World Cup moments: 1982’s ‘Disgrace of Gijón’

West Germany’s lifeless 1-0 win over Austria sent Algeria out as the world cried conspiracy

Austria beat Algeria 2-0 in Oviedo in the 1982 World Cup. Photograph: Allsport

You have to pity the youth of today. They were born to banter, they think it’s normal behaviour to tell complete strangers on the internet what they have had for their tea. And worst of all, they have never experienced proper World Cup villainy. There was Luis Suárez’s handball in 2010, yes, but that was a fleeting moment from an individual rather than an extended body of work shared between a whole squad. The World Cup – which is about great stories as much as great football – is so much richer when a team leaves the rest of the football world raging with impotent frustration.

That has not occurred since 1990, when Argentina found umpteen different ways to prod the football world in the chest, most notably when they defiled Italy’s dreams on an operatic night in Naples. Four years earlier there were Uruguay, as close to a gathering of sociopaths as has been seen at the World Cup. The Scottish FA chief Ernie Walker called them “the scum of world football”.

Then we have West Germany 1982, who have two entirely different and equally notorious crimes on their rap sheet. In the semi-final against France, the goalkeeper Harald Schumacher assaulted Patrick Battiston with an appalling and unpunished challenge. If that was shockingly violent, the lack of aggression was the source of criticism earlier in the tournament. West Germany’s 1-0 win over Austria – in which both sides settled for a result that put them through and eliminated the tournament’s darlings Algeria – became known as Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (the non-aggression pact of Gijón).

It is not just those two incidents that rubbed people up the wrong way, or ensured that some of us would remember this particular German side with such guilty fondness. It was the way they did it. At times it seemed they were trying to exceed the most extreme German stereotype. They were imbued, individually and collectively, with the most magnificently preposterous arrogance in the history of the entire known universe. They did not so much have a squad of 22 players as a squad of 22 managers in addition to the official coach, Jupp Derwall. (The day before the World Cup final, for example, Derwall said in an ITV interview that the injured Karl-Heinz Rummenigge would only be fit enough for the bench in the big match. The next interview was with Rummennigge, who breezily confirmed that he would start. He started.) The entire squad was almost too German to function.


That arrogance manifested itself most deliciously in a masterclass of misplaced hubris before their first group game against Algeria. West Germany were the European champions and had qualified with eight wins out of eight (including two over Austria), scoring 33 goals in the process. African sides, by contrast, were not taken at all seriously, despite Pelé’s assertion in 1977 that an African side would win the World Cup before the year 2000.

In 1978, Tunisia’s forgotten trailblazers became the first African side to win a World Cup match, beating Mexico 3-1. They also drew 0-0 with West Germany in the final game; a 1-0 win would have put them through instead of the Germans. By 1982, the Germans had forgotten about that. “We will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives, and the eighth to our dogs,” said one player before the Algeria game. Another reportedly said he would play the match while chewing on a cigar. Derwall declined to show videos of Algeria to his players because he thought they would laugh at him, and said he would get the next train home if West Germany lost. Algeria won a thrilling game 2-1, one of the great World Cup shocks.

Algeria lost their next game 2-0 to Austria, with West Germany walloping Chile. Then, in the final group game, Algeria romped into a 3-0 half-time lead in their final game against the eliminated Chileans, including a gorgeous first goal. At that stage Algeria were guaranteed to become the first African side to reach the second round of a World Cup, unless there was an absurd result (4-3, 5-4 and so on) in the West Germany/Austria game that would be played a day later. In the second half, however, Chile fought back to lose 3-2. Although Algeria had won again, they were now in jeopardy.

They would still reach the last 12 of the tournament if Austria avoided defeat, or if West Germany won by three goals or more. An already complex situation was exacerbated by the hatred between West Germany and Austria. At the previous World Cup, Austria had pulled off one of their most famous victories – the Miracle of Cordoba – against West Germany, even though the match was essentially a dead rubber. “My players always find a special motivation against Germany,” said the Austria manager, Georg Schmidt, ahead of the match in Gijón four years later.

West German defender Paul Breitner under pressure from Algerian midfiedler Mustapha Dahleb. Photograph: Staff/Getty

West Germany, on two points, were out unless they won, and started the match accordingly. In the 11th minute their clumsy striker Horst Hrubesch, whose put the hee haw in Gijón, unwittingly bundled a Pierre Littbarski cross into the net. The story goes that the game simply stopped at that point, with both sides declaring and settling for a score that would put them through ahead of Algeria. The video of the game is thus a surprise. You expect side-to-side stuff, players standing around picking spots and scratching backsides, not giving 10 per cent never mind 110; the greatest sham on turf. That only really happens in the final quarter of an hour, when the game properly livens down, and even then it is no more brazen than subsequent examples of two teams settling for a specific score.

The 10 minutes after Hrubesch’s goal would even be described as exhilarating in some cultures, with Wolfgang Dremmler forcing a fine save from Friedich Koncilia (the second and final shot on target in the match) and Paul Breitner missing two good chances. The game slows down towards half-time, principally because the hitherto dominant Germany start to play on the counterattack, There is still enough intensity. Just before half-time Manny Kaltz hares round the pitch chasing the ball like a particularly dumb dog; in the same attack, Dremmler slides two-footed through both the ball and Herbert Prohaska. A free-kick in 1982, and even that disputed by the Germans; maybe a red card in 2013.

At half-time, one of the German players makes a beeline for an Austrian (it's hard to tell who they are on the video), puts an arm round his shoulder and engages him in discourse. It looks meaningful in the context of what we now know, and the google translation of this page suggests a declaration at 1-0 was discussed by some players during the interval. Yet many of the players still say now that was not the case.

It certainly seems safe to conclude there was no formal agreement. The video suggests there is no single point at which both sides switch off, more that the whole thing develops through osmosis and that the teams run (or rather don’t) with the developing mood of the game. At the start of second half there is still plenty of purposeful if unaccomplished attacking, interspersed by some periods of unpressurised passing. Both teams only become defensively active when the other crosses the halfway line. There is a significant element of keeping up appearances, of course, but it is not just that. In the 51st minute, for example, Josef Degeorgi waves his hands angrily at Karlheinz Forster, accusing him of diving.

It’s as if the crowd are wise to what is going on almost before the players. The first audible unrest occurs after 52 minutes, when Rummenigge plays a long pass back to the halfway line, and again three minutes later when Austria’s Hans Krankl, on the right wing, wafts a 40-yard pass with the outside of the foot back to the sweeper.

Yet at that stage those were isolated incidents. Hrubesch would have had a clear shooting chance in the 57th minute had he not hopelessly miscontrolled Felix Magath’s expert chip. As late as the 77th minute, when the game was losing what edge it had, Bernd Krauss broke into the box and forced a desperate clearance from Hans-Peter Briegel. A goal then would have put West Germany out.

Pierre Littbarski, the youngest and most innocent player on the pitch, went on a series of intrepid solo runs in the second half. Austria’s Walter Schachner was sufficiently piqued by a free-kick against him to be booked for dissent with 12 minutes remaining. Getting yellow-carded in this match was quite the achievement, akin to not getting lucky at a Bacchanalian orgy. Reinhold Hintermaier was also booked in the first half for a rugged foul on Littbarski.

The second half was, we should stress, hardly an end-to-end classic. Opta have a detailed archive of every World Cup game since 1966, and there are some belting statistics for those 45 minutes. There were only three shots, none on target. West Germany made only eight tackles, around one every six minutes. Both sides had an overall pass-completion ratio in excess of 90%, a level usually reserved for people like Xavi and Paul Scholes – and, more tellingly, Jamie Carragher, the king of the no-risk pass. Austria had a 99% success rate with passes in their own half; West Germany’s was 98%.

The last 10 minutes are terrible, like watching Spain 2012 play against themselves, and hard to defend. The outcome gave a whole new meaning to winning ugly. Yet while there are periods of the game that could have been soundtracked by Brian Eno, there isn’t the constant state of inertia we expected.

Then again, the reality rarely lives up to the spook story. At the time, almost everybody was disgusted. The Austrian TV commentator Robert Seeger told viewers to turn their televisions off and said nothing for the last part of the game. The German commentator Eberhard Stanjek said: “What’s happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football. You can say what you want, but not every end justifies every means.”

The thousands of Algerian fans in the crowd were appalled, with money shouting “It’s a fix!” Some waved money through the fences or burned it, an enduring image of España 82; others, in full why-I-oughta mode, took a running jump in a failed attempt to get over the fences and on to the field. Neutral Spanish supporters were similarly unimpressed. One German fan in the stadium burned his country’s flag.

As the match reached its conclusion, ITV’s Hugh Johns expressed his disgust. “A few seconds on Bob Valentine’s watch between us and going-home time. And what a relief that’s going to be. Breitner for Briegel for Stielike, names that run off my tongue at the moment and leave a nasty, nasty taste. Stielike … quality players who should all be in the book of referee Bob Valentine for bringing the game into disrepute. This is one of the most disgraceful international matches I’ve ever seen.”

Algerian forward Salah Assad (L) scores his second goal against Chile. Photograph: Staff/Getty

The outrage was even greater after the game. The Algerian FA protested straight away, describing it as a “sinister plot”. West Germany were savaged by their own press, with one headline shouting “SHAME ON YOU!”. One Spanish newspaper called it “the Anschluss”. A Dutch newspaper described it as “football porn”, inadvertently obliterating the received wisdom that the Dutch were world leaders in bongo.

The former German international Willi Schulz said all 22 players were “gangsters”. There was certainly an omerta after the game, with nobody accepting culpability or even acknowledging what had happened, apart from the Austrian manager Schmidt. “It was,” he said, “a shameful showing”. His opposite number Derwall summoned the righteous indignation of which only the guilty are capable. “This was a grave and serious insult,” he said. “We will answer any charges.”

In the eyes of those involved, the end justified the meanness. “We wanted to progress, not play football”, Derwall said later, while the substitute Lothar Matthäus added: “We have gone through. That’s all that counts.” Austria were similarly unrepentant. “We made the next round.,” says Krankl. “And I don’t give a damn about the Germans.” The commentator Seeger says some of the Austrian players tried to get him sacked.

When a group of West German fans went to the team hotel to forcibly articulate their interpretation of the game, the players bombarded them with water bombs from the balcony.

That was nothing on the reaction of Hans Tschak, the head of the Austrian delegation, a man who made Alf Garnett seem enlightened. “Naturally today’s game was played tactically,” he said. “But if 10,000 ‘sons of the desert’ here in the stadium want to trigger a scandal because of this it just goes to show that they have too few schools. Some sheikh comes out of an oasis, is allowed to get a sniff of World Cup air after 300 years and thinks he’s entitled to open his gob.”

Others realised the world has six other continents. The problem was not just with the cynicism shown by Germany and Austria; it was compounded by its unapologetic nature and the identity of the victims. Algeria had the charm of underdogs, played lovely football, and were from a developing football continent. West Germany and Austria had not only killed Bambi; they had sent a video of the slaying around the world and cackled maniacally at the end of that video.

Algeria’s appeal was rejected after a three-and-a-half hour meeting, in which the Fifa organising committee deemed that a result “could not be altered by any outside body” because, er, it just couldn’t. Thereafter Fifa ensured final group games would be played simultaneously, a lesson they should have heeded after Argentina’s controversial 6-0 win over Peru in 1978. When goal difference was replaced by head-to-head scores, the chance to theoretically fix games reappeared with inevitable conspiratorial consequences.

You wonder what might happen now, in this era of faux outrage and social-media bullying. Fifa would probably bow to public pressure. Back then, Algeria made their complaint and, when it was rejected, got on with their life. “We weren’t angry, we were cool,” says Chaabane Merzekane, the sensational right-back. “To see two big powers debasing themselves in order to eliminate us was a tribute to Algeria. They progressed with dishonour, we went out with our heads held high.”

“Our performances forced Fifa to make that change, and that was even better than a victory,” added Lakhdar Belloumi. “It meant that Algeria left an indelible mark on football history.”

Algeria, Austria and West Germany – like all the other countries – went to that World Cup hoping to do something that would be talked for ever. As with Lupe Velez’s death, their wish came true.

The biggest sufferers were arguably the West Germans. The country fell out of love with their international team for a while. In the book Tor!, Uli Hesse says the coach Derwall “unknowingly taught the country that there are things more important than winning”.

It is certainly remembered more as a German crime, almost as if Austria had a gun to their head. On one viewing of the game – and we’d obviously like to watch the entire match a few more times to be sure – there is a powerful argument that Austria are the principal culprits: they showed significantly less attacking intent and also had a greater safety net than the Germans, who were only one goal from humiliation for the last 80 minutes.

Austria ignored the chance of immortality, too; imagine if, having lulled West Germany into a false sense of security, they scored a late equaliser. The Gijón grift would have been 100 times more famous than the Miracle of Cordoba.

Similar if slightly less prolonged examples of such cynicism, with neither team trying to score, have been evident in many big games since. Ireland and Holland did it at Italia 90, a risky tactic in the circumstances, while Manchester United won a championship in this manner in 2011, when they played 174 passes in their own half in the last 10 minutes (plus injury time) of a match at Blackburn.

In 1995 Mark Bosnich did unto Jürgen Klinsmann as Schumacher did unto Battiston; the fact he did not receive anywhere near as much criticism as Schumacher was only partially because Eric Cantona was being slaughtered for the perceived crime of kung-fu kicking a gobby cockney on the same night.

It seems that, when it comes to cartoon villainy, it’s not just what you do but the way you do it. And nobody did it better than the 1982 West Germans.

With thanks to Cris Freddi, whose World Cup history is definitive, and Paul Doyle.

Rob Smyth and Scott Murray are authors of And Gazza Misses The Final, a collection of minute-by-minute reports of classic World Cup games. West Germany v Austria might be in the second volume.

(Guardian service)