Classic EURO Performances – England vs. West Germany – 1972 – The “Wembley Elf”

England vs West Germany – April 29, 1972 – EURO Quarter Finals – First Leg

It wasn’t a semi final or even a final but Germany’s first leg win in Wembley in their qualifying quarter final on that fateful rainy April day is still regarded by many as the greatest performance in German football history. Not only was there much at stake, the match determining a place in the 1972 European Championship finals, but the outcome also symbolized a divergent shift in the footballing fortunes of both countries.

Helmut Schön traveled to England without Schalke’s contingent of players due to the notorious Bundesliga scandal of that same year as well as influential playmaker Wolfgang Overath, reliable right back Berti Vogts and the experienced Wolfgang Weber. England meanwhile still remained fresh in the minds of many Germans thanks to their loss in the 1966 World Cup Final on the same ground. Despite England’s elimination in the quarter finals two years earlier in Mexico, they were still regarded as one of the best international sides in the world. Following that World Cup, they had gone ten matches unbeaten under Alf Ramsey and were for the most part considered favorites against a young and relatively inexperienced German side, a squad of players who were all still in their 20’s.

In fact, the average age of Schön’s starting eleven was just 23 years of age, four years younger than their English counterparts who featured five players from their World Cup winning side in 1966. Hoeness and Breitner, both 20, had just five caps between them and Schwarzenbeck was playing in just his tenth game for Germany. Schön also had to call up two player who had no experience with the National Team so far, Rainer Bonhof and Michael Bella. Even worse, Maier went into the match with an elbow injury that only the doctors knew about. There was also a sense of trepidation about the encounter, perhaps best epitomized by what Netzer said to Beckenbauer ahead of the game, “If we can avoid conceding 5 goals today we’d have pulled off a good result.” Schön

Nevertheless, the “Wembley Eleven” as they have come to be known were the following:

Sepp Maier – Horst-Dieter Höttges, Franz Beckenbauer, Georg Schwarzenbeck, Paul Breitner – Uli Hoeness, Günter Netzer, Herbert Wimmer – Jürgen Grabowski, Gerd Müller, Siggi Held

Few attendees in the packed Wembley stadium would have anticipated what was about to happen. In a flurry of green and white, Germany’s young and technically skilled players overwhelmed England right from kick off. The English did not know what hit them when wave after wave of attacks and quick combination play overwhelmed Ramsey’s men, both tactically and in pure footballing terms. Günter Netzer’s erratic yet elegant movement was like a tornado ripping through a straw hut and the interchanging of Jürgen Grabowski, Siggi Held and Uli Hoeness confused England’s markers. Goal scorer extraordinaire Gerd Müller constantly positioned himself in dangerous areas in and around the box and Franz Beckenbauer lead gracefully from the back.

England just could not pick up the Germans or discern what their opponents were doing. In theory they lacked the organization and positional discipline that would normally help a side win yet they were dominating the match. Germany took the lead after 26 minutes when England defender Bobby Moore failed to clear a cross and instead gave the ball away to Müller who immediately pinned it back to Held on the left. Held saw Hoeness making a run towards the box and laid it off for the Bayern midfielder to rifle the shot past goalkeeper Banks. Quickness of thought and excellence in execution silenced the Wembley crowd, the goal coming from a player who had made his international debut just a couple of months earlier.

The game quickly turned into a showcase of Germany’s new generation of technically gifted and tactically innovative players. Many must have wondered just what the Germans were doing when Netzer dropped into defense and Beckenbauer stepped into midfield or why their wide players didn’t just hug their flanks but came inside and dropped back. It was Netzer and Beckenbauer’s blind understanding that was at the heart of Germany’s wonderful performance, the two combining a total of 20 times in the match. Germany were practicing the kind of total football that most became familiar with two years later thanks to Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands. But on that day it was Germany that was capturing the imagination of the football world.

Germany could have added a second and third after they were denied two penalties when Emlyn Hughes took down Grabowski in the first half and Hunter tripped Müller in the box in the second. Despite their clear dominance the second goal refused to come though. Perhaps a result of their inexperience or just bad luck, their inability to kill off the game kept England in it. On 77 minutes England regained possession after a particularly bad challenge from Alan Ball on Wimmer and launched a counter attack down the right. Colin Bell’s shot was parried away by Maier but Frannie Lee was there to tap in the rebound. 1-1 would have been a great result for Germany but Schön insisted they kept pressing for a winner and not compromise their style.

Five minutes from time Held stormed forward and unable to catch him, Moore brought him down from behind, giving away a crucial penalty in the dying minutes of the game. Up stepped a confident Netzer. A slight readjustment of the ball and a quick brushing of his hair and Netzer put the ball past one of the great goalkeepers in the world. Banks stretched and got a hand to it but it wasn’t enough. England were behind again. It didn’t end there though. Hoeness picked up the ball on the right three minutes later, skipped past two England defenders and played the ball diagonally to Müller in the box. The striker stopped the ball, turned quickly and put the ball into the far corner without even looking up. He would score a similar goal two years later to win Germany the World Cup. For the time being, it gave Germany an irreversible first leg win, the second leg in Germany ending 0-0.

It was a truly historic occasion. It was Germany’s first international win in England since 1908 and also England’s first loss on home soil in twenty matches. It was a symbolic contrast of styles and a referendum on the evolution of football, the old guard against the new, a rigid traditional approach against a versatile multi dimensional system of play. Schön said after the match that it was the best performance yet by a German National Team while French publication L’Equipe called it “Dream football from the year 2000”. The narrative had finally changed and the new dynamic innovative style of football had won the day, clearing the path for Germany to dominate international football in the coming years and become the first team to win both the EUROs and the World Cup back to back while England continued to chase its own shadow and relive the glory of its own history. In 2011, German publication Sport Bild ranked Germany’s win as the greatest performance by a German team out of 850 international matches.

The Goals:

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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