We’ve seen rampant changes in every era over the course of history. Every era is different from the rest in every sense of the word, in every essence. Sports being no different from that. In particular, when we talk of the most followed game around the globe, football, this notion comes as a no surprise, no different. But there’s one such unpredictable element, that has been consistent for ages and that is what makes football such a lovable and followed game globally, which is the game’s competitive uncertainty, it’s unpredictability. Football’s most unique selling proportion, that has made the game it is today.
Whether its Leicester City winning the Premier League in the 2015-16 season as 5,000-1 outsiders , to whether Manchester United scoring two injury time goals to triumph over Bayern Munich in the 1998-99 Champions League Final, to whether Liverpool coming from 3-0 down in the first half against a star studded AC Milan to level it up 3-3 in 7 insane minutes of 2nd half play before eventually wining it on penalties in the 2004-05 Champions League Final.
Then there are some other certain norms to the game that have their effect on things that go beyond just the football ground. That being said, some games are best understood through their context of history. As such, one game that particularly stands out is the 1986 World Cup Quarter Final between Argentina and England and it cannot be fathomed without getting the Falklands War (10-week war between Argentina and United Kingdom in 1982 over two of British’s dependent territories in South Atlantic, one of them being the Falkland Islands and its territorial dependency) into the context.
With Maradona going as far as stating:
“Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds, and this was revenge”Diego Maradona
In much similar fashion, Italy and West Germany were no good friends especially when it comes to football, enjoying a long cordial relation on and off the pitch and the game and after this game, it was not getting better anytime soon, with German Radio commentators going as far as accusing Italy players on the field of playacting and roughness and labeling the on-field Peru referee Arturo Yamasaki as ‘the worst referee of the tournament’. (more of it later)
As such, we’ll be going through one such game today that rose to such indelible heights that had the world talking about it for decades and even till now and made the beautiful game even more beautiful. It’s the World Cup Semi-Final of 1970 – Reigning European Champions Italy squaring off against the runners up of the previous edition of the FIFA World Cup in England, West Germany. A match that would transcend times. A match so dramatic and intense as to be dubbed as the ‘Game of The Century’. A game so befitting that it was commemorated by a plaque at the entrance of Estadio Azteca in Mexico City (where the game took place). This is the ‘Game of the Century’.
Last played and won the World Cup final 22 years before the time, Italy came to the 1970 World Cup as one of the leading favorites to win it with star performers on almost every position of the pitch, having won the 1968 European Final, but not without controversies.
Their leading performer and the then Ballon D’or winner (European Player of the Year at the Time) AC Milan’s dashing midfielder Gianni Rivera was to become a center of that with him being excluded of the starting XI for the most part of the campaign in favor of Rival club Inter-Milan teammate Sandro Mazzola, with coach Ferruccio Valcareggi stating that the two cannot play together in the midfield.
Although the decision would later backfire and the management would come under a lot of scrutiny from the press and fans alike as Italy would lose the final to Brazil 4-1 with Rivera not being sent to play in the final until there were just 6 minutes left to play and all damage had already been done despite his heroics in the semifinal. Earlier, the Italian side was dealt a blow when their striker Pietro Anastasi went injured at the very last minute before the start of the campaign.
Italians, of course, had a rock-solid defense throughout the campaign. The back four comprising of the team captain Giacinto Facchetti, Tarcisio Burgnich, Pierluigi Cera and the great Roberto Rosato with legendary goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi would concede just a single goal leading up to the semifinal clash against West Germany had established the famous Caatenaccio system (famous Italian tactical system with a strong emphasis on the defensive structure) to perfection.
Their single goal in the group stage against Sweden would be enough to cling the knockout berth and even the top group place having drawn the other two fixtures nil-nil against Uruguay and Israel. Just as scoring goals was becoming a worry for Italy, they would score 4 past Mexico in the Quarter Finals with the prolific striker Riva finally picking up form at the right time, scoring a brace, exhibiting that Italy was there to win it all. His combination whenever he played with Rivera behind him in the midfield was seen exceptional.
On the other side of the table, West Germany was seen as the most dangerous side of the competition. The side’s attacking partnership of the legendary striker Gerd Muller and veteran captain Uwe Seeler was a nightmare for any of their opposition’s defenses. Germans would topple the scoring chart in terms of most goals scored in the group stage with 10 goals and in the quarter-final, they’d beat the then reigning champions England 3-2 after coming from 2-0 down in the 1st half. After the match team captain Uwe Seeler would go as far as saying, “Once you’ve beaten England, you could beat anyone”, pinning the fact that they were ‘the’ side to beat.
By the time, West Germany would face Italy in the semifinal, Gerd Muller alone would have scored 7 goals already in the campaign including the winner against England in the extra time to Italy’s whole team’s 5 goals in the campaign. In addition, the nerves of steel mentality in German camp was evident as they would come from behind to win in 3 of their 4 matches prior to the clash with Italy. With such resurgence and goals pouring in all round and having greats of the game such as Franz Backenbauer in their side, Germany deemed as favorites to win it all was a no brainer.
With all that it was pre-cautioned that it would be a match of in irresistible German attack to an impenetrable Italian defense.
The match took place at Estadio Azteca in Mexico with over 100 thousand people in attendance to witness this epic encounter on June 17, 1970. As soon as the referee Arturo Yamasaki blew the whistle and match got underway, there was not a single minute of rest on either end. It was played at a frantic pace and what Germans could have least desired was to give Italy an early advantage because if they do, it could very well prove to be the first and final nail in their coffin courtesy of Italy’s impenetrable defense, it could yet prove all decisive.
Guess what? They very thing happened in the 8th minute, as Roberto Boninsegna, after receiving the ball from Giancarlo De Sisti in the centre of the park and exchanging one two with fellow striker Luigi Riva, the ‘golden boy’, stroke a fine left strike from 25 yards out into the bottom corner to give Italy that early advantage which would eventually last till the 90th minute.
After the early goal, all the pre-match talks of this match going down as a match of ‘German Attack to Italian Defence’ took its turn as a wave after wave of attacks from the German side followed. While there are no stats available online to showcase the breakdown of events that took place during the match, we’d breakdown all the facts from the match in great detail for you here.
The three big chances from the first half all came from the German side yet they failed to breakdown the Italian defiance defense and even when they did, they ‘d simply flounder at the last moment. As such the first big chance came in the 29th minute when FC Koln winger Hannes Lohr cross from the left flank met Muller who passed it towards Seeler before Mario Bertini cleared it for a corner.
A minute later, Muller made an effortless turn with the ball and came as close to scoring as hitting the bar after receiving a direct pass from Schnellinger.
Minutes later, playing on the right-wing, Jurgen Grabowski would produce a fine save from Italy’s keeper Enrico Albertosi. Beckenbauer playing in the midfield ran riot for the whole half.
Things were to change a bit when Valcareggi would bring the then Ballon D’or winner Gianni Rivera onto the pitch in place of Sandro Mazzola. As such, a couple of shots from Riva and Rivera early in the 2nd half would finally test the German keeper Sepp Maier who had a quiet game thus far. But once again, as the play settled a bit, a wave of German attacks followed. Grabowski and Reinhard Libuda, who was brought on early in the second half in place of Lohr, would come only as close to scoring as hitting the bars, with the commentator on the radio uttering, ‘how on earth are Germans missing these chances.
Exceptional on the night Enrico Albertosi, the Italian keeper, would make a howler in the 83rd minute when he would kick the ball off of Siggi Held but would make up for it by chasing it before Muller could close to tap it in. In the 90th minute, the German captain Seeler would produce another fine save from him and it looked as if it were just not their night.
But just as fortunes looked to favor Italy and referee was close to whistling for the full time, the game took a turn. It wouldn’t have been remembered as an epic if it were not to happen.
Minute 92 would see Grabowski, who had an amazing game thus far, crossing once again from the left flank to perfection and finding unmarked Karl-Heinz Schnellinger of all people this time, and his shot would stop the nerves of all 100 thousand people in attendance, a player who hasn’t scored in any of his 47 caps for Germany previously, ironically a player from AC Milan, would score past Albertosi to send the game to the extra time. What drama. “Schnellinger, of all people!”, German commentator on the radio uttered.
Just as Germans levelled up, the thought of Italy coming back from there never occurred to anyone except the eleven players playing on the field for them. World would witness something mad. A totally insane period of football in the extra time were about to be followed. A match that hardly saw two goals in the 90 minutes of regulation time would see both teams pouring in goals.
The extra time started and Muller, who had scored in each of the previous games of the World Cup, would finally get his goal as 4th minute into the extra time would saw Muller scoring from a corner of Libuda’s delivery from the flank. One thought to everyone’s mind, there’s no coming back from here.
But an error in the 8th minute of the extra-time from Sigfried Held, brought on in the second half in place of Bernd Patzke, would see Italy coming back. The error from Held through an Italy free kick taken by Rivera would see him providing the Italian fullback Tarcisio Burgnich an easy opportunity to level all up. 2-2.
Minutes later, Italy Golden Boy, Luigi Riva after receiving the ball from Angelo Domenghini would finally score his goal, a fine left-footed shot to give Italy the advantage again. A brilliant far post finish from Riva with the Italians leading once again.
2nd period of extra time would start and so were German attacks as they fell trailing once again after trailing for almost all the 90 minutes of the regular time. Germany would win a corner kick and Libuda would find Seeler, who just came close to scoring an equalizer a minute ago himself, would head it into Muller’s path who would eventually head it in to score his second courtesy of an error from Rivera who was supposed to block the header going in. Once again, the match turned on its head.
But again, destiny had stored something crazy for Rivera’s error and the world. Just as the kick-off would start after the goal and while TV cameras were still replaying Muller’s goal, Rivera, in pursuit of redeeming for his mistake would find the ball from the earlier goal scorer Boninsegna’s cross on the other end, in the center and get Italy on the driving seat once again. Boom, he scored and the scoresheet read 4-3.
The rest of the ten minutes of the game would see Germans trying desperately but this time Italy’s defense was super tied. And they wouldn’t get a single clear opportunity. The match would end 4-3. The world has witnessed history.
As with any match of this magnitude, there’s a certain degree of controversy involved. Such was the case here as well. As it is recorded that Muller told his fellow teammate Beckenbauer during the match that they were being cheated after a string of penalty decisions didn’t go in their favor. 3 such incidents stand out and Backenbauer himself was in the center of two of them.
Once in the 13th minute when Backenbauer tore past the whole Italian defense before being dropped to the ground by Italy captain Giacinto Facchetti, no penalty was awarded after persistent appeals from the German side and then the 67th minute incident saw Beckenbauer again being brought to the ground by Cera just outside the penalty area as per the referee but not as per the German side.
Another incident would see German captain Seeler brought down in the box yet nothing was awarded.
German commentators on the radio went as far as proclaiming the referee’s decisions as “impossible” and labeling him “the worst referee of the tournament”. Their press would state the loss as an “unfair defeat”.
The match is widely regarded as the birth of a champion and a leader player. Germany, after going one nil down and having used both of their permitted substitutions (two substitutions were allowed at the time), would see the then 25-year-old Beckenbauer broke his collar bone. What followed was true heroics – Stuff of Champions. Beckenbauer told to leave the pitch by the medical stuff was adamant not to. After running the show for most part of the match till then, Beckenbauer couldn’t have left his team 10 men against 11 especially since they were trailing. His incredible strength of character would see him continuing the match while carrying his dislocated arm in a sling. Nobody had seen such an incredible sheer will of character ever before. Beckenbauer would become a symbol of National Pride.
“I told myself (after his error that lead to German equalizer), there’s no other alternative for me but to get the ball, take it past everyone and score”Rivera after the game
The match would go onto attain the status of “Game of the Century”. Franz Beckenbauer, after being informed that the match had been ranked as the best ever by a collaboration of The Telegraph and World Soccer in 2007, would go on record saying:
“What people forget is how ordinary the first 90 minutes were. It was the 30 minutes of extra time that was so extraordinary.”Franz Beckenbauer after being informed of the match’s magnitude
After the great match, German Captain Seeler accentuating the positives told the press
”If we had to play in the final against Brazil after our extra-time games against England and Italy, we would lose by five. This way, we get to go home as the happy heroes in defeat.”Seeler after the game
For the record, the match would have made Italians so exhausted that when they would face one of the best World Cup sides in Brazil in the final, they would lose 4-1 with Rivera again starting from the bench and coming on in the last 6 minutes of play when nothing could have saved their day. Pele would say after the match, “I was worried that Rivera would come on, I thought that with Rivera Italy would e dangerous.”
Mexican football official would later place a plaque at the entrance of Estadio Azteca to commemorate and pay tribute to the amazing showcase that went down their – A match for ages, ‘The Game of the Century’.
Written by Haider Zulfiqar