So deep was the scar of losing the 1974 Word Cup final to the Germans that Johan Cruyff nearly flung a stubbed cigarette at a Spanish journalist who asked him to relive the defeat. But in his mellow years, he would chide himself and his teammates: “We’d have won if one of us was a German.”
Cruyff’s total footballers lacked neither skill nor personality compared to the Germans, but they lacked, according to him, “the character and resilience.”
“Every time I see them win a World Cup, I wonder where they buy those (traits) from?…” he’d say whenever Germany won the Cup, and in his own lifetime he had seen them claim four.
The Dutch legend,who died in 2016, would have repeated the same lines, if he’d seen Toni Kroos, with a stupendous free kick, rescue the defending champions from the brink of elimination. Just imagine being in Kroos’s boots or his mind before he twisted the knife straight through the heart of Sweden’s indefatigable yellow wall, and plunged their raucous supporters into mourning.
Down to 10 men, their physical and mental reserves drained, Kroos, and Germany, were clutching at the proverbial last strand of straw, his own fate oscillating between Ronaldo-like majesty and Messi-like recrimination, more so the latter as he was already culpable of giving the ball away that put Sweden in front.
But Kroos, hiding in his boyish smirk, was a composed man, plotting the deception, conceiving the flight, calculating the curl, imagining the bewildered eyes of the goalkeeper, as the ball swerved past him into the shivery net.
The ingenuity, execution and technical perfection of the shot was lost in the drama of the moment. For starters, he had to lift the ball over the scattered wall, bend it just enough to beat the goalkeeper. Kroos knew the angle was so acute that he rolled the ball to Marcos Reus inside the box, who killed it dead, allowing Kroos to have a less-populated path, though he still had to swerve the ball to beat both the wall and the ‘keeper, which he did with laser-guided precision.
Perhaps, the biggest tribute to the goal on social media came not from sentences, but monosyllabic words. Former Formula One world champion Nico Rosberg tweeted: “Yessssss…” His former club Bayern Munich wrote: “Krooooosssss.” The baffled Piers Morgan yelled: “Whoooaa”. Commentators world over were lost for words. It pleased the normally hard-to-please former German skipper Lothar Matthäus no less: “This goal (from Kroos) is as important as the goals in the World Cup final in 54, 74, 90 & 2014. We had the Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer, now we have King Toni Kroos! I’m very happy for him.”
The great escape
It was a comeback of the grandest scale that would have made even the Kaiser proud. But while Kroos’s free-kick goal would remain the metaphor of their great escape, the victory was a tribute to the less appreciated German-ness of Joachim Loew’s side. This needs to be put into perspective, as Germany under Loew has been criticised for a distinct lack of German-ness, especially his lucid playing style and false-nine fixation, as opposed to gritty merchants of Matthäus, for the wastefulness upfront, contrary to the fabled precision of Gerd Muller and Jurgen Klinsmann, Oliver Bierhoff and Miroslav Klose, for the fragility of their “playmaking defenders”, their lack of ruggedness.
But this was the night the German-ness of Loew’s side shone more brightly than ever before, not in the physical sense of it, but in their relentlessness and industry. He showed the courage to drop one of their mainstays, Mesut Ozil. Then at half time, a goal down, he made a change that reasserted their quality in the match — replacing the underwhelming Julian Draxler with Mario Gomez, a striker-for-centre-forward switch, a seemingly conservative change of tactics and formations, but gloriously vindicated in the end.
Straightaway, Gomez dragged the defence farther away from the midfield than they wanted to go. As a result, Thomas Muller regularly made use of this space, drifting in behind as a second striker, twinkling past the defenders with his raw pace. Likewise, Timo Werner, drifted to the right, had more spacial liberty. Besides, Gomez offered an aerial threat — and he almost scored off a thunderous header from six yards but for goalkeeper Robin Olsen’s terrific reflexes — that prevented opponents from simply sitting deep. Simply put, for a team operating in two clear lines of defence, eliminating the space that Muller, Reus and Werner like to run in and keep pressing them, Gomez offered them something different to think and deal about, un-cluttering the channels for his more creative forwards to utilise.
It was selfless labour from a man who has criticised Loew for ignoring centre forwards after Klose’s retirement. “People say it is true that Barca play without a centre forward [but] Lionel Messi is a brutal centre forward. The point is that there are few opportunities in top games. For this, you need a striker who has the absolute will to achieve the goal,” he said after Loew had made it public that “it’s not necessary to have the big, bulky striker up front anymore.”
The second half-display should dispel doubts of creative stasis; they were wasteful, but they were creative, and with better execution and luck would have consigned Sweden to shambles. Loew, though, is far from a happy man, especially with their wafery backline, which has already lost the seasoned but undercut mainstay, Jerome Boateng (some feel they’ll be better off without his clumsiness), his trusted partner recovering from a neck strain, and not blessed with too many options on the bench. But Cruyff would have us believe that “their character and resilience” would take them through. Out of the group and well beyond.
‘In the end, they always win’
German resolve is legendary. Not for nothing are they one of the most consistent teams in WC history. Time and again they have displayed their attitude, bouncing back from points of no return, the latest example of which came against Sweden in Sochi. It just reinforces the dictum: Write off Germany at your peril. Here is a blast from the past.
Miracle of Bern, 1954: Ferenc Puskas’ Hungary were the overwhelming favourites going into the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. In their first two games at the World Cup, they had scored 17 goals, including an 8-3 win over West Germany. When the teams met again in the final, something similar was expected, especially after two goals in the first eight minutes from Puskas and Zoltan Czibor. But, the West Germans hit back immediately, with goals from Max Morlock (10th minute) and Helmut Rahn (18th). The latter sealed his country first world title six minutes from time.
England dethroned, 1970: Defending champions England looked on course in their quarterfinal against West Germany. Alan Mullery put them in front in the 31st minute, with Martin Peters doubling the lead in the 49th. Franz Beckenbauer pulled one back for West Germany in the 68th minute when his shot went under the body of Peter Bonetti, standing in goal for the indisposed Gordon Banks. An 82nd-minute equaliser from skipper Uwe Seeler sent the game into extra time where Gerd Muller scored the winner. England has been waiting ever since.
Dutch denied, 1974: Johan Cruyff’s Dutch squad of 1974 is considered one of the best sides not to win the World Cup. Blame West Germany for that. In the final, Johan Neeskens put the Netherlands ahead with a second-minute penalty. But as the Netherlands failed to get a second goal, the hosts hit back. A 25th-minute penalty from Paul Breitner got West Germany level. And with two minutes left in the first half, Gerd Muller put them ahead.
Tragedy of Seville, 1982: France and West Germany met with a spot in the final against Italy up for grabs. The match went beyond 90 minutes and when Le Bleus took a 3-1 lead halfway through the first period of extra time, it looked like a done deal. But goals from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Klaus Fischer brought West Germany level. In the shootout, West Germany prevailed when Maxime Bossis’ effort was saved by Harald Schumacher.