West Germany 3-0 USSR at Euro 72: a triumph of skill and ideology

West Germany 3-0 USSR at Euro 72: a triumph of skill and ideology

This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE

Football fans know the even years provide an international tournament to fill the gap between domestic seasons. But the game was no longer a pleasant diversion for the masses; it was a vehicle for external symbolism as the Cold War tightened its grip.

The European Championship in 1972 was the marker for a politically turbulent era; a battle between the capitalist West and communist East. Both semi-finals handily represented opposite points of the compass. West Germany defeated Belgium 2-1 in Antwerp while the Soviet Union overcame Hungary in Brussels. A country divided by political ideology would now play the eastern bloc architects.  

Both teams looked immaculate in their respective strips: West Germany sported white shirts with black trim while the Soviets looked ineffably cool in red shirts with CCCP emblazoned on their chests. The choice of cosmopolitan Brussels as the venue was no coincidence; home of the Common Market it was the very essence of Western reconciliation. 

The Germans were efficient and purred like a well-oiled machine in the build-up. Franz Beckenbauer, the imperiously commanding link-man, was born to wear an armband, while marauding left-back Paul Breitner was instantly recognisable with afro hair and a Che Guevara goatee. The look of rebellion was completed by socks nonchalantly around his ankles; this man had no need for shin pads.

But it was the erratic genius of playmaker Günter Netzer that really stood out. He tormented England to the point of distraction in the quarter-final and on his day was unplayable.

The Soviet Union were tough, muscular and well organised. They had a wealth of experience including captain Khurtsilava and centre-forward Banichevski, who both played in the 1966 World Cup. Their potential match-winner was goalscoring midfielder Viktor Kolotov, one of only two Russians in the Soviet line-up. He had the strike rate of a forward playing for Dynamo Kyiv and most likely to unpick the lock.

They also had a machine-like quality but, unlike the German model, lacked craft to complement the steel. The portents were not hopeful as Die Mannschaft had beaten them 4-1 prior to the tournament, a certain Gerd Müller bagging all four goals.

The Germans played a fluid game as the Soviets got men behind the ball. Parity lasted until the 27th minute when Beckenbauer moved the ball out of defence. A flick from Müller found the right boot of Netzer who languidly connected, hitting the crossbar. Rudakov smothered the rebound but couldn’t prevent a simple tap-in by Müller, who was typically in the right place at the right time.

The Soviets wilfully kept their shape but the result never seemed in doubt. Herbert Wimmer, the water carrier in midfield, was rewarded with a goal in the 52nd minute. Inevitably, a move orchestrated by Netzer had released Jupp Heynckes on the left. He found Wimmer racing through the inside left channel. Rudakov surprisingly fumbled and the Germans’ lead doubled.

Six minutes later, exchanging a one-two with defender Georg Schwarzenbeck, Müller added a third. Khurtsilava hit the bar in the second half but the Soviets got no closer to a breakthrough.

West Germany richly deserved the 3-0 scoreline as fluency easily trumped the Soviet disrupter. They would roll confidently into the next World Cup as hosts. Most of the Soviet team would go on to win a bronze medal at the Munich Olympics later that year.

Netzer’s inconsistency, however, would cost him dearly. He ultimately lost his place to Wolfgang Overath, another veteran of 1966 who transformed into a midfield general. Netzer chose the glamour of a move to Real Madrid in 1973, which must have damaged his chances further still. Genius and functionality are never comfortable companions.

By Brian Penn

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