By 90Min
April 01, 2018

The title of this article seems like a bit of an exaggeration. 

No, not the 'World Cup Countdown' part, because we at 90min are currently counting down the weeks to the FIFA World Cup. And we're doing so by covering the most interesting stories from every single tournament that's been played since 1930. 

No, it's not the '12 Weeks to Go' part either; because that's a fact. It's a fact that in 12 weeks time we will all assume our position on the sofa, in front of the television, and proceed to watch a month of the highest stakes football of the year. 

The point of contention with the title of this article, lies in the exclamation that Italy and West Germany played a game of football worthy of the tag: 'Game of the Century'. 

The aforementioned, however, is not a use of hyperbole on my part to try and entice you to click on this article. Genuinely, it's not... but thanks for clicking on it anyways. Rather, 'Game of the Century' is the description given by FIFA - yes, a known trustworthy organisation - of the 1970 World Cup semi final meeting between Italy and West Germany. 

Due to this description, when I decided that it would be a good idea to write a match report on a game that was played nearly 50 years ago, I was pretty excited. I was excited to finally have an excuse to watch what is perhaps the greatest sporting event ever.

I wanted to believe FIFA's exclamation. So much so, that instead of just watching the semi final, I watched every game that both nation's played in the tournament up until their historic Azteca meeting. Contextualising the game - in my mind - would give every tackle, every pass and every goal (of which there were quite a lot), meaning. 

Italy - who were reining European champions - did not begin the tournament in a fashion fit for a continent’s finest. In their first game of the World Cup, a goal from Cagliari’s Angelo Domenghini, was enough to narrowly see off Sweden in Tuloca. This, however, proved to be Gli Azzurri’s only goal and win of the group stages, as Ferruccio Valcareggi’s men stumbled into the quarter finals with subsequent goalless draws with Uruguay and Israel.

Although the Italians were self nullifying in the final third - with Gianni Rivera and Luigi Riva failing to impress - the back four of Tarcisio Burgnich, Giacinto Facchetti, Pierluigi Cera and Roberto Rosato, were proving to be impenetrable. It was clear that once Rivera and Riva found some semblance of form, Gli Azzurri would be almost unbeatable.

Unfortunately for the host nation, Rivera and Riva found that form during their quarter final meeting. A 4-1 victory over Mexico, proved to the rest of the world that Valcareggi’s Italy were genuine contenders to lift the Jules Rimet trophy. 

While Italy's title credentials were only made explicit in the knockout stages; West Germany proved themselves during the group stages. The West German’s potent attack had grabbed European headlines during the early stages of the competition. 

Gerd Muller’s incredible haul of seven goals in the group stages, and his extra time winner in the quarter final win over England, made the burgeoning bomber one of the stand out performers in Mexico. 

Having Muller, veteran goal machine Uwe Seeler and the irrepressible talents Franz Beckenbauer in their ranks, Helmut Schön's men seemed capable of providing the West German populace with something other than Capitalism to celebrate.

So, I had brushed up on my knowledge of both teams, seen both teams play, and found that the narrative of the semi final was set to be: an impenetrable defence against a historically potent front line. With this narrative in mind, I proceeded to watch the 'game of the century'. 

The game began in a fiery fashion, with crunching challenges from Berti Vogts and Burnich signalling the beginning of a battle, and signalling my movement toward the edge of my seat. 

However, despite this frenetic start, there was a general lack of cohesion in both ranks during the opening exchanges. A lengthy delay before kick off to synchronise the two semi final’s kick offs looked to have brought anxiety to the fore, until Giancarlo Di Sisti’s pass found Roberto Boninsegna just inside the final third.

Boninsegna - coming off the back of a fruitful first season at Inter - proceeded to run at West Germany’s defence. With the drop of a shoulder he slipped passed Hannes Lohr and attempted to thread the ball through to his striking partner Riva. Although unable to do so, the ball fell kindly back into his path, and he subsequently drilled the ball past the hapless Sepp Maier.

The goal would be a wake up call for West Germany, who straight from the re-start almost levelled the game. A quick Beckenbauer free kick caught Gli Azzurri out while their vision was seemingly blurred by euphoria, as his through ball almost fell to the prolific Gerd Muller.

After this opening, I Azzurri resorted to their natural siege tactics, relying on the virtues of catenaccio. For 60 minutes, Ferruccio Valcareggi’s tactics worked, as Italy were able to largely curtail a West German bombardment on their goal. From Muller's trademark oscillating volley in the 25th minute, to Jurgen Grabowski's brilliant long range effort in the dying embers of the first half, Valcareggi's men had found a way to survive, and retain their slender lead.

On the hour mark however, Wolfgang Overath had seemingly - finally - breached the Italian backline. A low cross into the heart of the penalty area from Grabowski, fell perfectly into the path of the onrushing Overath. Despite the cross being perfect in weight and trajectory, the FC Köln man could only find the top side of the crossbar with his subsequent effort on goal. 

If Overath's miss was a moment in which the West German populace - with their heads in their hands - collectively muttered 'this just isn't our day' (in German, obviously), what would happen to Beckenbauer soon after, would lead to the aforementioned being uttered with much more conviction.

With a quarter of an hour remaining, in typical “Der Kaiser” fashion, Beckenbauer proceeded to power through the heart of the Italian defence with effortless grace and skill, before being cynically body checked by Pierluigi Cera,

The manner in which Beckenbauer would fall after this collision, would leave West Germany’s prized asset with a fractured clavicle. Due to West Germany already having used all their substitutes, Beckenbauer was forced to carry on for the rest of the game in a sling.

Franz Beckenbauer and West Germany’s misfortune, would provide the FIFA World Cup with one of the competition's defining images. 

Even without a fully fit Franz Beckenbauer, the West Germans maintained a vice-like grip on the proceedings. Their constant stream of misfortune continued however, with a Grabowski shot from the left hand side of the six yard box being exceptionally cleared off the line by Roberto Rosato. 

It was clear that Gli Azzurri were living a charmed life.

Italy’s defending - although effective throughout the majority of the game - oscillated widely between the sublime and the ridiculous. These oscillations were no more rapid than when Albertosi, through supposed self deprecation, decided to kick the ball directly at Grabowski, forcing himself to scamper back and miraculously prevent the ball from crossing the line.

When it seemed as though Italy had done enough to hold onto their one goal lead progress to the World Cup final; West Germany finally broke the deadlock. In the 89th minute Grabowski brilliantly curled the ball into the path Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who was able to coolly side foot the ball into the bottom corner to draw the German's level.

It was perceived that with the Italian defence's now breached, the West German’s would mount an all out assault in extra time and romp home to victory. And this seemed to be the case, when just four minutes into extra time, Muller gave his nation a 2-1 advantage. Substitute Fabrizio Polleti’s failed attempt of ushering the ball back to Albertosi, allowed “Der Bomber” to steal in and grab the advantage for West Germany.

In the space of just five minutes the Italian population went from the precipice of ecstasy, to the depths of melancholy. However, from the depths of the peninsula’s melancholy came an unrivalled show of character, as Italy found a way back into the game through Tarcisio Burgnich.

Burgnich's goal would set into the motion the 13 minutes of football which justify the claims that the semi final was the 'game of the century'.  

While West Germany poured men forward to regain the lead, it was Riva who snatched a goal for his Azzurri on the break. After a strong, determined, run from Domenghini, the striker found Riva with a chipped pass. The Cagliari striker controlled the ball with a deft touch, then with a flick of his boot, left his marker - Willi Schulz - for dead, before rifling the ball into the bottom corner.

Once again the game looked to be over; but this, once again, was not the case.

In the second half of extra time, fatigue evidently began to take its toll. Seeler rose above the leggy Azzurri backline to head the ball back to Muller, who stretched to flick the ball into the bottom corner.

Unbelievably, almost straight from the kick off Italy retook the lead through Rivera. The mercurial Boninsegna’s run down the left hand side of the field, and subsequent pull back, fell to the feet of Rivera. With the hopes of 53.8 million people burdened on his shoulders, the AC Milan attacker calmly stroked the ball into the bottom corner.

Finally, a goal would prove to be decisive, as the West German’s could not conjure up the strength to breach the Italian defence for a fourth and final time.

Italy had against all odds, reached the final of the FIFA World Cup. Granted, it was a final they would lose 4-1... but that's besides the point.

Honestly, for 90 minutes of this game, all I could think was: 'I've seen better games than this. I've seen better Italy - Germany games than this'. It was a good game - definitely better than any other game I've watch recently - but I was expecting the greatest match ever; and for 90 minutes, I didn't get that. 

In extra time though, something drastically changed. 

For those 30 minutes, I can unabashedly say that I was watching the most enthralling and dramatic 30 minutes of football ever. And for that reason, maybe the title of this article isn't hyperbolic. Maybe it isn't the statement of an opinion as fact. Maybe - for once - it's apt. 

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