A Look Back At Previous Major Tournaments in Germany

We are just days out from the 2024 Euros in Germany. The country has already staged three major football tournaments: two World Cups (in 1974 and 2006); and one European Championships (in 1988).

Surprisingly, given that they are the most successful European footballing nation with seven major tournament wins (four World Cups and three European Championships), Germany won only one of those three tournaments that it hosted. Now, however, ahead of Euro 2024, the entire country is hoping that Julian Nagelsmann, their young coach, can lead their youthful and improving team to a second triumph on home soil.

What can Germany, as well as its rivals at Euro 2024, learn from tournaments hosted by the nation in the past? Here are the three most important lessons.

Germany Can Be Unstoppable at Home (1974)

If the 1974 World Cup in Germany proved anything, it is that the Nationalmannschaft can be unstoppable at home, even against historically great opponents. In recent times, France has been the perennial powerhouse, reaching back-to-back World Cup finals. The 1974 equivalent was the Netherlands, who was probably an even greater football team than the current French side. And yet Germany, cheered on by the entire nation on home soil, still beat the Dutch.

Going into the 1974 World Cup in Germany, or more precisely West Germany (the country only reunified in 1990), the Netherlands were the favourites to win the tournament. The bulk of their side came from the great Ajax team that had won three European Cups in a row between 1971 and 1973.

In the process, they’d introduced the world to the concept of total football (the ceaseless switching of players between positions, such that a centre-back could play centre-forward or vice versa). And foremost among them, of course, was the great Johan Cruyff, the on-field architect and true embodiment of total football.

What happened during the tournament only consolidated the Netherlands’ status as favourites. Barring a goalless draw against Sweden in the first group stage (which still included the instantly famous Cruyff turn to escape a hapless Swedish defender), they had been peerless, defeating both Argentina and Brazil, the traditional South American giants, en route to the final. By contrast, hosts West Germany had stuttered throughout the tournament, especially early on, when they lost – remarkably – to East Germany.

To this day, rumours and even myths surround the 1974 World Cup final, which the overwhelmingly favoured Netherlands lost to West Germany. Both at the time and over the decades since, it has been variously claimed that the Dutch were the victims of a West German tabloid sting that involved naked or semi-clad women in their hotel or that they were so hell-bent on gaining a footballing revenge against Germany for the horrors of World War II that they virtually forgot to win after going a goal up early on in the final.

However, the truth may be more simple and prosaic than that, namely that the Germans, cheered on by the overwhelming majority of the crowd in the final, were simply better. And of course it helped enormously that Germany had Gerd Müller, the greatest goal-scorer in the history of football, in their team.

Müller scored the winning goal in the final as part of his own unique hat-trick (or even four-card-trick) of scoring winners, or at least crucial opening goals, in the European Championship final of 1972 and the European Cup showpiece of 1974, not to mention the World Club Cup final of 1976.

Germany’s Biggest Rivals Can Win in Germany (1988)

The Netherlands gained a form of footballing revenge in 1988, when they won the European Championships in Germany. Nearly a decade and a half on from their bitter defeat in the 1974 World Cup final, the Oranje finally won their first (and so far only) major football tournament. To make things even better, they beat West Germany en route to the title.

The 1988 European Championship-winning side was probably the second greatest Dutch side ever, behind only the 1974 masters of total football. If it could not quite match the sheer majesty of the 1974 team, it had at least three individuals who would have earned a place in that side: defender Frank Rijkaard, midfielder Ruud Gullit and striker Marco Van Basten. Perhaps even more importantly, they had the same manager as the 1974 side, Rinus Michels, who, after winning the 1988 Euros, would be proclaimed “Manager of the Century” by FIFA.

Instead of meeting in the final, as in Munich 14 years prior, WEst Germany and the Netherlands met in the semifinal in 1988, this time in Hamburg. Also unlike in 1974, it was the Germans who took the lead, when Lothar Matthäus converted a penalty after 55 minutes. However, the Dutch fought back brilliantly to win with two late goals. First, Ronald Koeman also scored from the spot in the 74th minute. Then, with the match seemingly headed for extra time, Van Basten scored the winner in the 88th minute, superbly sliding the ball home even as he slid along the ground himself.

The Dutch completed their redemption journey in the final against the USSR, with Gullit putting them ahead 32 minutes in and Van Basten ensuring victory 10 minutes after half-time. He did so with probably the finest goal ever scored in the history of the European Championships – a volley from a seemingly impossible angle that remains the benchmark for impossibly angled volleys.

For the West Germans themselves, there was some compensation for their defeat to arguably their greatest rivals. The West German coach Franz Beckenbauer, who had led the country to the World Cup in 1974 as a player, later claimed that the lessons he learned from losing the Euros on home soil in 1988 ultimately led to Germany winning the World Cup in Italy just two years later.

Anything Can Happen in a Major Football Tournament (2006)

The third major tournament to be held in Germany was the first to be held in a united Germany, after the collapse of eastern European communism at the end of the 1980s. Unfortunately for hosts, they could not achieve a second World Cup win on home soil and ultimately the tournament became memorable for one of the most unforgettable things ever to happen in a World Cup final.

In 2006, Germany was coached by their star striker at Italia ’90, Jürgen Klinsmann, who had also led the team to Euro 1996 glory in England. Klinsmann could not quite make it three major tournament wins, but he did rejuvenate and reinvigorate a Germany side that had lost a lot of its allure and aura of invincibility in the previous years. Indeed, he led them all the way to the semifinal, beating highly fancied Argentina in the quarterfinal.

In that semifinal, Germany faced Italy. In what was probably the finest match of the entire 2006 World Cup. The Germans only lost at the death, when Italy scored two extremely goals in injury time. The Azzuri went on to win the tournament when they defeated France in the final. However, they almost certainly would not have done so but for Zinedine Zidane, France’s star player, head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest and getting himself sent off.

It was Zidane’s last ever act as a professional footballer and it seemed absolutely incredible at the time. Many wondered how Zidane, who had always been such a composed player, could have acted in such an ugly fashion. It was only after the final that the full and shocking details of Zidane’s previous disciplinary record, which included multiple red cards, became known worldwide and his dismissal no longer seemed quite so shocking.

If nothing else, the fact that the finest footballer of his generation could end his career in such extraordinarily unwise fashion proved that anything can happen in a major football tournament, and that is as true of tournaments held in Germany as it is of tournaments held anywhere else. Going into Euro 2024, that is a useful reminder for managers, players and fans alike. Anything can happen, so it’s best to be prepared.

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