“If we lose this match I will throw myself into the Mediterranean Sea.” Such was the certainty with which the West Germany manager, Jupp Derwall, approached his country’s opening match at the 1982 World Cup.
The reigning European champions were taking on a team new to the global stage in Algeria. The Desert Foxes were supposed to represent an easy introduction to the tournament for a footballing superpower such as West Germany. This was not only the prevailing viewpoint at home, but in much of the old world.
World Cup expansion, bringing 24 teams to the show for the first time in 1982, opened the door to more so-called minnows from the developing world. In Algeria’s case, though, as with their fellow African representatives from Cameroon, the world would see a team with an already successful track record at continental level demonstrating this on the global stage.
Algeria had finished runners-up in the Africa Cup of Nations in 1980, and only lost the semi-final in extra time to the eventual champions Ghana two years later in 1982. “Our participation in the Africa Cup of Nations in 1980 and 1982 had given us some valuable experience at international level before heading to Spain,” said Algeria’s star attacking midfielder, and reigning African Player of the Year, Lakhdar Belloumi.
That 1982 tournament was only a couple of months ahead of the World Cup and served as ideal preparation.
The Germans remained ignorant of the threat Algeria posed, however, complacently refusing to do any specific preparation into their opponents. Instead, they spent their time in the pre-match press conferences ridiculing the Algerians and bragging over how may they were going to score. “We will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives, and the eighth to our dogs,” the experienced Paul Breitner had claimed. Another player quipped of playing with a cigar in his mouth.
The manager was no better, Derwall adding that he would “jump on the first train back to Munich” should his side lose.
If this attitude was spectacularly misplaced, there was at least some reason for confidence. West Germany were the reigning European champions after all, with the likes of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Horst Hrubesch, the aforementioned Breitner and others from the higher reaches of the European game. They had stormed through qualifying, winning all eight of their matches in clinical fashion.
“Some of us wondered if this was just a psychological ploy,” recalled defender Chaabane Merzekane. “Whether they were only saying these things to lull us into thinking that they weren’t going to take us seriously – after all, who has ever heard of a German team that doesn’t do its homework.”
And yet they really hadn’t done their homework. Derwall would later admit that the Germans did have videos of Algeria playing but he hadn’t shown them to the players for fear of being laughed at. Had they done so they may have been forewarned about the slick, dynamic passing play and pacey attack that would be coming their way.
They may also have known about Algeria’s impressive qualifying campaign and impressive friendly performances ahead of the finals. “We weren’t too happy about some of the comments coming from the German camp,” was Belloumi’s understated recollection, adding that the mocking was taken as “a slur on our population.”
When the match kicked off in front of 42,000 spectators in the summer heat of Gijón, the first half became tight and tactical. The Germans were the more dominant but were unable to produce the breakthrough. In the second half, however, it was the Algerians who took proceedings by the scruff of the neck with a renewed vigour. As the Germans tried to push on, Algeria exploited the gaps left behind counter-attacking with energetic pace and skill.
Only nine minutes into the second period, a delightful, defence-splitting through ball from Djamel Zidane sent Belloumi racing clear. He tried to chip Harald Schumacher in the German goal but the keeper’s parried save fell nicely for Rabah Madjer to volley home at the back post, nipping in ahead of the scrambling German defence.
West Germany poured forwards, piling more pressure on the Algerians, and were rewarded when Rummenigge got on the end of a Felix Magath cross to equalise. Parity would not last long, however. Within a minute of Rummenigge’s equaliser, Algeria would take the lead again. Directly from the restart, an intricate build-up led to a fine passing move that scythed through the right side of West Germany’s defence. The speedy Salah Assad broke free and fired the ball across the goal for Belloumi to tap in at the far post.
“Our second goal was excellent,” recalled Belloumi in what he would always remember as the finest moment of his career. “The build-up consisted of ten passes, and the eleventh and final one involved me stroking the ball into the back of the net. It was a thing of beauty. That goal was a team effort. The ball was worked down the left by four or five players, and I always say that the whole team scored with me.”
He was right, and this goal capped off a magnificent team performance. The stunned Germans struggled to regain sufficient composure, and though they kept on pressing, there was to be no second equaliser. Algeria comfortably held on for their most historic victory; only the second by an African nation at the World Cup. Indeed, it could have been more had Mersekane’s magnificent slaloming run minutes from the end not been foiled by Schumacher.
“I just don’t understand,” was Derwall’s post-match reaction to the seismic defeat. He did have some grounds for the reaction given his side’s domination of possession and territory, forcing 16 corners to Algeria’s four. “I still cannot believe that we have lost to Algeria. They played intelligently, waiting and counter-attacking. They surprised our defenders with their pace and we fell apart in the second half.”
“This feels like the sinking of the Titanic,” declared the Süddeutsche Zeitung. But West Germany would have the last laugh. Algerian tiredness showed against a better-prepared opponent in Austria five days later, before they overcame Chile 3-2. But a day later came the match that would go down in infamy as the Shame of Gijón, the colluded 1-0 West German victory over Austria that saw both European teams progress at Algeria’s expense.
Algeria may have failed to progress thanks to the Germanic conniving, but their victory, and the heroic status of those who achieved it, would last in their history. The mocking complacency with which much of the world viewed African football, as voiced by the West German players ahead of the match, had served as an inspiration. “Those comments spurred us on and gave us the motivation to beat them,” said Belloumi. “We took the game to West Germany and thank God we won.”
By Aidan Willians @yad_williams