In May 1986 the West German squad set off for the World Cup in Mexico with mixed expectations. A qualifying group containing Portugal, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Malta had been negotiated safely, although not so impressively that alarm bells were not ringing inside the DFB (German Football Association).
After winning their opening five fixtures, draws with Czechoslovakia and Sweden sandwiched a home defeat to Portugal in Stuttgart in October 1985. With two points from a maximum of six in the final three fixtures, the defeat to Portugal represented the first ever defeat in a World Cup qualifier for the Deutsche nationalmannschaft.
A maximum of ten points from the opening five qualifiers was deceptive, though. When West Germany travelled to Malta in December 1984 they went a goal down inside ten minutes.
Although Germany struck back through Karl-Heinz Forster and a brace from Klaus Allofs, Malta still managed to scramble a late goal to give a respectable gloss to their 3-2 defeat. When German qualification was assured some critics even thought a first round exit in Mexico was inevitable.
Not only that, many felt that failure at the finals was only right and just. The domestic game looked far from healthy and Beckenbauer was deprived of key players for the World Cup.
The squad which Franz Beckenbauer finally named was made up of Bundesliga journeymen, promising newcomers and a small core of players who had served his predecessor Jupp Derwall. Some of those same players, and Derwall himself, were still tainted by the shame of Gijon and Seville in 1982, though.
Compounding that shame was an ignominious exit from the group stages of the 1984 European Championships in France. Just days after Derwall’s dismissal came the news that he was to be replaced by the greatest German footballer of all time: Franz Beckenbauer, Der Kaiser.
Hermann Neuberger was then head of the DFB and, following Germany’s exit, made his move to install the great man as trainer through Beckenbauer’s agent Robert Schwan. Trainer it was, rather than coach, since Beckenbauer did not possess the DFB’s required coaching accreditation.
There was also the small matter of Beckenbauer’s reluctance to take over as long-term appointee. Sensing that he did not want the role long-term, Neuberger initially appointed the Kaiser as stop-gap until Bundesliga winning coach Helmut Benthaus could free himself of his obligations to club side VFB Stuttgart.
Benthaus and Stuttgart then went on to have a poor 1984/85 season and Beckenbauer, growing into the job, became the DFB’s man and full-time trainer. Through such serendipity are legends made.
It was a mutually beneficial deal: Neuberger and the DFB wanted Beckenbauer’s authority, presence and charisma, while the 39 year-old son of a Bavarian postman wanted to put something back into the game that had made his name. As Beckenbauer said years later:
At the time, my son asked me “Dad, did you really have to do that?” ‘No, I didn’t have to. If anything, I felt a moral obligation. Everything I had, I owed to football. But I didn’t want to live from and through something that had lost its credibility.
All but two of Beckenbauer’s Mexico ‘86 squad were German-based, the exceptions being Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of Inter and Verona’s man-mountain Hans-Peter Breigel
Cologne’s Harald Schumacher retained the number one jersey as goalkeeper, although he faced opposition from Uli Stein and Eike Immel of Dortmund. Press speculation was that Stein deserved the nod as first choice, gossip which did nothing to quell the unrest in the camp and soothe Schumacher’s pride. Joining Briegel in defence were Matthias Herget of Bayer Uedingen and Stuttgart’s Karl-Heinz Forster.
Bayern Munich’s Norbert Eder, 30, joined an attacking 25-year-old left-back from Kaiserslautern, Andreas Brehme. Shoring up the defence were Klaus Augenthaler, Bayern Munich’s sweeper and yet another successor to Beckenbauer, along with the 21-year-old Thomas Berthold. Hamburg’s Ditmer Jakobs, aged 32, grabbed the final defensive berth.
At 32, Felix Magath was still a key figure in midfield. Hamburg’s swarthy metronome was a legend in that he was reputedly the only real “footballer” in his team’s 1983 European Cup win in Athens.
Lothar Matthaus joined him, although then deployed in an ostensibly defensive role, his dead-ball prowess notwithstanding. Pierre Littbarski, a veteran of the previous campaign would, if fit, add pace out wide or contribute to the attack from deep lying positions. Karl Allgower and Olaf Thon made up the midfield contingent alongside Uwe Rahn and Wolfgang Rolff.
Rummenigge, then 30 and carrying a persistent knee injury, made up a strike force alongside Klaus Allofs and two choices which hinted, paradoxically, at both a bare cupboard and a promising future.
Uli Hoeness’ balding 33-year-old brother Dieter, a blonde giant from Bayern Munich, made the trip to Mexico alongside the 26-year-old Rudi Voller of Werder Bremen. Hoeness had not received a call-up for seven years, but had scored 15 goals in Bayern’s double-winning team in the 1985/86 season. An apparently unlikely inclusion, he was at least in-form.
Beckenbauer and his team sweated on the fitness of the young Bremen forward, though, as Voller’s recent knee surgery gave them obvious cause for concern.
If the squad was defined by those within it, it was just as marked by its absentees. Lost to international retirement were Bernd Forster, Wolfgang Dremmler, Manny Kaltz, Hansi Muller and Uli Stielike.
Undoubtedly the biggest loss, though, was the refusal of one of La Liga’s greatest ever players, Bernd Schuster, to join Beckenbauer’s squad. Then just 27, he had retired from the national team in 1984, following disputes with Derwall and team-mates including Paul Breitner and Hansi Muller among others.
Schuster was then with Barcelona, and after having piloted them to the 1986 European Cup Final in Seville, Beckenbauer and the DFB were so anxious to have him on board for Mexico that Hermann Neuberger asked Horst Dassler – Adi’s son – for the DM1 million that Schuster’s wife Gabi had asked to ensure his participation.
Gabi Schuster’s ransom was too much though, and as Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger pointed out in Tor! Dassler “told Neuberger to close the door on his way out”.
A New York Times preview of Germany’s chances, written in May 1986 at the pre-tournament training camp, also highlighted problems of selection and acclimatisation:
Coming after a bitterly cold season, the soggy weather here in Schleswig-Holstein has not exactly been ideal preparation for sunny Mexico. Another downer has been uncertainty about the well-being of three of the team’s best players and potential top scorers – Rummenigge, who is the team captain, Voller and Pierre Littbarski.
Every World Cup now has its ‘Group of Death’. In 1986 West Germany found themselves in Group E, based in Queretaro and Nezahualcoyotl. Their opponents were South Americans champions Uruguay; a Scotland team being led in this tournament by Alex Ferguson and the “Danish Dynamite” team of Sepp Piontek.
Beckenbauer was in no doubt as to which opponent he feared the most, though. Speaking at the Schleswig-Holstein training camp, prior to leaving for Mexico, the Kaiser confided:
Uruguay is a bit of an unknown factor. I would have preferred to play the Uruguayans a little later.
Not one of the four coaches in Group E in Mexico had any doubts about the size of their task. Uruguay coach Omar Borras gave it the moniker by which every World Cup’s most daunting pool is now known: El grupo de le muerte – the Group of Death.
West Germany opened their campaign against Uruguay on 4th June in Queretaro. Kicking off in blinding light and strength-sapping heat, the twice-winners started sans Rummenigge as Allofs and Voller led the line.
Sporting an unusual combination of Green shirts with white shorts and socks, Beckenbauer’s team soon went a goal down as a mistimed Matthaus back pass let in Alzamendi, who rounded Schumacher to score.
In the 84th minute Klaus Allofs showed that the indomitable German spirit still breathed as he equalised late in the day. A point was not a bad start, although over at the Neza 86 Stadium Scotland narrowly lost 1-0 to Denmark, thanks to a Preben Elkjaer goal.
The Denmark-Uruguay game on Sunday, 8th June 1986 cast the precarious nature of international tournament football and the Group of Death itself into sharp relief. On a muggy, grey day in Nezahualcoyotl Denmark ran riot.
Going in 2-1 up at half-time, the Danes finished 6-1 winners. Uruguay, having being reduced to ten men in the 19th minute, simply had no answer to Laudrup and Elkjaer. Earlier in the day West Germany came from behind yet again, although in doing so they won this time, beating Scotland 2-1 in the process.
Gordon Strachan scored after 18 minutes, although Allofs and Voller hit back either side of the break to seal the win for West Germany. Unbeknown to the Scottish management, Berti Vogts, the Kaiser’s number two, had crept into one of Scotland’s training sessions incognito. Disguised as a peddler of soft drinks for one of FIFA’s corporate sponsors, Vogts got the inside scoop ahead of the crucial second fixture.
Group E’s final fixtures paired Scotland with Uruguay and Germany with Denmark. The Danes were through no matter what, as were their neighbours, although Scotland and Uruguay, with a point a piece, were precariously placed.
When Scotland went out following an ill-tempered goalless draw with Uruguay which, for sheer animosity, rivalled England’s 1966 quarter-final clash with Argentina, Denmark and West Germany fought out an enterprising game at Queretaro.
With another stifling noon kick-off to contend with, Beckenbauer started with Allofs and Voller once more. Rummenigge was yet again used as second-half substitute, along with Pierre Littbarski. Towards the end of the first-half Jesper Olsen opened the scoring with a penalty.
Just after the hour mark an incisive move made it 2-0 as Erikson poked home from close range. Incredibly, Denmark had topped the group, and in the process defeated West Germany for the first time in their history.
For Beckenbauer’s team the runners-up spot was no disgrace, enabling them to progress for a last 16 clash with the winners of Group F. When the draw had been made the previous December, the brains trust at the DFB must have envisaged a round of 16 tie with either England, Poland or Portugal.
In the most unlikely scenario of all they ended up facing Morocco instead. Moving from a training camp some 2,600 metres above sea level at Morelia, West Germany decamped to England’s former base Monterrey, to face a challenge from a North African team for the third World Cup in a row.
It was hoped that this would be no repeat of the trauma encountered at Gijon four years earlier when, thanks to goals from Belloumi and Madjer, Jupp Derwall’s then European Champions went down to a 2-1 defeat.
West Germany were at the last 16, although relations within the team and between management and media had so far been fraught. Uli Stein, the reserve ‘keeper, was dismissed from the camp at Queretaro and sent home, convinced that there was some kind of plot to keep players not contracted to Adidas out of the side.
Combustible to begin with, he had made his position untenable by calling Beckenbauer a “clown”. The Kaiser had frequently snapped at German journalists throughout the group stages, appearing tense and uptight during the opening games.
Now, perhaps, he might just be able to relax. The last 16 beckoned and, after that, anything could happen.
Part 2 of Gareth’s look at West Germany’s 1986 World Cup performance will be out tomorrow.