Algeria make their first appearance in the World Cup finals since 1986 this year, and if they are looking for any more encouragement to perform than the prospect of playing on the world’s biggest stage, then the sense of injustice at their previous treatment by the competition could be enough to spur them on that little bit more. Algeria have previously qualified for two World Cup tournaments, but in one of those circumstances conspired against them to the extent that they may have been excused wondering whether they weren’t even wanted in the tournament in the first place. Was Algeria’s elimination from the 1982 World Cup down to “cheating” by their group rivals West Germany and Austria, though, or was the fundamental flaw in the timing of the final group matches?
Group 2, the group that contained Algeria, West Germany, Austria and Chile, was held in the Spanish cities of Gijon and Oviedo and, as was the convention at the time, the Germans, as the seeded team, played all three of their matches at the same venue, Estadio El Molinón in Gijon, while the other three nations played their matches against each other at the smaller Estadio Carlos Tartiere in Oviedo. West Germany were the second favourites to win the tournament behind Brazil and it was the first time that Algeria had qualified for the finals. There had been some disquiet in the media that the expansion of the World Cup finals from sixteen to twenty-four nations would lead to some mis-matches in the first round of the competition, but goals from Rabah Majder and Lakhdar Belloumi gave Algeria a sensational 2-1 win, while Austria beat Chile 1-0 in the second match.
In the second round of matches, a hat-trick from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge helped West Germany to a 4-1 win against Chile whilst Austria beat Algeria 2-0. All of this set up a final round of matches which meant any of three teams in the group could either qualify for the next round or be knocked out, depending on which way the results went. The first of the two matches saw Algeria play Chile, who were already eliminated from the tournament with a match left to play. Algeria stunned the Chilean team by racing into a 3-0 lead with ten minutes left to play of the first half, and although Chile fought back in the second half, Algeria clung on to win by three goals to two.
This set up a final match between West Germany and Austria in extraordinary circumstances. A one or two goal win for West Germany would see both teams through to the second round of the competition. Any more than this and Austria would be eliminated on goals scored or goal difference. A win or a draw for Austria would knock West Germany out in the first round of the competition. There was, however, reason to believe that Austria would go hell for leather to knock the West Germans out of the competition. The rivalry between Germany and Austria is one of the longest-standing in European football, going back as far as 1908 (Germany played their first match in 1908 against Switzerland, but played their second and third international matches against Austria), and in the previous tournament in Argentina four years earlier, a thrilling 3-2 win for Austria in Cordoba had knocked West Germany out of the competition.
To say that there was to be no repeat of Cordoba in Gijon four years later, though, would be something of an understatement. From the kick-off, West Germany threw everybody forward and took the lead after eleven minutes Horst Hrubesch headed in at the near post to give them the lead. After this, however, everybody shut up shop and the match degenerated into seventy-nine minutes of lazily passing the ball around the two defences and backpasses to the two goalkeepers. Inside the stadium, the Spanish crowd chanted, “Fuera, fuera” (“Out, out”) at the players, whilst Algerian supporters waved bank notes at the players and one German supporter burned his flag. Television commentators covering the match worldwide, including Hugh Johns for ITV in Britain, condemned what was taking place in front of them. So explicit was what was unfolding before them that even the German television commentator offered perhaps the most damning indictment of the spectacle of all:
What’s happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football. You can say what you want, but not every end justifies the means.
The West German squad didn’t exactly help themselves in their post-match interviews. Their coach, Jupp Derwall, noted that, “We wanted to progress, not play football”, while Lothar Matthäus stated that, “We have gone through. That’s all that counts”. This, however, was not how much of the rest of the world perceived what had happened. The German press was furious – “Shame On You!”, read the headline of Bild, the biggest selling tabloid newspaper in the country, whilst Willi Schulz, a former German international defender, called the players “gangsters” in his popular newspaper column. There were also loud and angry protests in Algiers at the perceived injustice.
FIFA announced that they couldnt reverse or annul the result, and that they couldn’t change the schedule of matches for the remainder of the 1982 tournament. From 1986 on, however, the final round of group matches would be played simultaneously to minimise the risk of such events taking place again. The match became known as “Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón” (“Non-aggression pact of Gijón”) or “Schande von Gijón” (“Shame of Gijón”) in West Germany and one Spanish newspaper, hinting at something far darker, described the match as “El Anschluss”, referring to the unification of Austria and Germany under Hitler’s rule in 1938. Whilst such a comparison, with all that it insinuates, is a fairly reprehensible one, the German team further undermined its own popularity in the semi-final of the competition against France, when goalkeeper Harald Schumacher almost took Patrick Battiston’s head clean off its shoulders and later remarked, when he found out that Battiston had lost two teeth as a result of his tackle, commented that, “There’s no compassion amongst professionals. Tell him I’ll pay for the crowns”.
The Shame of Gijón and Schumacher’s foul on Battiston inadvertently drew up a fault line within German football between the old and the new. German football had been founded on amateur principles and this had led to the late development of the club game in the country and a distrust of the “win at all costs” mentality of the 1982 team. Their performance and behaviour at the 1982 World Cup finals turned off a lot of young German supporters, and this ambivalence towards the national team lasted for a long time. Was the Shame of Gijón entirely the fault of the German and Austrian teams, though? The “win at all costs” mentality was well established in professional football by 1982, so why did it take this to happen for FIFA ensure that final group matches to take place simultaneously? In some respects, the biggest surprise about the affair is that it took so long for this to happen, and the fact that it happened between West Germany and Austria was probably a coincidence rather than anything else. It has certainly never been suggested that the two teams had a formal pre-match agreement over the result of the match or that any money changed hands between them. The most likely explanation is an unspoken agreement – the two teams both realised that they risked their own elimination if they went at full pelt and chose not to take any chances.
None of this, though, meant much to the Algerians, who were robbed of a place in the second round of the World Cup in their tournament finals debut by what was, whether intentional or not, a stitch-up by the West German and Austrian teams. Algeria qualified for the finals of the World Cup again in 1986 but, after a promising 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland and a spirited display against Brazil in their second match in which they held out for sixty-six minutes before losing 1-0. They were finally knocked out and finished in bottom place in group after a 3-0 defeat in their final match against Spain. This year sees them return to the finals, in the same group as England, the United States and Slovenia. Should they get through this group, their second round match would be against the winners or runners-up of the group containing… Germany. England and the USA will start as the favourites to qualify from their group, but Algerian supporters may well be of the opinion that revenge is a dish best served cold, and that twenty-eight years is plenty long enough to wait.