Germany’s upcoming Euro 2016 qualifier against Poland is actually the seventh competitive encounter with their Eastern neighbours, with the most recent coming at Euro 2008 when Joachim Löw’s side would triumph courtesy of two goals from one of their Polish-born stars, Lukas Podolski. There would also be the dramatic 1-0 win for the Nationalmannschaft in Dortmund in 2006 and a less entertaining stalemate in Buenos Aires in 1978, but there is one game that will always live in the memory for every Germany fan, even those who may not have been around to witness it first-hand.
On 3rd July 1974 Helmut Schön’s German team would take on a star-studded Polish lineup at Frankfurt’s Waldstadion.
The tournament had not started particularly well for the Germans. Pre-tournament wrangling over player wages would define the build-up to the tournament, and a lacklustre 1-0 win over Chile would be followed by a more comprehensive but arguably flattering 3-0 win over minnows Australia. Then would come the meeting with the GDR in Hamburg, and a 1-0 defeat that would remain one of the low points in the teams long and illustrious history.
As well as providing the communist East with a major source of political capital, the defeat in Hamburg would drive coach Helmut Schön to the very edge of sanity. However, it would also serve as something of a spark to the team, whose mission it now was to save themselves from being seen as a laughing stock. Losing to the GDR was bad enough; if the first phase was flat and devoid of spirit, the three second phase matches would witness a clear change in approach and mentality. A 2-0 win over Yugoslavia was followed by an entertaining 4-2 defeat of Sweden took the Germans onto four points from two games – with the final game against Poland deciding who would take their place in the final.
Inspired by the balding genius Grzegorz Lato, the Poles had won all five of their matches at the tournament, dispatching both Argentina and 1970 finalists Italy in the first phase. Wins against the Swedes and Yugoslavs in the second phase group had taken them level with Germany on four points, but with an inferior goal difference – meaning that the Germans only needed a draw at the Waldstadion.
As the day of the game drew near, there were fears that the pitch would be unplayable. Days of unrelenting and heavy rain had turned much of the pitch into a quagmire, resulting in the kickoff being delayed as – quite literally – all hands were put to the pump. In scenes virtually unseen today due to the presence of sophisticated pitch draining systems, tens of pitch staff and the local fire brigade set about removing the excess water. The conditions led to the match being dubbed Der Wasserschlacht von Frankfurt – “the water battle of Frankfurt” – though perhaps rather ironically, the match kicked off in bright sunlight.
Playing in an all-white strip, Schön’s side were able to withstand everything the Poles threw at them during the first forty-five minutes – with der Katze von Anzing Sepp Maier producing a series of brave saves. Germany had to wait until the second half to really get back into the game, and had the perfect opportunity to take the lead from the penalty spot when Bernd Hölzenbein was upended in the box by Władysław Żmuda – but Uli Hoeneß’ shot was weak, and was easily saved by Polish ‘keeper Jan Tomaszewski. It was to be the last penalty missed in normal time by any German player until South Africa 2010 when Podolski had his spot-kick saved against Serbia.
With fifteen minutes left on the clock, Hölzenbein found space in midfield, threading a neat ball through two Polish defenders that found Rainer Bonhof inside the area. Managing to stay on his feet in what was quickly turning into a quagmire, Bonhof laid the ball inside to Gerd Müller, who settled himself before drilling a first-time shot into the back of the net. It was Der Bomber’s thirteenth World Cup finals goal, drawing him level with Frenchman Just Fontaine. Wolfgang Overath forced a great save from Tomaszewski before Maier pulled out another magnificent stop to keep the score at 1-0 – and Germany had made it through into the final.
With that defeat, the opportunity for what arguably the greatest ever Polish team had gone. They would remain on the fringes of world footballing power until the early mid-1980s, but would then fall away dramatically. With modern pitches and the technology that goes with it there is little chance of there being a Wasserschlacht in Warsaw, but Adam Nawałka’s side will certainly be looking to revive memories of forty years ago when they take on the reigning world champions.
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