The 1982 World Cup semi final between West Germany and France is rightly remembered as one of the greatest games in the tournament’s history. It was a German semi final to match the one against Italy in 1970, a comeback to rival the Miracle of Bern, a football feast equal to the Italy-Brazil match just a few days before.
And yet the abiding memory of the match is not a great goal, winning penalty, or piece of individual skill. The defining image is of German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher racing from his penalty area to commit the worst foul in the history of the World Cup.
Patrick Battiston, the unfortunate Frenchman on the receiving end, had seen it coming before he was even on the pitch. He had watched from the bench as Schumacher raked his studs down Michel Platini’s thigh, and then pinned Didier Six to the ground. Dutch referee Charles Corver ignored both offences, allowing Schumacher’s heightened adrenaline to flow unchecked.
It was a feisty encounter, but in the first half the beauty of the football was enough to suppress the moments of brutality. Pierre Littbarski struck the crossbar before breaking the deadlock for West Germany, firing through the crowd after French keeper Jean-Luc Ettori had foiled Klaus Fischer.
This was not the how the script was meant to play out. France were the neutral’s favourites, having defied pre-tournament odds of 33/1 thanks largely to their brilliant midfield, which was three-quarters of the way to Le Carré Magique. Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana were a trio to rival any in the world.
France restored parity within ten minutes of Littbarski’s opener. Corver pointed to the spot after a foul on Dominique Rocheteau and Platini kissed the ball before sending Schumacher the wrong way to level the scores – and light the blue touch paper.
As the red mist descended on Schumacher, Battiston took note. “I remember his attitude even when I was sitting on the substitutes’ bench,” he recalled. “I observed his behaviour, the way he clashed with Rocheteau and Six. I thought he was very hyped up, very excitable. I remarked on this to the other players on the bench.”
Five minutes after the restart, Battiston was subbed on in place of the injured Bernard Genghini. His cameo would last less than 10 minutes. Platini split the German defence with a precision pass which Schumacher came charging out to clear, but Battiston got their first. He poked the ball goalwards but didn’t get the contact he would have liked.
Almost everyone watching in the stadium and at home had their eyes on the ball as it bounced agonisingly wide of the post. It was only then that people started to notice the Frenchman lying prone on the turf, and the German keeper returning to his goal, nonchalantly chewing gum.
As the French players surrounded their stricken comrade and medical staff rushed onto the pitch, a replay made it apparent why the blue-shirted players looked so concerned. Schumacher had leapt at Battiston, his body twisting sideways and his hip bone connecting squarely with the Frenchman’s head, which was wrenched sickeningly back.
Platini, who held Battiston’s hand as he was stretchered off, briefly thought his teammate was dead. His pulse was weak; his complexion wan. Not only had Battiston been knocked unconscious, he’d also lost three teeth and snapped a vertebra. A red card should have been the minimum punishment. Corver didn’t even award a free kick.
Fuelled by a sense of injustice, France sought the goal that would take them to their first World Cup final. It took them until extra time, when defender Marius Trésor volleyed in from Alain Giresse’s free kick. Provider turned goalscorer when Giresse fired in France’s third six minutes later, and it seemed that justice had been done – France were surely into the final.
West Germany were the quintessential villains, infamously attracting the ire of the footballing world two weeks earlier with their non-aggression pact against Austria. Knocking out hosts Spain in the second group stage didn’t do much for their popularity among spectators either.
But whatever you think of them, they never knew when they were beaten. It was man of the match Littbarski who produced the moment of quality to haul them back into contention, crossing to Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who flicked the ball past Ettori to set French nerves on edge.
West Germany were now in the ascendancy and wasted no time in drawing level. Littbarski again provided the cross, which Horst Hrubesch kept alive at the back post. Fischer adjusted his body and produced a perfectly-executed overhead kick. Even Germany’s detractors had to stand and applaud.
As penalties loomed, it dawned on everyone that the villain would have the opportunity to be the hero. The cruel script smirked at France once more. Schumacher saved from Six and Maxime Bossis, and West Germany were into their fourth World Cup final. Some degree of justice was done when Italy outclassed them three days later, but it was scant consolation for France.
Initially, Schumacher was unrepentant. “If that’s all that’s wrong with him, I’ll pay for the crowns,” he reportedly said when informed of Battiston’s dental misfortune. In the aftermath of the tournament, a French newspaper ran a poll in which Schumacher was named the most hated man in France. Adolf Hitler was the runner-up.
In subsequent years, he began to regret his part in the incident. “It was cowardice,” Schumacher admitted. “The first moment of my life when I was a coward. I regret that the German delegation and myself didn’t go to the hospital to get the news about Patrick Battiston.”
There was also a private apology, which Battiston accepted, and two years later a moment of reconciliation. France and West Germany met in a friendly match in Strasbourg, after which Battiston and Schumacher swapped shirts.
It was a testament to Battiston that he was prepared to forgive and forget. The wider football world has never forgiven Schumacher, and never forgotten the legendary semi-final in which he played a sordid part.