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Wembley loss in '72 marks turning point in England-Germany rivalry


When did England cease to be world champions? In a literal sense, it was in June 1970, as West Germany beat England 3-2 in a World Cup quarterfinal in Leon. But psychologically, it wasn't until April 1972, when West Germany won a European Championship quarterfinal first leg 3-1 at Wembley, that the fact that England was no longer the best in the world became incontrovertible. What had happened in Mexico could be blamed on heat, foreign conditions and a stomach bug picked up by the goalkeeper, Gordon Banks; at Wembley, though, there were no excuses.

Back then, England and West Germany had won one World Cup each.

England had only suffered its first defeat to West Germany in 1968 -- and that in a friendly when England had been preparing for a European Championship semifinal -- and probably regarded itself as the more senior football nation. But West Germany, for bewildering 35 minutes, played what the French sports paper L'Équipe hailed at the time as "football from the year 2000." England were far from cloggers, but the assessment of Helmut Schön, West Germany's coach, rang horribly true and continues to do so. "They seem to have stood still in time," he said. "Of course, they gave us a fight, but we were far superior technically."

England had come home from the 1970 World Cup feeling slightly unfortunate, and with no sense of imminent crisis. England swept the Home Championship (an annual competition featuring Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that was discontinued in 1984) and qualified for the quarterfinal of the European Championship with ease, dropping a single point in topping a group comprised of Switzerland, Greece and Malta (the tournament in those days consisted of a group stage, followed by a two-legged, home-and-away quarterfinal, before the remaining four sides met in a single location for the semifinals and final). There were suggestions that England was boring, but then there always had been under Alf Ramsey.

Yet Ramsey's mistake for that game -- if he was to blame at all -- was to select a 4-3-3 with no midfield holder. Perhaps he had been stung, although it seems uncharacteristic for such a thick-skinned and self-assured figure, by the criticism of his perceived negativity. Or perhaps he had been misled by the widespread belief that West Germany would set out to defend, but he selected Colin Bell, Alan Ball and Martin Peters, all of them creative players. Even worse, with the center back Roy McFarland injured, Ramsey decided to play Norman Hunter, more usually a midfielder, alongside Bobby Moore. England would be castigated for its supposed lack of invention; actually the problem was at least as much that it lacked a tackler, somebody who could reassert control with a couple of crunching tackles. West Germany played brilliantly, but there was a sense that it was allowed to.

Gunter Netzer had been a doubt with a knee injury, but he recovered and was deployed to the left of Herbert Wimmer -- "Iron Lung" as he was known for his prodigious stamina - in a midfield three. Netzer would be the game's outstanding player, promoting and probing, orchestrating the play in a way wholly alien to the English mind-set. The real surprise, though, was the inclusion on the right of midfield of Uli Hoeness, a 20-year-old forward from Bayern Munich, who was still waiting for the Olympics before turning professional. He had scored in his only previous international appearance, a 2-0 win in Hungary a month earlier, but from a more advanced position; Schön's decision to use him in a deeper role in place of the more experienced and more conservative Heinz Flohe was uncharacteristically adventurous.

That positivity of outlook was reflected in their play. Immediately, West Germany spun long skeins of passes, not necessarily quickly and not necessarily going forwards, but always, almost hypnotically, moving the ball, interchanging positions. The two fullbacks, Horst-Dieter Höttges and Paul Breitner switched to such an extent that, taking the game in isolation, it would be difficult to say which was the left back and which the right. Broadly speaking Höttges picked up English striker Geoff Hurst, but that aside they both seemingly had freedom to create their own roles, often pushing forwards to support the two wingers, Jürgen Grabowski and Sigi Held. Even calling them wingers, though, seems misleading, for both were prepared to drop deep or move centrally. And that, really, is the most striking thing: essentially each phase of football's tactical evolution led to greater fluidity, with the result that the great flexibility of the Hungarians of the fifties, say, seems pedestrian to modern eyes; so fluid were West Germany, though, that it still looks extraordinary today.

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And at the center of it all, of course, controlling and organizing as Johan Cruyff did for the Netherlands, was Franz Beckenbauer. On every previous occasion he'd played against England, Beckenbauer had operated as a midfielder, but with Willi Schulz finally coming to the end of his career, he had, to the bewilderment of the English media, dropped back to become a libero. He was always there, just behind the line of the attack, a safe outlet when moves threatened to break down, and England's forwards, evidently unused to the notion of marking a defender, made little effort to close him down.

The football West Germany produced in the first half was breathtaking.

"The magnitude of our performance," said Beckenbauer in Tor! The Story of German Football (by Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger), "was really just like a dream. I have never shared in a finer West German performance.

Everything we wanted to do, we did. The moves, the idea and the execution all happened." As England staggered off, battered and bewildered, at halftime, the miracle was it was only one down, Hoeness having capitalized on a mistake by the ageing Moore to thud a shot past Banks.

England, to its credit, rallied, and with West Germany unable to recapture the rhythm of the first half, the home side had the better of the second, equalizing from Francis Lee's tap-in after Germany's goalkeeper Sepp Maier had parried an angled drive from Ball. With 12 minutes remaining, it seemed England might even go on to win. But five minutes later, Held got behind Moore, whose pace was no longer sufficient to catch him.

The England captain tripped him, conceding a penalty that Netzer converted. Two minutes later, Emlyn Hughes was caught in possession by Held who fed Hoeness. He drifted along the top of the box then laid in Gerd Müller. Characteristically, the arch-poacher turned and hooked a low finish past Banks. The 3-1scoreline was an accurate reflection of the match, even if the second and third goals hadn't come in the time of German supremacy.

West Germany went on to win the European Championship that summer, followed it up with the World Cup two years later, and were finalists against in the European Championship in 1976. For England, though, the truth was all too apparent. The World Cup winners -- five of whom had started at Wembley -- were too old, and the sport was moving into the era of Total Football, a radical philosophy with which conservative England never came to terms.

Failure piled on failure, and the seventies became the most barren decade in England's international history. Eight years after winning the World Cup, it didn't even qualify for the tournament in West Germany, and it would be until 1980 that England again took its place in an international tournament. Not until Euro 2000 did England again beat (west) Germany in a competitive fixture. Netzer himself, the architect of the victory at Wembley, soon faded from the international stage, but for England, his legacy was long and bleak.