Germany kicked off their own tournament in 1998 with what was probably the toughest game of the group against old rivals Italy. The Mannschaft had not beaten the Azzurri in the four competitive fixtures that had been played between the two sides since the FIFA World Cup in 1962, which made things doubly hard for a team that right from the start had found itself burdened by the pressure of expectation. Franz Beckenbauer’s team may not have come into the competition as the form side, but with the advantage of playing at home many expected them to capture a third European crown.
Having not qualified for the competition in 1984 the Italians were keen to make an impression, and featured a number of younger players who had forced their way into the national side after their second-round exit at the World Cup two years earlier. On what was a warm Rhineland evening the two teams took to the field – Germany in their traditional Schwarz und Weiß “flag” Trikot, and the Azzurri in their immediately recognisable blue and white.
The nerves took hold almost immediately, as within seconds of the kick-off a poorly-directed pass from sweeper Matthias Herget almost let the Italians in with a chance as Giuseppe Giannini forced Eike Immel into pushing the ball around for a corner. Minutes later a mistake at the other end almost let in Rudi Völler, but the chance didn’t quite drop for him.
With seven minutes on the clock Azeglio Vicini’s side created the first real chance, as Gianluca Vialli was allowed to charge through the defensive line and bear down on the German goal. Vialli’s shot was firm and on target, but was excellently blocked by the advancing Immel. Just moments later Paolo Maldini was then booked for clattering Jürgen Klinsmann as the game threatened to burst into life.
However after the slightly jittery start both sides started to settle down; the next half an hour would would see the home side do most of the running without really threatening Walter Zenga in the Italian goal, while the men in blue were content to bide their time and venture forward on the break. With the home crowd getting increasingly impatient, there were a more than a few whistles for both sides.
With some five minutes remaining in the first half Thomas Berthold rolled a neat through ball to Lothar Matthäus, and the German skipper advanced towards the Italian goal before being swiped down by Franco Baresi at the edge of the penalty area. It looked like an obvious foul, but referee Keith Hackett simply ignored the protests and waved play on. Two minutes later Matthäus looked to have been chopped down again, but once more the official raised his arms as the Italians quickly cleared the danger.
The final seconds of what had been a fairly listless passage of play saw the restless home crowd break into a Mexican wave, which seemed to prompt what was probably the most dramatic scene of the first forty-five minutes. Olaf Thon challenged Fernando De Napoli firmly from behind, prompting the prostrate Italian into petulantly swinging out his right boot. While the intent was obvious the Italian clearly missed the German midfielder, who nevertheless held his chest and hit the ground with a dramatic flourish. Rather than let things linger on and get nasty, the referee wisely blew for half-time.
The second half started as scrappily as the first had ended, with both sides making mistakes yet giving nothing away. Just past the fifty minute mark Franz Beckenbauer’s side won a corner out on the left, and in what was a spectacular set-piece move they almost took the lead. Pierre Littbarski’s left-footed corner was swung back outside the penalty area, where Matthäus hit a stunning volley with his right foot. The ball flew just high of the Italian goal with Zenga left completely standing.
With fifty-two minutes gone, a defensive error finally cost the home side. It should have been a simple clearance, but between them Thon and Matthäus – hardly the most effective defensive duo – contrived to lose control of the ball. While Thon could and should have hoofed it away from danger, he instead tried to find Matthäus with a short back pass. Crowded out by two Italians at the edge of his own penalty area, the German skipper tried to flick the ball back but only succeeded in hitting it against Roberto Donadoni, who then robbed a lazy Matthias Herget before finding the unmarked Roberto Mancini in the box.
Mancini, who hadn’t scored in his previous thirteen games, made the most of what was a gift-wrapped opportunity: he had plenty of time and space, and hooked the ball with his right foot across Immel – and into the left-hand side of the German net.
Germany knew they had to chase the game, and within minutes of falling behind found themselves with a free-kick inside the Italian penalty area. Having claimed the ball after a failed German corner, Zenga had held onto the ball for too long before clearing – and was immediately penalised by referee Hackett for taking too many steps.
With the Italian wall finally taking up its position ten yards from the ball, Pierre Littbarski played a little tap pass to his left, and Andreas Brehme arrived to drill a low left-footed shot through the wall and into the right-hand side of the Italian net with Zenga left completely wrong-footed. The awarding of the free-kick had been debatable, but the Mannschaft were back in the contest.
There was a slight change in momentum as the home side threatened to retake the initiative, but once again a defensive lapse almost let the Italians in. Herget was once again the culprit: the Bayer Uerdingen sweeper was unable to head the ball away, playing the ball right into the path of Paolo Maldini. The chance appeared to catch the young left-back by surprise, as he smashed his shot into the side netting with Immel beaten.
It had been a miserable evening for Herget, and the home crowd let him know what they thought in no uncertain terms. Uli Borowka replaced the hobbling Brehme and Dieter Eckstein came on for the ineffective and at times anonymous Rudi Völler, whose exit was greeted by a chorus of boos and whistles.
As full-time approached and things started to wind down the German supporters were far from pleased to see their side playing back passes in midfield instead of moving forward, but when the whistle blew it was pretty clear that both teams were satisfied with the result.
Having secured a precious point from their opening match the Mannschaft would take all of the points from other group opponents Denmark and Spain, propelling them to the top of the group and a grudge semi-final match-up against old rivals the Netherlands. Despite taking the lead Franz Beckenbauer’s side would be turned over by the Dutch, who came back to claim a last-gasp 2-1 win en route to winning their first major title.
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