The era-defining game between France and West Germany in 1986

The era-defining game between France and West Germany in 1986

THINK OF SEMI-FINALS BETWEEN FRANCE AND WEST GERMANY and the mind will stray to a balmy night of epic grandeur in the southern Spanish city of Seville in July 1982. That evening, one embedded in the global footballing consciousness, signified the end of France’s World Cup but the beginning of their ascent to a period of European dominance.

From then on the “Brazilians of Europe” became the romantics’ team of choice, gloriously fulfilling their destiny in Paris two years later by carrying off the Henri Delaunay trophy in the Parc des Prince. By 1986, with legs which were two years older, and with bodies in some cases beginning to show signs of battle fatigue, France faced the West Germans in a World Cup semi-final once more, this time in Mexico.

This game was more than just a rematch, though, and it was more than a victory for the prosaic over the protean, as it has since crudely come to be known. Sure enough it carried with it the baggage of Seville: the myopia of referee Charles Corver and the brutality of Schumacher, but it also prefigured the end of an epoch in European football. An era of romance, free-flowing football and technical virtuosity gave way to an altogether more pedestrian age, where the more defensive ideals of the pressing game became the vogue among the continent’s leading coaches.

All this was some way away on 25 June 1986 in Guadalajara’s Jalisco Stadium; although by the World Cup of 1990 the preponderance of risk-averse defence-orientated football was evident in a tournament almost universally lambasted as dour and lacklustre by the game’s cognoscenti, notwithstanding the memories of England and Ireland fans.

France had arrived at the 1986 finals without the last minute dramas associated with their passage to the previous World Cups in 1978 and in 1982. A comfortable 2-0 win over Yugoslavia in November 1985 had ensured the journey to Mexico did not have the kind of heart in mouth quality associated with the final qualifier with Bulgaria in November 1977, or with the usurpation of Holland as the neutrals’ favourites in the Parc des Princes en route to Spain four years later.

France’s opponents, West Germany, had arrived at the finals courtesy of qualification from a group containing Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Malta. Although they contrived to lose their first ever World Cup qualifier against Portugal in Stuttgart, the West Germans had gained a then maximum of ten points from their opening five fixtures. Appearances were deceptive, though.

Against Malta, away from home in December 1984, they went a goal down inside 10 minutes, until Klaus Allofs and Karl-Heinz Forster struck back to finish an edgy encounter 3-2 in their side’s favour. With Karl-Heinz Rummenigge not fully fit, and with neither Rudi Völler nor Pierre Littbarski operating at 100 percent, the West Germans had gambled on their attacking options before setting off for North America.

Unlike in Spain in 1982, when the team were reigning European champions, Franz Beckenbauer’s travelling band were not highly fancied ahead of the tournament in Mexico. With the likes of Uli Stielike, Horst Hrubesh, Manfred Kaltz, Paul Breitner and Hansi Müller no longer on the international scene, the team appeared a little short of the star quality that had made them continental champions back in 1980. Perhaps the biggest loss, though, was that of Barcelona midfielder Bernd Schuster.

One of Germany’s greatest individual talents since the similarly enigmatic Günter Netzer had strutted his stuff, Schuster had opted to sit out the tournament after his wife’s demand of a DM1 million ransom had failed to move the president of the DFB, Hermann Neuberger, and team kit sponsor Adidas. When Adidas chief Horst Dassler failed to give in to the demands of Neuberger and Gabi Schuster, West Germany boarded for Mexico without Augsburg’s favourite Bach playing ivory tinkler and midfield schemer. Having gone into international exile in 1984 at the age of 25, Schuster now ensured that he would never represent his country again.

Once in Mexico, France were billeted in the heat of León – and the scene of England’s legendary 1970 quarter-final with West Germany – alongside the Soviet Union team of Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Canada and Hungary. Surprisingly only grabbing the runners-up spot behind the Soviet Union, France comfortably beat Hungary 3-0, while a profligate Papin finally but France’s mind at ease with an 81st-minute inner against Canada. France’s duel with the Soviet Union was a close, exhilarating affair noteworthy for Vasili Rats’ thundering shot past Joel Bats. With honours even, both proceeded to the second phase and the round of 16.

West Germany, meanwhile, opened up against Uruguay, when a stray Lothar Matthäus back pass let in Alzamendi who rounded Schumacher to open the scoring. Without Rummenigge in the heat of Queretaro, Klaus Allofs struck in defiant – and typically late – fashion to level the scores in the 84th minute and guarantee a point. Another late show against Scotland, after Gordon Strachan had opened the scoring for Alex Ferguson’s men, saw the Germans come from behind to win this time, while a 2-0 final game defeat against the Danes could not prevent Franz Beckenbauer’s team from progressing to the last-16 stage.

In the opening game of the knock-out stages, West Germany struggled past Morocco, where a late free-kick from Matthäus was enough to see them into the quarter-finals. Yet still Rummenigge was not fully fit, wrapped in altitude-proof cotton wool until such time that the Kaiser felt his threat was necessary.

Likewise, Pierre Littbarski was only used sparingly and the Köln player’s match fitness was more precariously balanced than his captain’s. Whereas Germany advanced against Morocco, so France went through at the expense of the reigning champions Italy, in Mexico City. In a matchup which seemed to come too soon, Platini pulled off his one classic performance of the tournament against the team he knew better than all others. Thanks to a 14th-minute chip from the French captain and a second-half strike from Yannick Stopyra, France made it through to the last eight.

And so 21 June 1986, dawned. Michel Platini, still ill at ease with tendonitis in his left foot, was celebrating his 31st birthday. While West Germany secured their passage to the semi-final later that day with a victory over hosts Mexico on penalties, their victory in Monterrey is almost a footnote in comparison to the noon clash in Guadalajara between France and Brazil.

The first quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup was the best of the bunch, a true classic. It was, in the words of Rob Smyth and Scott Murray, “almost too glamorous to function”. But function it did though, and as Jean-Philippe Leclaire recalled: “The first 90 minutes of normal time had seemed almost unreal. Rarely has a World Cup quarter-final seen such fluid play.

The ‘Brazilians from Europe’ and the Brazilians from Brazil scarcely committed a foul, there were no yellow cards; it was a symphony of wonderful passes, of perfect through balls, which was to culminate in the first goal, for Brazil. In the 16th minute, a one-two between Müller and Júnior saw a ball on to an unmarked Careca. The Seleção striker opened the scoring with a fierce shot that flew in under the crossbar.”

Platini was struggling, however. In an attempt to ward off the debilitating effects of his tendonitis, he was taking increasing doses of anti-inflammatories. Leclair recalls: “The ever-increasing doses of anti-inflammatories he was taking, exacerbated by stomach trouble contracted 48 hours earlier, served only to weaken him further.

Shadow of his former imperious self though he was, he managed to draw on such strength as he had left to appear at the far post four minutes before half-time. From a Dominique Rocheteau centre, Yannick Stopyra’s header rebounded off goalkeeper Carlos. The lurking Platini was left with the simplest of tap-ins to bring France back on level terms. Although at the time he didn’t know it, he had just scored his 41st and last goal wearing the blue shirt of France.”

With the score 1-1 after the regulation 90 minutes, Platini still did not know if his birthday would be a happy one. The curved chips and lofted passes were still not quite finding their target, although deep in the second period of extra time a through ball hit first time to release Bruno Bellone was the eye of the needle stuff of Platini legend. As Bellone hared towards goal he was cynically grappled to the floor by Brazil ‘keeper Carlos.

Just as Charles Corver had been afflicted with temporary loss of his sight and senses four years earlier in Seville, so Romanian referee Ioan Igna’s decision to wave play on in Guadalajara was similarly stupefying. After 120 minutes, just as in Seville back in 1982, it was time for penalties.

With Giresse and Rocheteau substituted, Henri Michel was short of penalty volunteers. Luis Fernández opted to take the last, with Platini happily settling for the penultimate one. Maxime Bossis ruled himself out altogether, while Michel nominated Bellone and Stopyra in the absence of volunteers. For the two young forwards, their nominations were “a bombshell” to them, according to Michel. With the scores level at 3-3, Platini made that unusually stiff-legged strut to the penalty spot to take his team’s fourth kick.

Astonishingly, and greeted by a piercing shrill roar from around the ground, the captain of France hoofed his kick high over the bar. It was, Leclair observed, “a staggering moment for the man who (missed) his first penalty in 68 games for France”. Platini later remarked that the ball “moved a quarter turn and settled in a hole” just as he was about to make contact. Ultimately it did not matter as Júlio César missed Brazil’s next kick, after which  Fernández poked home to Carlos’ right and sent an emotional Les Bleus through to the semi-final. If the trauma of Seville had been partially purged then the same old foes, West Germany, lay in wait four days later.

In truth, the semi-final between France and West Germany in the Estadio Jalisco in the western Mexico City of Guadalajara was nowhere near the same vintage. Where France’s quarter-final had been instantly acknowledged as the kind of game that would be fondly remembered down the ages, the semi-final between the European neighbours was a contest between teams who each carried several creaking components.

Hugh McIlvanney reckoned that the Franco-Brazilian encounter on Platini’s birthday had been “perhaps the most extraordinary contest in the entire history of the World Cup”. After such a technical and emotional tour de force anything would be bound to suffer by comparison.

Where 65,000 had packed the Jalisco for the quarter-final on a glorious, baking hot Saturday afternoon, the semi-final drew just 45,000 for a game where the pitch was cutting up following a tropical downpour. Although hot, the sun came and went intermittently in a strangely scrappy contest marked by displays of dissent on both sides. It was Germany who ultimately triumphed, as France and Platini appeared to have shot their bolt after the Brazil game.

Memories of Schumacher and Seville were brought to the surface ahead of the game, as old wounds reopened. Patrick Battiston remarked: “The foul is in the past, forgiven and forgotten,” although he sounded a note of caution when he added, “I don’t plan to get close to Schumacher, not less than 40 metres. This time I will be more careful because I have paid my dues.” There was undoubtedly great camaraderie between the two captains though, as Platini and Rummenigge chatted animatedly in Italian during the pre-match warm-up and during the exchange of pendants.

It was the German captain who was fouled on the edge of the area in the ninth minute, from which Andreas Brehme’s free-kick rolled under poor Joel Bats to give the Germans the lead. From then on play ebbed and flowed as Maxime Bossis fired over the crossbar of an open goal later in the first half. Luckily for the former Nantes man, his miss was none too catastrophic as the linesman waved the offside flag.

In the second half, Platini walked the ball past Schumacher and into the net but was unluckily judged to be offside too. As Der Kaiser juggled his resources, Rummenigge was again rested shortly before the hour mark and replaced by Rudi Völler. With time almost up Maxime Bossis headed tamely in the direction of Schumacher who safely pouched the ball to his chest as he knelt on the turf.

In a telling and symbolic gesture, Platini followed through but stopped just short of the German ‘keeper, where he then shaped as if to knee Schumacher in the face, only to cut his action short. Frustration, hurt and revenge were evidently never far from French minds that day and, irony of ironies, Schumacher then threw the ball out long where it was deflected into the path of the advancing Völler. Deftly lobbing the ball over the advancing Bats, he rounded the ‘keeper and stroked the ball home to make it 2-0 to Beckenbauer’s team. It was game over and the end of an epoch for France as West Germany advanced to the final in Mexico City.

Frustrations boiled to the surface afterwards as Jean Tigana grappled with Wolfgang Rolff and Fernández became involved too. Völler walked after Tigana to offer his hand but the French midfielder just walked away. It was a sad end. From the highs of the previous Saturday to the end of their footballing world four days later, a bare-chested Platini walked away with the same dejected look he had worn in Seville four years earlier. An angry Fernández contended: “In pure football terms, the Germans taught us nothing.” But as was the case four years before, the Germans had won.

When Platini, Bossis and Tigana had jointly celebrated their birthdays at the French team hotel on the shore of Lake Chapala on 21 June, the chocolate and coffee cake that they had been presented with that evening also doubled as a retirement present. Platini walked away from the game altogether the following April, while Bossis and Giresse hung up their international boots after Mexico. Tigana made just two more appearances in the blue shirt, finally retiring in 1988.

Gone too was the electrifying figure of Dominique Rocheteau, the winger with the stooped gate who still looked, at the age of 31, as if Kate Bush had suddenly materialised in a France kit and Adidas boots. Fernández and Manuel Amoros remained, shouldering the burden of revitalising the national team, a task in which their former captain, Platini, would soon join them as manager.

It was too much to ask, though, and Les Bleus qualified for a solitary international tournament out of the next four. They would come again though, and when Aimé Jacquet’s team conquered the world in Paris in July 1998, they did so under the watchful gaze and administrative skills of someone Christov Ruhn called “a Latin-looking man” who had also been the president of the World Cup 98 organising committee. That man was, of course, Michel Platini.

Although the France of the Platini era failed to bring home the World Cup, they did become European champions in 1984. Much more than that though, they were the team that best embodied the aesthetic of an era when Europeans celebrated a sense of genuine diversity among themselves.

This was the age of Jeux Sans Frontières, Figurine Panini and of the celebration of working-class culture through the cult of the football casual. French, Italian and German sportswear was fetishised and a whole new breed of aesthetes sprang up as a result; a parallel movement which owed everything to word of mouth and nothing to conventional marketing ploys. Consequently, where the global village has bred greater homogenisation and shrinkage of the imagination, the aficionados of the 70s and 80s deployed ever-inventive methods to acquire sportswear and football memorabilia.

Moreover, the likes of Gérard Janvion, Marius Trésor, Jean Tigana and Alain Couriol epitomised a unit which owed its origins in part to the Francophone world beyond France and which was a forerunner of the multiracial world champion team of 1998. Likewise, both Amaros and Fernández were Spanish by origin, while Platini’s grandparents came courtesy of Piedmont in Italy.

The first love of many a modern football hipster were the France teams of Michel Hidalgo and Henri Michel. Individually stylish, they oozed cool as a collective too. They were, in the words of David Hytner, “expressionists, dreamers; a bunch of floppy-haired romantics”. Classically clad in Adidas, sporting perhaps the finest tracksuit top ever, with an impossibly silky midfield and a refined defence, they were to the 1980s generation the cultural and aesthetic equivalent of Cruyff’s Holland in the previous decade.

West Germany were not bad either. Pelé’s old quip that Jupp Derwall played “Mr. Rummenigge and 10 robots” during the 1982 World Cup panders to a certain kind of Teutonic efficiency stereotype, but the Germans had flair too. When Rummenigge won his second consecutive Ballon d’Or in 1981, the runners-up were his compatriots Paul Breitner and Bernd Schuster, neither of whom could be mistaken for robotic footballers.

Like France, the Germans bid farewell to several charismatic performers at the end of the Mexico 86. Along with Rummenigge, Toni Schumacher, Karl-Heinz Forster, Felix Magath and Hans-Peter Briegel all retired from international duty after the final against Argentina on 29 June.

The proof of what was lost with the passing of Mexico’s second World Cup is evident in the figures. The 1986 tournament had produced 132 goals at an average of 2.5 per game, while the previous tournament in Spain spawned 146 at 2.8. In 1990, with pressing prevalent and space squeezed, the tournament reached a new low with just 115 goals coming from 52 games at an average of 2.2 per match.

Sir Alex Ferguson is not alone in arguing that the 1986 World Cup was the last great tournament, and while Italy in 1990 may well be remembered fondly by fans of Germany, England and Ireland, it was most certainly not a tournament for the romantic.

By Gareth Bland @peakdistrictman

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