There’s a tendency to focus on the winners in sport. With good reason. Winners bask in the glory and adulation of fans and media. But in sport, there are always two sides. With winners, there are losers. Every team has lost a big game at some point. Sometimes it’s a matter of the opponent being better. But there are some losses that are so painful, they crush the soul of the players, coaches and supporters. This series of articles focuses on the deep pain of sport. Bring tissues if your team is featured.
Germany are one of the most successful countries in international football. Four World Cups and three European championships is an impressive trophy case that makes other countries envious. But there is no shortage of painful, agonizing defeats as well. Here are the top five most heartbreaking losses in German soccer history. Oh, der schmerz! (Note: Some of these fixtures will feature West Germany as the country was divided for 40 years. Just to clarify.)
July 30, 1966. England 4, West Germany 2.
West Germany entered the 1966 World Cup with high expectations and something to prove. After winning the 1954 World Cup, die Mannschaft finished fourth in 1958 and were surprisingly eliminated by Yugoslavia in the quarterfinal in 1962.
This tournament also marked the debut of the next German superstar, Franz Beckenbauer. Despite only being 20 years young, the Bayern Munich prodigy was already turning heads with his skill and high intelligence.
Beckenbauer was to lead Germany in Group 2 where they expected to top the group. The West Germans started brightly with a 5-0 thrashing of Switzerland. But a goalless draw with Argentina raised concerns amongst the German camp. Those concerns were eased as West Germany produced a 2-1 result over Spain to top Group 2 and a quarterfinal berth.
If West Germany had any apprehension about playing the quarterfinal considering what happened to them four years earlier, it didn’t show. In front of a packed house at Hillsborough in Sheffield, West Germany trounced Uruguay 4-0 as Beckenbauer, Uwe Seeler teamed up with Helmut Haller’s brace to provide the offence.
The semifinal against the Soviet Union was a more tense affair as Beckenbauer and Valeri Vorinin each received yellow cards for a scuffle. Soviet forward Igor Chislenko was handed a red card for dissent after Haller had opened the scoring. Beckenbauer added a second goal before the Soviets got a consolation marker late. But it wasn’t enough and West Germany were headed to the Final.
There was plenty of pressure on the hosts England. The Three Lions had yet to have their breakthrough on the international stage in spite of being inventors of the sport. A goalless draw with Uruguay sent off alarm bells in the Old Country. But victories over Mexico and France gave England top spot in Group 1 and confidence.
A controversial quarterfinal victory over Argentina was followed by a semifinal result over Portugal. England had finally made it to the big dance and they were going to have a partisan crowd behind them.
Over 96,000 spectators jammed Wembley Stadium while a record television audience were tuning in. This was a Final for the ages.
West Germany used a four man frontline and it worked early on. Haller opened the scoring in the 12th minute after a misplay by English defender Ray Wilson off a Sigfried Held cross.
England returned the favour six minutes later as Bobby Moore’s free kick found the head of Geoff Hurst who finished with aplomb. The game was level at halftime but the drama was only beginning.
England took the lead in the 78th minute as Martin Peters finished a Hurst attempt following a corner. But West Germany equalized in the 89th minute as Wolfgang Weber was in the right place after a German free kick pinballed to the six yard box where Weber was waiting. Extra time was required.
The decisive blow came in the 111th minute but it was and still is disputed. A cross from Alan Ball found Hurst who turned and chipped it from close range. The ball hit the bottom of the crossbar and bounced straight down. After consultation with his linesman, Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst ruled it a goal, saying the ball went over the line. While the Wembley crowd cheered. the Germans howled in protest but to no avail. Television replays offered no indisputable evidence leaving viewers questioning the call. The goal stood and West Germany were stunned.
Hurst added his second of the match just before the final whistle as English supporters were about to invade the pitch.
While English fans were celebrating a World Cup, the West Germans retired to their dressing room. Some were angry over the controversial goal, others were in tears over coming so close, but falling short.
To this day, every controversial goal in Germany is called The Wembley Goal in reference to Hurst’s first marker in extra time. It still stings in Deutschland.
June 17, 1970. Italy 4, West Germany 3.
Four years after the heartbreak in England, West Germany went to Mexico searching for redemption. Anything less than a World Cup would be perceived as a failure for Die Mannschaft.
But this roster had a different look from 1966. Gone was Helmut Haller who was West Germany’s leading goal-getter in England. Replacing him fell onto the shoulders of Gerd Müller. The Bayern Munich striker was left off the 1966 squad but he would make an impact in 1970.
West Germany opened their 1970 World Cup campaign with a come from behind 2-1 victory over Morocco thanks to Müller’s decisive goal in the 80th minute.
Müller was just getting started His hat trick was the difference in Die Mannschaft’s 5-2 trouncing of Bulgaria and another Müller hat trick was vital in a 3-1 result over Peru. Through 3 games, Müller had 7 goals and was starting to be mentioned in the same class as the greats in the sport.
A quarterfinal fixture against England beckoned. Thoughts of four years earlier still haunted the Germans. They wanted to extract revenge on the side that cruelly ended their World Cup dreams in 1966. This was a chance for revenge.
The English supporters that were in Estadio Nou Camp in León greeted the West German squad with the “Two World Wars, One World Cup” chant that further fuelled the fire amongst the team. Things looked bleak when England jumped to a 2-0 lead early in the second half. But the will of the Germans wouldn’t break. Beckenbauer and Uwe Seeler scored within 14 minutes of each other to force extra time.
Time for Müller to become a legend in West Germany. He was held in check for most of the match as legendary English defender Bobby Moore had marked him closely. But all Müller needs is one chance. He got that chance in the 108th minute as he shook off Moore, found some space and directed the ball past English keeper Peter Bonetti, giving West Germany the win and avenging the bitter defeat of four years prior. A semifinal fixture against Italy awaited.
The Azure came into Mexico 1970 with something to prove. A shocking loss to North Korea in 1966 ended the Italian’s World Cup hopes and they were looking to redeem themselves. A victory over Sweden was followed with draws against Uruguay and Israel. While it was enough for Italy to top Group 2, it wasn’t inspiring confidence.
That changed in the quarterfinal as Italy thumped the hosts Mexico 4-1 in a brilliant performance. It was the best the Italians had looked in a long time and they were hoping to carry that momentum into the semifinal.
The two sides gathered together at the legendary Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. A crowd of over 100,000 people witnessed the spectacle at one of the great cathedrals in world football. What they were hoping for was a well played match. What they received was a fixture that is known as “The Game of the Century.”
Italy opened the game’s account in the 8th minute as Roberto Boninsenga’s strike from 20 yards out found the bottom left corner of the net. It remained 1-0 for most of the match.
In the second half, Beckenbauer suffered a dislocated shoulder but had to stay in the game as West Germany had used their two substitutions. West Germany pressed forward looking for an equalizer as time was running out. As Italian defenders were focused on Müller, an unlikely hero emerged.
Karl-Heinz Schnellinger knew the Italian game well. After all, he was playing his club football at AC Milan. But he wasn’t a goal scorer by any means. In fact, Schnellinger had never scored for Milan nor for his country either. Maybe that’s why the Italians left him unmarked or they were shocked to see the stoic defender push forward. Whatever the reason, it was Schnellinger that finished a Jürgen Grabowski cross in the 90th minute that forced extra time. It was in extra time that made this game legendary but also broke German hearts.
West Germany struck first in the 94th minute as the Italians were sloppy in clearing a German corner. The ball fell to Müller who nudged the ball across the line. The Azure evened the score four minutes later as the Germans failed to clear a set piece which Tarcisio Burgnich capitalized on the error. Italy took the lead in the 104th minute as Luigi Riva’s delicate left footed slider, rolled past German keeper Sepp Maier and into the back of the net. But Müller wasn’t done yet. In the 110th minute, Müller’s header off a German corner found the net to once again level the score. It was Müller’s 10th goal of the World Cup, a new record for the tournament. But the Italians had the last word. Right from the kickoff after Müller’s goal, the Italians quickly worked their way into the German end. A Boninsegna cross found the foot of substitute Gianni Rivera who finished with venom giving Italy the win while the Germans were broken-hearted for the second straight World Cup.
There’s a plaque outside Estadio Azteca commemorating the Game of the Century. For German fans, while they’ll admit it was a classic, it won’t mend the pain. Müller and company would have to wait four years before finally achieving World Cup glory.
June 29, 1986. Argentina 3, West Germany 2.
At the 1982 World Cup, West Germany were perceived as villains of the soccer world. To be honest, it’s more than a fair argument. From the shady match against Austria known as The Disgrace of Gijon to Harald Schumacher’s brutal challenge of Patrick Battiston in the semifinal, West Germany were the Darth Vader of football. They looked to change that in 1986. Legendary player Franz Beckenbauer was named manager in hopes to clean up German football.
The world wasn’t buying it. Not only was Schumacher back on the national squad, he was named captain of Die Mannschaft. It was a controversial move by Beckenbauer and he was criticized by media outside of West Germany.
West Germany’s first match was against Uruguay which was a physical, stringent affair. Yet it was West Germany that were the well-behaved side as no players were cautioned while Uruguay received two yellow cards in a 1-1 draw.
A vital 2-1 victory over a tough Scotland side had the West Germans in good shape. But a shocking 2-0 defeat to Denmark which saw West Germany booked twice while a Danish player was banished late had observers wondering if West Germany would fall back into negative, regressive tactics.
West Germany had another difficult challenge versus upstart Morocco in the Round of 16. Die Mannschaft struggled to break down Morocco’s fortress. But in the 88th minute, Lothar Matthäus cracked the code and sent West Germany to the quarterfinal.
Things weren’t going to be any easier for West Germany. The hosts Mexico awaited them in the quarters. There was one small advantage for West Germany. The match wasn’t going to be at Estadio Azteca but at the smaller Estadio Universitario in the resort city of Monterrey. Sadly, the match was a negative affair. Nine yellow cards were issued between the two teams. Each side finished the match with ten men as two red cards were shown, one to either team. (West German defender Thomas Berthold was given a straight red for a questionable challenge on Mexican defender Fernando Quirarte.) In his book The Mammoth Book of the World Cup, author Nick Holt described the game as nonsense.
Fittingly it was decided on penalties. The Germans converted on all four attempts while Mexico choked and only converted one out of three. West Germany advanced to the semifinal.
West Germany and France were set to meet in the semifinal for the second straight World Cup. Four years earlier, the two nations were engaged in a classic which led to bad blood and anguish from the French. Les Bleus wanted revenge in the worst way but Die Mannschaft foiled them yet again. An early goal from Andreas Brehme and a late tally from Rudi Völler gave the West Germans the win and a berth in the Final. Mercifully, no incidents marred this match. Awaiting West Germany was Argentina.
La Albiceleste weren’t highly regarded heading into Mexico 86 but their play changed the experts minds. Wins over South Korea and Belgium with a draw to defending champion Italy sandwiched in between gave Argentina top spot in Group A.
A nervy 1-0 result over Uruguay in the Round of 16 set up a memorable matchup with England. Diego Maradona took hold of the World Cup with two memorable goals to push Argentina through. A routine semifinal 2-0 result over Belgium set up a Final.
Most people talk about Argentina/England when they mention the 1986 World Cup but the Final is an excellent game. The West Germans will remember it with sadness.
Before the match Beckenbauer instructed Matthäus to mark Maradona at all times. While Matthäus was effective against the genius of Maradona, it left West Germany wanting in the midfield while providing Argentina space for anyone not named Maradona.
Argentina got the game’s opening goal in the 23rd minute as Jose Luis Brown headed home a set piece. It was Brown’s only international goal of his career. The rest of the first half was cagey as Argentina defended well while Matthäus kept Maradona in check.
The second half opened up as West Germany needed to find a goal to keep their hopes alive. But it was Argentina that struck again. In the 56th minute Jorge Valdano found space on the left flank and neatly tucked in a shot past a bereft Schumacher. It looked like Argentina were in control but West Germany refused to quit. With Beckenbauer instructing Mattäus to go forward and neglect his marking duties on Maradona, West Germany found life.
In the 74th minute, striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge redirected home a Völler header from a corner to pull West Germany to within one. Seven minutes later, West Germany equalized as Völler redirected a Berthold header from a corner. Suddenly, West Germany had momentum and optimism. That was crashed three minutes later.
Maradona provided the service with a lovely through ball that sprung Jorge Burruchaga. The brilliance of Maradona is he can draw defenders to him leaving acres of space for his teammates. West Germany fell into that trap and Burruchaga made them pay with a cool finish that brought Argentina the World Cup.
After the match, Beckenbauer admitted that his team was four years away from a World Cup, conceding they were somewhat fortunate in reaching the Final. But that was little consolation for some players. Schumacher, Rummenigge and Klaus Allofs who contributed two vital goals to the cause weren’t won the 1990 side that achieved glory. It was especially heartbreaking for Rummenigge who was a faithful soldier for West Germany who added a touch of class to a sometimes brutish side. Rummenigge remains the only captain to be on the losing end of two World Cup Finals.
June 30, 2002. Brazil 2, Germany 0.
When the debate about the best keeper to ever play the game is brought up, Oliver Kahn’s name must be in the discussion. The Bayern Munich shot stopper had a brilliant career for both club and country. Kahn was a focal point for Bayern’s Champions League title in 2001. In a tense final against Valencia that was decided on penalties, Kahn thwarted three Valencia attempts from the spot that gave Bayern their fourth European title and their first in 25 years.
Kahn wanted to do the same for Germany at the 2002 World Cup. However, most experts pegged this as the weakest German team in many years. Some even had Die Mannschaft not surviving the Group Stage, favouring Ireland and Cameroon instead. What many so-called experts forget is Germany can never be counted out at a major competition.
Germany’s first match was against Saudi Arabia. In the backdrop of pessimism, the Germans made a loud and thunderous statement. A Miroslav Klose hat-trick was the main ingredient as Die Mannschaft destroyed the Saudis 8-0. Whatever negative press the Germans were getting, it was quickly shelved thanks to that supreme performance.
Germany got a dose of reality against Ireland. An early goal by Klose gave Germany hope that they would have another cakewalk. But the resilient Irish clawed their way back and got a late equalizer from a Robbie Keane smash the Kahn only got a touch on but couldn’t prevent it from going in.
The final match of the Group Stage against Cameroon was a cynical, turgid affair. 14 yellow cards were issued between the two sides and both teams were shown a red leaving each side a man short in the end. Germany did enough though as Marco Bode and Klose scored and Germany won 2-0 to finish atop of Group E and advance to the knockout stages.
Germany’s opponent in the Round of 16 was Paraguay and once again it was a drab occasion. Oliver Neuville saved the Germans with a goal in the 88th minute. The only other notable moment came in stoppage time as a scuffle between Michael Ballack and Roberto Acuña took place. Ballack took a swipe to the face which led to Acuña’s banishment. However, the talismanic German midfielder received a yellow card for his involvement in the fracas which would hurt Germany later in the tournament.
A quarterfinal showdown against the United States was next. The Americans were one of the surprises in the tournament, scoring upset victories over Portugal and Mexico. But a strong Ballack header in the 39th minute and brilliant goalkeeping from Khan was enough for Germany to end the American dream. (Long live Dusty Rhodes.)
Germany had another contentious opponent in the semifinal with co-hosts South Korea waiting. The Koreans were another surprising team in the 2002 World Cup, producing stunning victories over Italy and Spain in the knockout stage. But the organized and efficient Germans were equal to the task. Khan was brilliant yet again between the sticks while Ballack scored with just 15 minutes remaining. However, four minutes before the goal, Ballack was shown a yellow card for a stiff challenge. Because it was his second yellow card of the knockout stage, Ballack would miss the Final against Brazil.
The Brazilians came into Japan/Korea 2002 as one of the favourites and they didn’t disappoint. After a narrow win over Turkey, Brazil thrashed China and Costa Rica to finish atop of Group C.
A routine 2-0 win over Belgium setup a highly anticipated quarterfinal fixture against England. After conceding an early goal, Brazil got the equalizer from Rivaldo at the stroke of halftime. Ronaldinho supplied the winner early in the second half with a brilliant, swerving free kick. Brazil then survived Turkey in a tense semifinal with Ronaldo’s toe poke being the difference.
The Final was billed as a clash between the best goalkeeper in the world in Khan versus the best goalscorer in the world in Ronaldo. The Brazilian striker led the tournament with 6 goals heading into the Final while Khan recorded 5 clean sheets throughout the World Cup, conceding only once in six matches and none in the knockout stages.
The Germans would be missing Ballack so coach and former player Rudi Völler opted for a defensive, patient approach and hope to catch the Brazilians off the counter-attack.
The German plan went well in the first half. They stifled the powerful Brazilian attack with a sturdy back four and an imposing midfield. Ronaldo did have his opportunities but Khan made two fine saves to keep the game goalless at intermission.
Germany did press forward to start the second half. Jens Jeremies had a free header off a corner but it was blocked at the last second by Brazilian defender Edmilson. Oliver Neuville had an opportunity with a set piece a few minutes later. The ball was well hit but Brazilian keeper Marcos just got a hand on it to steer it off the post and into safety. Germany started to wear down after that as Brazil really pushed forward. The breakthrough came at the 67th minute as Rivaldo’s low shot was stopped by Khan. But in a shocker, Khan spilt the ball as he tried to catch it. Ronaldo was there to pounce and he had no problem finishing. It was an unlikely error by Khan and the Germans were stunned. Ronaldo added his second with a well placed left footed strike that eluded the outstretched arm of Khan and into the corner of the net. It was lights out for Germany.
Despite his blunder in the Final, Khan was given the Golden Ball as MVP of the World Cup as well as the Golden Glove as the top goalie. But the individual accolades meant little to the German keeper. He left International Stadium in Yokohama in tears, knowing that the World Cup was in his grasp but he couldn’t reach it.
July 5, 2006. Italy 2, Germany 0.
Hosting the World Cup can have its advantages. A passionate crowd that will support you. Familiar surroundings. Family being close. Uruguay, England, Argentina and France all won World Cups on home soil.
Yet, hosting a World Cup can have its drawbacks. The unrelenting pressure from fans and media. Distractions from everywhere. Teams have cracked under the weight of hosting. Brazil have won more World Cups than anyone but the two times they hosted the tournament, they failed to hoist the coveted prize.
Germany was hosting the World Cup in 2006 with a heavy burden. The only other time Die Mannschaft hosted the tournament was in 1974, a tournament they won. The Germans not only had to deal with expectations of being host but with history of a great German team of the past that thrilled their hometown fans.
Germany got off to a great start at the 2006 World Cup. Playing their opener in Munich, the same city that saw West Germany lift the World Cup in 1974, Germany doubled Costa Rica 4-2 in the opening match.
Next up was Poland in Dortmund, home to arguably the most passionate fans in Germany. Borussia Dortmund are famous for having loud fans and an intimidating atmosphere inside Westfalenstadion. The building was shaking throughout and it reached a thunderous climax as Oliver Neuville potted the winner in stoppage time to give Germany a 1-0 win.
The final match of the Group Stage was against Ecuador in Berlin. It was no contest as Germany scored an easy 3-0 win and first place in Group A.
The knockout stage began in Munich as Germany faced Sweden. Allianz Arena was a cauldron and Die Mannschaft didn’t disappoint. Two early goals from Lukas Podolski were all that Germany needed as they cruised to a quarterfinal berth versus Argentina.
At this moment, the pressure started to rise as German fans began to believe this was their tournament. But Argentina had been playing some terrific football leading up to this fixture.
After a goalless first half, La Albiceleste opened the scoring with a Roberto Ayala goal in the 49th minute. Germany trailed for the first time in the tournament and the 72,000 that filled Olympiastadion in Berlin were nervous and quiet. A sense of doom started to creep in. But Miroslav Klose, one of the stars of the 2002 World Cup found an equalizer in the 80th minute to the relief of the home crowd. Nothing was settled in extra time so penalties were needed. Germany kept their nerve and converted all 4 opportunities while Argentina were stymied by Jens Lehmann on two kicks from the spot. Germany were on their way to the semifinal where Italy was waiting.
The Azure were in a state of controversy heading into Germany 2006. A match fixing scandal involving the likes of major clubs such as Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio was uncovered a month prior to the tournament. Key players such as keeper Gianluigi Buffon, defender and captain Fabio Cannavaro, midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo and forwards Alessandro Del Piero and Luca Toni were on clubs implicated in the scandal. This would test Italy’s resolve.
The Azure did fine in the Group Stage with wins over Ghana and the Czech Republic. However, a draw with the United States was costly as midfielder Daniele De Rossi was banned for four matches for a vicious elbow on Brian McBride.
Italy were locked in a battle with Australia in the Round of 16. It took a late penalty that Francesco Totti converted deep into stoppage time to see the Azure through. A dominating win over Ukraine in the quarterfinal setup the semifinal with the hosts.
Germany had some unfinished business with the Italians. The epic Game of the Century in 1970 and the 1982 Final both went Italy’s way at Germany’s expense. Germany had one advantage. Dortmund and their wild fan support.
Germany had the better of the chances but Italy’s defence and Buffon kept them at bay. It was goalless after ninety minutes meaning extra time was needed. History was on Italy’s side as the classic in 1970 proved. But Germany wanted penalties which is their specialty and Italy’s bane. Italy were knocked out in three straight World Cup via penalties. Coach Marcello Lippi didn’t want to repeat history so he went against the grain of Italian football. He told his team to attack.
Germany were caught flat-footed as Italy pressed forward. For a side that’s known for defending and patience, Italy surprised Germany by going on the attack. It worked as Fabio Grosso scored from an acute angle in the 119th minute to give Italy the lead. Del Piero sealed the deal finishing a lovely build up that left the Dortmund crowd stunned and crestfallen.
While Germany did win a third place game over Portugal, it seemed a bit empty. Even though this team wasn’t highly touted, they believed they could win the World Cup on home soil. Instead, the Germans can only wonder what might have been.
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