Victory for Germany may help repair damage of Gijon

The loser in Recife tonight could be eliminated. A draw, however, takes both sides through

In his time as Fifa President, Sepp Blatter has tried to present football as the world’s greatest force for peace, love and brotherhood. Blatter’s rhetoric often makes it sound as though he is consciously angling for the Nobel Peace Prize.

There is only one place where football is not supposed to engender a spirit of friendship and understanding and that is on the pitch.

Luckily, teams usually take the field without any mutual interests to encourage co-operation, but that's not the case today in Recife, where Germany face the USA.

The winner tops the group. The loser could be eliminated, depending on the result between Ghana and Portugal. A draw, however, takes both sides through.


This has fostered speculation about the possibility of what the Italians call a “biscotto” – a tacit agreement between the sides to play out the mutually beneficial result.

Germany has previous in this respect. Yesterday's press conference took place 32 years to the day since West Germany beat Austria 1-0 in Gijon in the 1982 World Cup, in a match since usually referred to as the "Anschluss". The teams knew that a German victory would take them both through to the second round at the expense of Algeria.

Horst Hrubesch promptly scored for the West Germans and for the remaining 80 minutes the sides stroked the ball about at the back, occasionally swapping possession to simulate a real game. The shameful spectacle prompted Fifa to make a change: since then, the final round of group matches have been played simultaneously.

For the Germans, qualification was smoothed but decades later the game is still a source of embarrassment. In the end, was it really worth it?

Might pause

Before we in Ireland get too sanctimonious, we might pause to remember 1990 and our own mini-Anschluss with Holland. After Niall Quinn equalised with nearly 20 minutes still to play in Palermo, the two sides knew that the draw would put them both through at the expense of Egypt, who were losing to England, and played out time. Nobody ever seems to mention it, so we seem to have escaped the sort of reputational damage that the Germans are still trying to repair.

It is curious how often sides manage to attain the mutually desirable result, even when it’s something improbable like 2-2. That was the score in Porto between Denmark and Sweden in Euro 2004, a result that eliminated Giovanni Trapattoni’s Italy. The game was a rain-lashed chaos that resolved itself into the magic pattern only minutes before the end. The scoreline looked like a happy coincidence, but try telling that to Trapattoni.

Not all sides are equally agreeable to co-operation. In the 2002 World Cup, Portugal were drawing 0-0 with South Korea, a result which would qualify both sides. Portugal’s captain Luis Figo could be seen speaking to opponents on the field.

Either the Koreans did not understand what Figo was trying to say, or they despised the cynicism of his suggestion, because they kept up their onslaught on Portugal’s goal and Park Ji-Sung’s goal knocked Portugal out.

The side that benefited from the South Koreans’ integrity that night was the United States, who joined them in the second phase despite losing to Poland.

USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann would have respected the South Korean mentality: asked by reporters whether he intended to call his opposite number Joachim Löw and negotiate what would be a totally illegal truce, he insisted that his boys could only ever play to win.

The USA’s 2002 run was eventually ended by Germany, who knocked them out in the quarter-finals partly thanks to midfielder Torsten Frings saving a goalbound shot with his hand.

Yesterday in Recife, Germany’s reputation found itself under attack from an unexpected angle. A Brazilian journalist suggested that the World Cup winners of 1974 had deliberately lost to East Germany in order to avoid a difficult second-round group.

Other halves

It’s true that by losing to their other halves the West Germans ended up in a group with Poland, Yugoslavia and Sweden rather than Brazil, Argentina and Holland, but when they lost to East Germany, many other final-round games had yet to be played and nobody was sure which teams would end up in which group.

In truth, there’s no way the West Germans would have deliberately lost to the East, given the political and ideological rivalry of the time. The game meant too much on its own terms. From the East German perspective it was Socialism vs Decadence, for the West Germans it was Freedom vs Tyranny.

Even the West Germans would not have sold out Freedom herself just to get an easier second-round group.

Mesut Özil, the player put forward for media duties by the German FA, gave that question short shrift, as he did all of the questions. He dead-batted queries about his preferred position (central playmaker, but right or left is fine) and the United States (physically strong, mentally strong) before the journalists got bored and started asking personal questions.

Somebody asked about Özil’s new tattoo. “I’m not going to talk about my tattoo,” Özil stonewalled. “It’s nothing to do with the World Cup. It’s a special tattoo and I’m not going to say anything about it, because it’s nobody’s business.”

The tattoo doesn’t seem to require much explanation. It’s a roaring lion, standing proudly on a clifftop, framed by a gorgeous sunset, above the slogan “Only God Can Judge Me”. At a guess, it suggests that Özil believes that only God can judge him.

That doesn’t mean the world won’t judge him and his Germany team-mates anyway, if today’s match ends in a convenient draw. The desire to repair the damage of Gijon is the most powerful motivation for Germany to go for the win.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer