NO pressure, then. In Rio de Janeiro this afternoon, two teams are tasked with reproducing a match that is remembered for being one of the greatest clashes in World Cup history.
The opening quarter-final here in Brazil pitches Germany and France together; the match-up immediately calls to mind a classic encounter from 1982, in Seville, which saw West Germany progress to the World Cup final on penalties following an absorbing, and controversial, 3-3 draw.
Surprisingly, given that the countries are often referred to as sharing a football rivalry, they have only met competitively on three occasions. However, the past still stalks this fixture, with today’s date being another reason why yesterday’s preview press conferences were concerned with looking back as well as forward; 60 years ago today, West Germany celebrated what has since become known as their miracle of Bern, when coming back from two goals to down to defeat the imperious Hungary team of the time 3-2 in the World Cup final.
Joachim Low, the Germany coach, yesterday dismissed the relevance of this in terms of today’s match, but conceded that the teams are playing in a stadium “with a strong myth – it is a spur for us.” Indeed, no one requires an excuse to indulge in nostalgia at the Maracana, where even the dustbins are branded with images of the iconic stadium.
France, too, have their own motivation. Revenge is in the air. Their successive defeats at the last-four stage of the World Cup to West Germany in 1982 and then again 1986 still haunt the French psyche; the first of these is soldered in the memory.
Entertaining though a match ultimately decided on penalties undoubtedly was, its renown owes much to notoriety, and a certain goalkeeper’s challenge on Patrick Battiston that left the French substitute unconscious on the ground, minus two teeth (after being recovered from the turf, they were later exhibited in a museum in Berlin) and in need of oxygen. Few episodes in World Cup history have contained quite as much charge.
Harald ‘Toni’ Schumacher. For those of a certain age, long before Luis Suarez, it was the German who occupied the position of World Cup bogeyman. It was already well established that Schumacher had attitude; in the same game, even, he had eyeballed Michel Platini as the midfielder prepared to take a penalty that levelled the scores at 1-1.
At the time confined to the sanctuary of the substitutes’ bench, Battiston later revealed he had already noticed how ‘fired-up’ Schumacher seemed. Soon, he was to feel the full force of what some described as the goalkeeper’s almost murderous intent. They did later appear to make up, shaking hands in the full glare of publicity – to Battiston’s credit, there was no Suarez-style snub – when the teams met at the same stage four years later in Mexico, in what was the last competitive meeting between the teams until today.
Although not referred to directly, the episode still framed the pre-match briefings yesterday, as did something not quite so threatening to a player’s health as a collision with a six-foot-plus German goalkeeper; an outbreak of flu.
Low confirmed that a third of the German squad are suffering with sore throats. The manager expressed the hope that the worst of it has passed, and he attributed the strange phenomenon of falling prey to flu in Brazil as being the consequence of air conditioning combined with Germany’s schedule, which has seen them play in a downpour in Recife against the United States and in the currently chilly climate of Porto Alegre, where they eventually overcame the challenge of Algeria to secure a last eight meeting with France.
Low quickly closed down the suggestion there is any residual ill-feeling between the countries; indeed, he is preoccupied by the ill-feeling that is building at home towards him. Even though Germany have qualified for the quarter-finals, issues such as why is he persisting with Philipp Lahm in midfield and whether Mezut Ozil should be dropped or not dominate the German media agenda.
France manager Didier Deschamps, meanwhile, was revelling in the apparent lack of pressure.
His side have already improved on their last dismal showing at World Cup, when they failed to qualify from the group stage, and seem to be relishing a feeling that even being here in Brazil is a bonus: asked what the key to France’s improved performances is, Deschamps answered: “November 19.”
Asked to elaborate, he said: “Put it this way, the choice was to qualify or to stay at home.” This was a reference to the overturning of a 2-0 defeat by Ukraine in their play-off tie.
As for the history between France and Germany, he added: “History is what it’s been but we will try and write a new page, and we will try and this time make it as pleasant as we can.”
Allowing the spectre of Schumacher to further spread itself across proceedings yesterday was the subject of goalkeepers dashing from goal to become auxiliary sweepers, something which Manuel Neuer did to such good effect for Germany against Algeria on Monday – his moonlighting in this position even saw him even pull off a header. Hugo Lloris, like nearly every other player in both squads, was not born when Schumacher charged into history. Indeed, he was not born until months after the teams’ later meeting in Mexico.
However, Lloris was happy to reflect on what how his opposite number is re-defining the role of the goalkeeper.
“When the team plays high, you ask the goalkeeper to play a little bit higher up too; you have to be a complete player,” he said. “Neuer did it in the Alegeria game. He is multi-skilled. You have to adapt to the needs of the team.”
Low later suggested Neuer was so good with his feet that he could play in midfield, while Toni Kroos, the German midfielder who yesterday denied reports in Spain that he has already signed for Real Madrid from Bayern Munich, described Neuer as the “11th outfield player” So do not be surprised if a German goalkeeper is once again seen darting from his box during this afternoon’s match; the hope is that it does not, on this occasion, cause a diplomatic incident between the competing countries.