When you think of the German national football team – Die Nationalmannschaft – words like unflappable, tenacious and formidable come to mind.
You can never count them out, they always find a way to win.
The numerous penalty shootouts won, the almost constant appearance in the later stages of any tournament, the years of hurt given to footballing powerhouses like France, England, Argentina and Portugal, those are the abiding qualities of the Germans. Oh, and four World Cups plus three European Championships won too.
But there is one team that is to the Germans what the Germans are to so many others. A true bogey team. A team that has been involved in many a harrowing night for Die Mannschaft over the years. And that is, of course, Italy.
Italy are one of the few teams to have a positive win-loss record against the Germans not only in friendlies but also in competitive matches. In fact, their dominance over the Germans is such that the Azurri have never lost to Germany in competitive fixtures.
That includes two World Cup semifinals, one World Cup final and one Euro semifinal too.
And they’re about to face each other again on Saturday.
Their first meeting of note was in the 1962 World Cup – a goalless draw in the group stages – but their rivalry really kicked off in the heat of Mexico City in the 1970 World Cup semifinal.
Having led for most of the game, Italy thought they were heading for a final meeting with fellow two-time champions Brazil, only for Germany’s, and ironically AC Milan’s, defender Karl-Heinz Schnellinger to equalise and send the match into a frenetic period of extra-time.
Five goals were scored, and the lead changed hands three times, as ‘Der Bomber’ Gerd Mueller’s two goals were trumped by goals from Tarcisio Burgnich, Gigi Riva and Gianni Rivera.
The incredible ending to the match, along with the performances of the players (Franz Beckenbauer played most of the match in a sling after Germany had run out of their two substitutions) led this match to be named ‘La partita del secolo’ or the match of the century.
There is a commemorative plaque at the Estadio Azteca where the match was played. And while Italy won the match, the fatigue due to being pushed to the brink by Germany was probably a factor in the 4-1 defeat in the final to Brazil.
After another goalless draw in 1978, the teams met in the 1982 World Cup, this time in the final itself. This time the Germans were clearly outplayed and lost 3-1.
The Germans were the villains of the tournament in a way, after the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ and the infamous semifinal against France, while Italy, having beaten favourites Brazil, were the ‘righteous’ winners.
Before their next meeting in a World Cup, the two heavyweights played out two draws in European Championships, the latter of which resulted in Italy being knocked out of Euro ‘96, a tournament won by the Germans.
But the next memorable match between them echoed their 1970 World Cup encounter – 36 years later. Another semifinal, another period of extra time, and another memorable Italian win. Yet how different this match was.
The young German team riding a wave of momentum and home support in Dortmund, against the Italian golden generation desperate to end their 24-year wait for trophy. The disparity in the respective line-ups was stark.
In a seesaw match which saw almost everything except for a goal, penalties loomed as the last couple of minutes of extra time rolled in.
Then Andrea Pirlo dummied and passed to an unmarked Fabio Grosso, and the rest was history.
Grosso’s goal was followed by one from his Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero, and the Germans were dumped out by the Italians again.
The semifinal in 2012 was another jolt to the Germans, and probably the match that really made us wonder whether there really is a curse.
The Germans were touted as favourites for the tournament, with a young and vibrant team while the Italians were unheralded, with a mix of journeymen and youngsters, interspersed with a few old heads – world class old heads, mind you.
90 minutes and Mario Balotelli’s memorable goal and celebration were all that were needed for Italy to progress to the final. Germany were given a punch to the gut, and it could be said that the disappointment of this match was the springboard from which they went on to fulfill their destiny two years later in Brazil.
Which brings us to today. The circumstances heading into the quarter-final are almost exactly the opposite of 2006, and eerily similar to 2012, only reinforced. Germany are the clear favourites, while Italy are the upstarts, unfancied at the start by both pundits and supporters alike (including yours truly), yet with a couple of massive results have all the momentum. Whereas Germany have not been challenged at all and have rumbled on only as the Germans do.
Surely the Germans should win right? Right?
It’s funny how supposed jinxes and hexes work in football, and sport in general. We’ve seen numerous examples in the game where a curse seemingly works its magic over a team, and they fail to break it.
Benfica and the curse of Bela Guttmann are a prime example of this – a team that regularly won European trophies in the early 60s, have now gone 54 years without a triumph and lost eight European finals since.
Or take for example Liverpool’s continuing quest to win a first ever Premier League trophy. Or England’s woeful record in penalty shootouts, or even Lionel Messi’s trials and tribulations with his national team.
In each of these cases the curse has taken a firm root in the minds of the people involved. Benfica lost two consecutive Europa League finals in 2013 and 2014 – one in the final minute against Chelsea and one on penalties against Sevilla.
Liverpool were so close to sealing a title in 2014, but a slip from Steven Gerrard, and then a capitulation at Selhurst Park from 3-0 up put paid to those aspirations. England’s and Argentina’s woes on penalties can easily be explained by a mental block, if we discount the luck factor.
Are Germany perturbed? One cannot be sure, and the players are definitely not letting it out, talking all the right things and playing down any suggestions of a curse.
If anything, the main talk about any superstition is coming from the media including, admittedly, articles such as this one. Italy have nothing to lose, and it seems might be hoping that a mental distraction might make up for the deficiencies in the talent of the team.
While most of the Italian team from the 2012 semifinal has moved on (except, crucially, the bedrock of the side – the BBC trio in defence and captain Gigi Buffon), the Germans could have as many as seven players from the side that started the match in Warsaw on Saturday.
All seven will be extremely motivated to gain revenge, especially centre backs Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng, who were outplayed by their Italian counterparts four years ago. The rather misfiring attacking duo of Eder and Graziano Pellè will have their work cut out.
Plus, a huge difference between the team that played in 2012 and the one that will play in 2016 is the fact that the German players are proven winners now.
In 2012, the spine of the team that mainly comprised Bayern Munich players had just come off a harrowing loss on penalties in the Champions League final to Chelsea, whereas now not only have the Bayern contingent won the Champions League, but the Germans are also World Champions. They have exorcised those demons.
And if we have to look for patterns, here’s another one. Before their 2006 semifinal, the two sides played a friendly in Florence in March, won by the Italians 4-1. This year, in March the two teams played a friendly in Munich, and the Germans won. By 4-1. An omen?
The least we can do as spectators is hope for another thrilling instalment to this brilliant footballing rivalry between two of the most successful European teams. But as regards a curse, does it exist? It depends on what you choose to believe. As a fan of the Azzurri, I sure hope it does.