bundesliga only came into being three and a half decades after leagues in Spain and Italy, and seven and a half decades after the formation of the Football League in England. A wage cap and a maximum transfer fee was put in place but, while these could be considered to have contributed to the competitiveness of the league in its formative years, they also left ambitious clubs looking to circumvent the rules and, as early as 1965, Hertha Berlin (who, it could be argued, needed extra incentives to persuade players to live and play in West Berlin) fell foul of the rules and were demoted back to the regional leagues.
The Bundesliga’s biggest crisis, however, came in the summer of 1971. A number of journalists and people from within the game had been invited to the fiftieth birthday party of Horst Canellas, the president of Bundesliga side Kickers Offenbach, but there was little celebrating to be had that day. Offenbach had been relegated the previous day, and at their president’s party guests were led into a room containing, on a table, a tape recorder. The contents of the tapes almost blew the Bundesliga apart. They were recordings of players offering themselves to throw matches in a tight relegation battle at the bottom of the league. In total, fifty-two players and two managers were punished and two clubs – Arminia Bielefeld and Offenbach themselves – had their licenses to play revoked and were relegated. Canellas had gambled that he would avoid censure for having raised the issue in the first place and his claim to only be playing along with those that were fixing matches, but Canellas received a lifetime ban and Kickers Offenbach would take until 1999 to get back into the Bundesliga. Just a few weeks after this, Canellas died. The effect on the league, however, was pronounced. By 1972, the Bundesliga’s salary and wage caps would be gone.
National team coach Helmut Schön, meanwhile, had other things on his mind. Schön had taken the position as assistant coach to Sepp Herberger in 1956, and took over as coach when Herberger left the post in 1964. By the start of the 1970s, he was getting close to the team that he had spent a lot of time building. It was a team with a solid spine, with the seemingly impassable Sepp Maier in goal, Franz Beckenbauer marshalling the defence and as captain, the elegant Günter Netzer in midfield and Gerd Muller in attack. This was a team of all talents, brusquely efficient yet understatedly artful, and it won its way comfortably through a four team qualifying group for the 1972 European Championships which included a Poland team that was similarly distinguished. Muller’s two goals for West Germany in a 3-1 win in Warsaw in their penultimate match secured their place in the latter, knock-out stage of the tournament. Few, however, were prepared for exactly what was to follow.
Of all the beauty and victory that the West German national team brought the people of the country during the early 1970s, there is one that sticks out, and it isn’t a team that lifted a major trophy. On the twenty-ninth of April 1972, West Germany travelled to Wembley to play England having never won there before, and played with such fluency and confidence that any remaining vestiges of English pride at their 1966 World Cup win were washed away in the rain of a spring London evening. Netzer was everywhere, to an extent that a modern football supporter might even wonder whether Helmut Schön had somehow found a way of cloning the Borussia Moenchengladbach player. This ninety minutes became, for many German football supporters, the defining moment of a team that would end up as the world champions. But the memory can play tricks, and watching the match back, although it is clear that the best team won on the night and that the best player, by a mile, was a West German player, the match wasn’t quite as one-sided as the eventual three-one scoreline might suggest.
In front of a crowd of almost 97,000 people at Wembley, West Germany took a while to get going before taking the lead through Uli Hoeness after twenty-six minutes had been played. Yet for all their brilliance, the visitors didn’t manage to fully close the game off and, with thirteen minutes to play, England drew level when Sepp Maier could only palm a shot into the path of Francis Lee, who scored from close range. It wasn’t until the final five minutes that West Germany really took control, first with a penalty from Gunter Netzer which the England goalkeeper Gordon Banks managed to get both hands to but could only push onto the inside of the post after a foul by Bobby Moore, and then with a swivel and shot from Gerd Muller with a couple of minutes left to play. England, however, played their full part in the match and on another day might well have managed a draw. The French newspaper L’Equipe, however, described the West German performance as “Football from the year 2000″, and in one sense they were correct. It was this performance that would lay the bedrock for the team’s success over the coming years. The two sides played out a goalless draw in West Berlin two weeks later to send West Germany through to the final stages of the competition.
The final four teams played off in the summer of 1972 in Belgium, and West Germany laboured a little in their semi-final against the host nation in Antwerp, taking a two goal lead thanks to two goals from Gerd Muller before being pegged back thanks to a goal with seven minutes to play from Odilon Polleunis, which led to a nervy last few minutes. There were no such nerves, however, in the final, played against the Soviet Union at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. By this stage, the Soviet team that had performed so consistently throughout the 1960s was starting to wane, and West Germany strolled to a comfortable three-nil win, thanks to two goals from Gerd Muller and one from Herbert Wimmer. For all the beautiful simplicity that the Germans managed against the Soviet Union in Brussels, though, it would be the performance against England two months earlier that this team would be remembered.
Two years and three weeks later, West Germany lifted the World Cup in Munich after a win against the brilliant Dutch side of Johann Cruyff and Johann Neeskens, but this was a triumph that was soured by circumstance and the atmosphere surrounding the squad at the tournament. The hostage crisis of the 1972 Olympic Games, which resulted in the death of eleven Israeli athletes at the hands of the Black September terrorist group, and the continuing activities of the Red Army Faction – also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang – meant that security was high, and a dispute over win bonuses which cast divisions amongst the players, as well as between the squad and Helmut Schön himself. In addition to this, there was something unsatisfactory and hesitant about some of the team’s performances. Their opening one goal win against Chile was received with derision from the home crowd and they were beaten to top spot in their group and in their final group match by East Germany, in Hamburg, en route to the final.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to posit that a wistfulness for the West Germany of prior to Black September, rows over money and losing at home to East Germany would be understandable. Moreover, the years between 1972 and 1974 would come to be a high water-mark for West German football for a full decade and a half, with with only another European Championship – one overshadowed by darker forces – before beating Argentina in Rome to win the 1990 World Cup, and a year after this the two halves of Germany, created in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and hatred forty-two years earlier, would be reunited as a footballing nation. The team that ran England ragged on a sodden Wembley in April of 1972, however, was a true team for the ages, and one that would come to represent the very best that German football had to offer. If Germany can hit anything like those heights this summer, we will all have something to celebrate.
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