Germany at the 1986 World Cup – Part I: The Group of Death

The 2014 World Cup has officially kicked off in Brazil with the first couple of matches already producing excitement, upsets and plenty of talking points.

Joachim Löw’s Germany, meanwhile, will kick off their campaign on Monday against Portugal as they try to end their 18-year international trophy drought and win their first World Cup since 1990.

In an excerpt from Robert Fielder “The Complete History of the World Cup” he looks back at the 1986 tournament in Mexico, an era which this current German team can draw a lot of parallels with.

Part I takes us through the group stage, then also dubbed the “Group of Death” with strong Denmark, Uruguay and Scotland sides.

As Germany approach the 2014 World Cup, 24 long years have passed since they last tasted glory on the global stage. Indeed the drought marks the longest period Die Mannschaft have gone in winning the game’s premier competition since they first entered the tournament in 1934. For the first time since victory in Switzerland in 1954, the national team bring with them players born after the side last triumphed at the World Cup.

Yet the general consensus is that this Germany team may be on the cusp of greatness. The blend of youth and experience that Joachim Löw has concocted means the squad are ranked by most bookmakers as Europe’s most likely contenders in Brazil. In many regards that reflects the side’s upwards trajectory and the foundations laid over recent years.

Much comfort can be drawn from parallels with the West German side of Franz Beckenbauer that claimed victory at Italia 90. Their success then owed much to the period of building that went before. Like Löw’s team they had consistently proven themselves as potential champions at the previous World Cup and the European Championships hosted at home in 1988. From that springboard, the eventual success in Italy was a natural step.

It all started in 1984 with the dismissal of Jupp Derwall following Germany’s failure to progress from the group stage of Euro 84 (effectively the quarter-finals given the fact that only eight teams qualified). Despite being, statistically at least, the national team’s most successful manager, Derwall failed to emulate his predecessors Sepp Herberger and Helmut Schön in capturing the ultimate prize. The appointment of Beckenbauer, only recently retired after a second spell with the New York Cosmos, was a bold one but it proved to be inspired.

Initially there were teething problems. Beckenbauer’s reign began with a 3-1 home defeat against Argentina but he secured qualification, despite a famous loss to Portugal in Stuttgart in 1985. Going in to the World Cup expectations were relatively low. Chief among the concerns was the absence of a playmaker in midfield, with Bernd Schuster, a tremendously elegant creator but a combustible presence in the dressing room, still refusing to play for the national team. For a country that had once had to choose between Wolfgang Overath and Günter Netzer it appeared to be famine or feast. In attack Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had declined since his move to Italy and there were worries about the fitness of the brilliant young striker Rudi Völler following a hernia operation. At least in defence the presence of world class stopper Karlheinz Förster and of veteran goalkeeper Toni Schumacher assuaged fears over their vulnerability.

To make matters worse the Germans were drawn in a particularly challenging pool, typically dubbed the “Group of Death” by the Mexican press. Uruguay were the reigning South American champions, a side including Enzo Francescoli, the superb forward who flitted between midfield and attack with tremendous grace and guile. Scotland were not to be discounted; managed by Alex Ferguson following the untimely death of Jock Stein, it was a team which drew heavily from his hugely impressive Aberdeen team. Meanwhile Denmark had demonstrated their class at Euro 84 and could call on the likes of Preben Elkjær-Larsen, who along with Hans-Peter Briegel had carried Hellas Verona to a Scudetto title, and a young Michael Laudrup.

Their opening match, against Uruguay, began in disastrous fashion as Lothar Matthäus, normally such a reliable player, committed a startling blunder. Receiving the ball not far from the half-way line, the Bayern Munich midfielder inexplicably elected to attempt a backpass towards Harald Schumacher without even looking to see what danger lurked amid the German defence. Sadly for Matthäus, rather than being the safe option, he invited trouble and picked out Antonio Alzamendi who rounded the keeper and struck a shot which clipped the underside of the crossbar before bouncing in.

A contest short on incident had to wait until the second half for the next promising attempt on goal.  Klaus Augenthaler, not known for his goalscoring ability, smashed the crossbar with a brilliant shot from long-range which swerved in the air and caused Alvez great discomfort. With time running out the Germans upped their efforts and, after a frenzied passage of play in which both Thomas Berthold and Pierre Littbarski had seen shots blocked, a long header forward from Augenthaler saw Klaus Allofs react most quickly to turn the ball past Alvez into the bottom corner. It certainly wasn’t a match to stir the neutral, disrupted by the regular fouls perpetrated by the Uruguayan hatchet men intent on unsettling their vaunted opponents, but both sides could be satisfied with a point.

The Scots had Jim Leighton to thank for keeping them in the following game as they withstood an early barrage. With only two minutes played, a back post header from Allofs looked a certain goal but Leighton produced a remarkable stop to claw it out. From the resultant corner, taken by Allofs, Hans-Peter Briegel nodded against the upright, allowing the Scots to breathe easily again. Fifteen minutes later they were in front. A ball down the line by Aitken found Strachan running the inside-right channel, the Manchester United midfielder hitting an early cross-shot which took a slight deflection and flew past Schumacher who had minimal time to react.

Almost immediately West Germany drew level when Pierre Littbarski’s searching pass put Allofs past the statuesque Scottish defence. His cutback cross allowed Rudi Völler to knock the ball into the empty net with his knee; a finish more effective than it was elegant. The Werder Bremen striker might well have handed Die Mannschaft the lead before half-time, profiting from a misplaced pass by David Narey and forcing Leighton into another impressive save.

Völler was involved again when the Germans did take the lead; his attempted dribble in the area ricocheting scrappily off the legs of Narey into the path of Allofs to score. It was symptomatic of a long period of pressure from Beckenbauer’s side who also forced Leighton into smart stops from Matthäus and Littbarski. Scotland had chances as the match wore on but West Germany picked them off cleverly on the counter.

From that high came a crushing low as Denmark inflicted a demoralising defeat on Beckenbauer’s boys. Denmark began brightly but two early let-offs gave the West Germans a lift. First Allofs drilled an attempt at goal which was competently dealt with by Høgh, then Brehme loosed a right-footed cannon from roughly 30 yards which cracked against the crossbar. The Danes weathered that storm and then pushed forward in search of a goal. It came moments before half time, dispatched by Jesper Olsen after Morten Olsen’s lung-busting run had been curtailed illegally by Rolff. That compensated for an earlier claim, for a foul on Arnesen that looked to have been inside the area, which was not upheld.

In the second half the Germans nearly drew level through Matthäus, the combative midfielder turning on the edge of the area and firing a powerful shot that was well saved. The frustration was obvious as Matthäus pounded the ground in disappointment at being unable to influence the game. As the match entered its final stages the Danes confirmed their victory as Mølby spread the play to Arnesen on the right, his low cross being turned in by John Eriksen. In the last minute of the game Arnesen needlessly kicked out at Matthäus after a robust tackle and was dismissed. It was the only sour note in a confident display from the Danes.

The real challenge beckoned in the knockout round…..

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