RIO DE JANEIRO – Monday, the final rest day before the 2014 World Cup semifinals kick off, also was the 40th anniversary of one of soccer’s legendary matches, one that arguably represents its greatest collision of style and substance.
It was at Munich’s Olympiastadion where the Netherlands, led by Johan Cruyff, hoped to barge into sports’ most exclusive club with its dynamic and revolutionary “total football.” In their way: The experienced, disciplined hosts. The Dutch were ahead before Germany even touched the ball thanks to a foul on Cruyff and a successful second-minute spot kick by Johan Neeskens.
“We wanted to make fun of the Germans,” forward Johnny Rep said later in David Winner’s seminal 2000 book on Dutch soccer, Brilliant Orange. Winner described the Netherlands’ focus following the opening goal as one bent on “arrogant, taunting possession football, making beautiful patterns, demonstrating their technical superiority but inflicting no damage.”
Said Rep, poignantly, “We forgot to score the second goal.”
The hosts gradually took control of the game, scored twice before halftime and held on to claim their second World Cup. Germany’s will to win, as it so often did, trumped Holland’s desire for self-expression. The Germans would go on to play World Cup and European Championship finals in 1976, 1980, 1982, 1986 and 1990, when it won a third World Cup title under manager Franz Beckenbauer. The Berlin Wall had fallen and after defeating Argentina in Rome, Der Kaiser famously predicted that a reunited Germany “will be unbeatable for years to come.”
Beckenbauer was wrong. He never could have expected that a team so renowned for its precision and mistake-free efficiency – Cruyff once said of Germany, “They can never beat you, but you can lose against them” – would spend much of the past eight years enthralling the world with its football and falling short.
That phenomenon can be traced in part back to Jurgen Klinsmann. The current U.S. national team coach was Germany’s captain the last time Die Mannschaft won a major title (Euro ’96). He then took over as Germany’s coach in ’04, shortly after the team’s stumble at the European Championship. Along with assistant Joachim Low, Klinsmann built a squad that was young, mobile, skillful, and a lot of fun to watch. This was a new Germany, and the wins, goals and positive press flowed.
But there was nothing but heartache when the chips were down. Die Mannschaft lost in the semis of the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and Euro 2012. It settled for silver at Euro 2008. Failure to win the World Cup here in Brazil – Germany will meet the hosts in Belo Horizonte in Tuesday’s semifinal – would extend its major title drought to at least 20 years and ensure it goes a minimum of 28 without winning the biggest prize of all. That’s a German record that Low, who succeeded Klinsmann following the ’06 tournament, wants no part of.
Which brings us to Tuesday’s semifinal. It will feature two teams with a combined eight World Cup crowns that now are eager to prioritize pragmatism over panache. When the stakes are this high, style is secondary. While Germany is exhausted by the wait for another title, Brazil can’t afford to let a second opportunity to lift the trophy on home soil go to waste (the loss in 1950 still lingers).
This is a country that has won so many World Cups, a record five, that fans have the luxury to revere some championship teams less than others. The 1994 side, for example, was grittier than the Brazilian ideal, and in the eyes of many it may be held in lower esteem than even the stylish also-rans of 1982.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s 2014 team appeared willing to join its predecessor from two decades earlier and forego style for substance. Absent Neymar, it may have no choice. But that’s a fair price to pay for a historic Hexa.
"I have been criticized for saying this but if you can't play beautifully and win, you have to play the other way. You have to play ugly,” Scolari said several months ago. "It is great if you can play beautifully and win, but if you play beautifully and lose, well, that's horrible. People who want me to do that are idiots.”
After besting Croatia in the World Cup opener thanks in part to a controversial penalty kick, Brazil then was shut out by Guillermo Ochoa and Mexico. Scolari’s squad survived a shootout against Chile and then a foul-filled hackfest against Colombia to advance to Tuesday’s semi. But it lost Neymar – perhaps the one player who’d find a place on that 1982 team – in the process.
While there’s been considerable sympathy for the injured forward over the past few days, that sentiment shouldn’t extend to his teammates. Brazil committed 31 fouls to Colombia’s 23 and seemed to have as little regard for the well being of Los Cafeteros playmaker James Rodríguez as hitman Juan Camilo Zúñiga had for Neymar.
"You can't always enjoy yourself and win 4-0 or 5-0. Football nowadays is so difficult, so even, that the team who is most committed on the pitch ends up winning,” Neymar said prophetically before the quarterfinal. “I don't want a show. That's the last thing we are trying to do. We are not necessarily here to produce a spectacle. We are here to run to the end, until we are tired, and come out as winners."
No one will accuse Germany of putting on a show, either. It drew Ghana, managed only one goal against the U.S. then struggled to dispatch Algeria in the round of 16. Its 1-0 quarterfinal triumph over France here at a steamy Estádio do Maracanã was reminiscent of so many of those victories in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Low fielded a more static and balanced lineup. Philipp Lahm returned to his traditional spot at right back and veteran striker Miroslav Klose started up top, thereby creating more defined roles behind him. Low had said previously that Lahm would shift from midfield to defense only in an “emergency scenario.”
Few could have imagined that a French midfield anchored by Yohan Cabaye and 21-year-old Paul Pogba would qualify, yet Low said following the match that he made the move because he wanted to steer his captain clear of Les Bleus’ sturdy spine. That is reactive soccer – not the proactive approach of Germany’s recent past – but it was effective.
There was an early, set-piece goal (courtesy of defender Mats Hummels), an outstanding goalkeeping display (Manuel Neuer), a few hard fouls and the sort of midfield possession that sucks the life out of a game, and at the end, France probably thought it deserved more than a 1-0 loss. That used to be the genius of Germany, and it is once again.
Afterward, Low called his team “solid and stable.” Those aren’t inspiring words. But they’re winning ones.
"If you want to become world champions you have to win matches, but sometimes you have to win ugly matches, sometimes you need dirty victories, it's all part of it," 1990 World Cup winning captain Lothar Matthaus told reporters here in Rio. "We have been spoiled a bit over the last eight years by the German team playing technically clean football, the kind of style you don't expect from Germany … although it [this team] might not be [playing] the beautiful football we played in 2010, the victory is what is all important now."
There might be criticism or complaint from connoisseurs who believe the game is about more than the result. The Dutch used to feel that way, certainly, but clearly had moved on when it was time to batter Spain at the 2010 final in Johannesburg. Brazil and Germany now are focused on the bottom line as well.
“We’re playing the kind of football that will give us a chance to win … you cannot really always score two more goals than your opponent in the World Cup,” Hummels said at the Maracanã.
Or as fellow defender Per Mertesacker put it following the win over Algeria, “Do you want us to play beautiful football and get eliminated once again?”