Stade Gerland, Lyon, 04.07.1998
Croatia

0-3 (0-1)
– / Jarni 45.+3., Vlaović 80., Šuker 85.

Having come from behind to beat Mexico in a dramatic second phase encounter, Germany would head up to the city of Lyon for a quarter-final encounter with a side that they had beaten en route to their European Championship triumph two years earlier: Croatia.

The Croats had crept through the tournament almost unnoticed; after finishing second behind Argentina in what was hardly the most testing first-phase group that had included tournament newcomers Japan and Jamaica, Miroslav Blažević’s side had then overcome Romania in a somewhat tedious second phase encounter settled by a Davor Šuker penalty in first-half injury time.

Although they had not looked particularly impressive in any of their four previous matches, many German supporters would be quietly confident of their team making the last four. It had long been concluded that many of the players in Berti Vogts’ squad were clearly past their best, but that there was just about enough experience to see the team through to at least the semi-finals.

Then there was strike partnership Jürgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff, both of whom had appeared to have found their fitness and form just at the right time. The duo had collected six goals between them in four starts, and confidence would have increased enormously following the last-gasp win against the Mexicans.

Nationaltrainer Vogts would once more find himself having to shuffle around his starting lineup, and following the injury to Thomas Helmer would name the fifth different midfield quartet in as many matches. Lothar Matthäus would continue as Libero and the fit-again Jürgen Kohler would return to partner Christian Wörns in defence, while Helmer would be replaced by Jens Jeremies in midfield where he would join Jörg Heinrich, Dietmar Hamann and Michael Tarnat. Up front there would be more continuity, with Thomas Häßler once again assuming the offensive midfield role behind Klinsmann and Bierhoff.

Norwegian referee Rune Pedersen led the two sides out on what was a warm and sultry evening in Lyon’s impressive Stade Gerland, in front of a crowd of just under forty-thousand. The Mannschaft were once again in their traditional black and white ensemble, while the Croats lined up in an all-blue kit with flashes of the famous red and white chequerboard pattern.

[match details]

The turning point. Referee Rune Pedersen shows Christian Wörns the red car for his foul on Davor Šuker

An in the United States four years before, the Nationalmannschaft had reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup – only to be dumped out by unfancied Eastern European opposition. Up to the moment five minutes before half-time when Christian Wörns was dismissed Berti Vogts’ side had possibly played their best football of the entire tournament, but this would ultimately count for nothing. The fateful decision had been made, their opponents had scored three unanswered goals, and that was that. The 3-0 defeat would be Germany’s biggest in any World Cup finals match since the 6-3 third-place play-off defeat forty years earlier against France – who would be Croatia’s opponents in the semi-final.

Had Germany got to half-time still level they may have been the slightest chance of patching together a new tactical approach in the dressing room, but Jarni’s goal just before the break would prove to be the killer blow. Having to chase the game right from the start of the second half Vogts’ side would inevitably leave themselves open to the fast break, and their highly mobile opponents found themselves able to cash in. Against a skilful, determined and highly focussed Croatian side, any sort of comeback with only ten men was always going to be difficult: the desire was clearly there, but things would inevitably take their toll on those older players who could only offer so much.

There would be much debate about the incident that ultimately turned the game – Wörns’ challenge was clearly a foul, but was it a red card? It was clumsy, but was he the last man? Was Šuker going actually anywhere? Was there not a bit of theatre about the Croatian’s dying swan act? I have always believed that this was a yellow card offence, but am sure that there will be many out there who disagree.

It is hard to say whether the sending off had changed the course the entire match – for all we know Croatia may have won it anyway – but what is certain that up to that point Germany had been the better side. What was also certain was the Nationalmannschaft would be on their way home after what would ultimately be another World Cup failure.

The defeat against Croatia would mark the end of a number of glittering careers. Skipper Jürgen Klinsmann would have hoped for at least two more matches, but would finish on 108 caps with a total of forty-seven goals. Another centurion to call time would be Jürgen Kohler, for whom the match in Lyon would be in 105th and final appearance in the Nationaltrikot. Then there was goalkeeper Andreas Köpke who would finish his career on fifty-nine caps.

These three stalwarts would be joined by a number of others who had not been on the field in Lyon. Midfielder turned sweeper Olaf Thon – another veteran of the 1990 triumph in Rome – had played his fifty-second and final match against Iran, Stefan Reuter had made his last appearance in the Schwarz und Weiß against the United States, and Steffen Freund – like Reuter another member of the winning squad at Euro 1996 – would bow out from the international scene after failing to get on the pitch in France.

It would be the end of an era, and coach Berti Vogts would only hang on for a couple more matches before he too would call time on his eight-year stint in charge. Despite having coached the Mannschaft for 102 matches – putting him in third place behind Sepp Herberger and Helmut Schön – and winning the European title in 1996, the final disappointing chapter in France would ultimately define his time in charge.

Germany: Köpke – Matthäus – Wörns, Kohler – Heinrich, Hamann (79. Marschall), Jeremies, Tarnat – Häßler (69. Kirsten) – Klinsmann (c), Bierhoff

Croatia: Ladić – Bilić, Štimac, Šimić – Stanić, Soldo, Boban, Asanović, Jarni – Vlaović (83. Marić), Šuker

Referee: Rune Pedersen (Norway)
Assistants: Mikael Nilsson (Sweden), Marc van den Broeck (Belgium)
Fourth Official: Urs Meier (Switzerland)

Yellow Cards: Heinrich, Tarnat / Šimić, Šuker
Red Cards: Wörns 40. / –

Attendance: 39,100

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