June 21st 1978. Córdoba, Argentina.
West Germany versus Austria, and a match that would find its place in history and footballing folklore. In Austria it would be known as Der Wunder von Córdoba or “the miracle of Córdoba”. In Germany meanwhile it would become known as Der Schmach von Córdoba, or “the disgrace of Córdoba”.
While one could understand the reaction of the Austrians to what was ultimately a meaningless match – they had not defeated the Nationalmannschaft since 1931, after all – I have always wondered why it was seen as such a big deal in Germany. OK, Helmut Schön’s side had given their little Southern brothers a rare chance to engage in hysterical hyperbole, but in truth the 3-2 defeat didn’t really amount to much in the end. With the vagaries of the bizarre first-into-the-final group system employed during the tournament – barring a series of mathematical miracles – the Germans had at most been playing for a spot in the third-place playoff.
Schön’s side had made their way into the second group phase of the tournament unbeaten having sandwiched a 6-0 hammering of Mexico with a couple of rather insipid goalless draws against Poland and Tunisia, and in the second group stage were drawn against Italy, the Netherlands and Austria.
The tournament, as in 1974, had no semi-final stage – which meant that the winners of each of the two second-phase groups would progress to the final while the runners-up would move onto the third-place play-off match. In other words if a team had little or no chance of making the showpiece, they at least had the opportunity of playing for the Mickey Mouse final instead – not really much of an incentive for a nation that four years earlier had won the trophy.
The opening fixtures of their second phase group had seen the Mannschaft rack up yet another goalless draw – this time against the Italians – while the Netherlands dished out a 5-1 hammering to the hapless Austrians; the second games would see Italy eliminate Austria with a 1-0 victory and Germany play the Dutch in what was a re-run of the previous World Cup final in Munich’s Olympiastadion that had seen the home side come from behind to secure a second world crown.
In front of a crowd of just under 41,000 in Córdoba’s Estadio Olímpico Chateau Carreras, the reigning champions took an early lead in the third minute through Rüdiger Abramczik, only for Arie Haan to equalise for the Oranje after twenty-seven minutes. The teams would go in level at half-time, but with some twenty minutes left on the clock Dieter Müller would put Germany back in front.
At this point in time Germany were sitting at the top of the group table with three points, ahead of Italy on goal difference with the Dutch on two points and the Austrians propping things up at the bottom. Had things finished this way the Mannschaft would have had one foot in the final with just the Austrians to play, but the Dutch would put the proverbial spanner in the works eight minutes from time when René van der Kerkhof levelled things up for a second time.
The 2-2 draw would put the Dutch at the top of the table with two games played on three points, ahead of the Italians on goal difference with the Germans on two and Austria on zero. A win for either the Dutch or Italy in the final set of fixtures would see either side through to the final, while even a draw would see the Dutch through unless Germany could overhaul them on goal difference – a task that required the Mannschaft to beat the Austrians by five clear goals.
Helmut Schön’s side needed an almost impossible combination of results – in short, a mathematical miracle. To reach the final they had to beat Austria by five goals or more, while hoping that Italy and the Dutch would share the spoils in Buenos Aires. While many German supporters dreamed of a miracle, the grim reality was that they were at the most playing for a place in the third-place play-off – scant reward for going through the tournament unbeaten.
Germany had got off to a great start in their final match when Karl-Heinz Rummenigge scored after nineteen minutes, only for skipper Berti Vogts to put through his own net just short of the hour mark and Hans Krankl to give the Ösis the lead seven minutes later. When Hans Hölzenbein levelled the scores with eighteen minutes remaining and the score in Buenos Aries between the Dutch and Italy standing at 1-1, the Germans had one foot in the bronze final but no hope whatsoever of making the final. In fact, this hope had probably flown out of the window as soon as Austria had equalised – meaning that Schön’s side had to score five further goals in half an hour.
Tasked with scoring five goals in such a short period of time against such determined and passionate opposition who were playing in their own cup final, it is highly likely that Schön’s side simply switched off; in the end even this miracle would have not even mattered, as Arie Haan put the Oranje 2-1 up in Buenos Aires – a lead that they would not relinquish.
The defining moment of the match came with just three minutes remaining, when right-back Robert Sara looked to find Krankl out on the left with a high ball that crossed almost the entire width of the pitch. With German centre-back Rolf Rüssmann making a complete hash of his attempt at a clearing header, the Austrian striker charged inside him and into the box. After brilliantly wrong-footing a clumsy-looking Manni Kaltz, Krankl coolly stabbed the ball low into the right-hand corner of the net past the advancing Sepp Maier and charged off on a wild celebration that was outdone only by the maniacal radio commentator Eduard “Edi” Finger, whose almost hysterical outpouring of elation made Herbert Zimmermann’s famous description of Helmut Rahn’s winner in Bern in 1954 sound rather funereal. One might have though that Austria had won the World Cup itself:
“Da kommt Krankl … in den Strafraum – Schuss … Tooor, Tooor, Tooor, Tooor, Tooor, Tooor! I wer’ narrisch! Krankl schießt ein – 3:2 für Österreich! Meine Damen und Herren, wir fallen uns um den Hals; der Kollege Rippel, der Diplom-Ingenieur Posch – wir busseln uns ab. 3:2 für Österreich durch ein großartiges Tor unseres Krankl. Er hat olles überspielt, meine Damen und Herren. Und warten’s noch ein bisserl, warten’s no a bisserl; dann können wir uns vielleicht ein Vierterl genehmigen. … Noch einmal Deutschland am Ball. Eine Möglichkeit für Abramczik. Und!? Daneeeeben! Also der Abraaaamczik – obbusseln möcht’ i den Abramczik dafür. Jetzt hat er uns gehooolfn. Allein vor dem Tor stehend. Der braaave Abramczik hot daneben g’schossn. Der Orme wird si’ ärgern. … Und jetzt ist auuus! Ende! Schluss! Vorbei! Aus! Deutschland geschlagen!”
“Here comes Krankl … in space, he shoots … Goooal! Goooal! Goooal! Goooal! Goooal! Goooal! I am going bonkers! Krankl has scored – 3-2 for Austria! Ladies and gentlemen, we are hugging each other here, Rippel, my colleague, graduate engineer Posch, we’re kissing each other … 3-2 for Austria, by our Krankl’s magnificent goal. He beat all of them, ladies and gentlemen. And just wait a minute, wait a minute and perhaps we can pour ourselves a small glass of wine. … Germany again on the ball. A chance for Ambramczik. And!? Wiiiiiide! Oh, Abraaaamczik, I’d like to kiss Abramczik for it. He has really helped us. Alone in front of the goal. Brave Abramczik has shot wide. The poor guy will fret. … And now it is ooover! The end! Finished! Done! It’s over! Germany has been beaten!”
When the final whistle blew with score at 3-2 to the Austrians, the Mannschaft had lost what had effectively amounted to a contest to reach the third-place playoff; while the players were visibly upset at the end of the match, there was no great shame in that – even if it might have been against a team that many Germans had summarily dismissed as second-rate. It was undoubtedly a disappointing end to a tournament where the team had consistently failed to sparkle, but to describe the defeat as a “disgrace” was probably unfair. Had the team been playing for a semi-final spot and with it a chance of playing for a place in the World Cup final, I am certain that things would have been completely different.
As for the German “disgrace”, the only accusation that could possibly have been levelled at the players was that they had lacked the desire to win. But come on – if all you had to play for was a place in the bronze medal match, knowing that you had no chance of claiming the big prize, would you really bust a gut? One might actually say that the real disaster of Córdoba had taken place not against Austria but three days earlier when the Dutch levelled the scores at 2-2, thus effectively depriving the Mannschaft from having a decent tilt at making the showpiece event.
The shame was not so much the act of being beaten, but being beaten by Austria – a team that had already been eliminated. A team that had been soundly thrashed by the Dutch. A once-great team that now saw any sort of competitive victory over Germany as a high point in its otherwise ordinary footballing history. Since Córdoba, the Austrians have participated at only four out of fifteen major tournaments – one of which where they automatically qualified as hosts – and have made it past the first phase on only one occasion; Germany meanwhile have reached the final in eight major competitions, winning three of them.
Given that every Austrian under the age of thirty-four would have never seen their country beat their German neighbours in a competitive international it is little wonder that they still see what happened on that June afternoon in Córdoba as a great miracle.
Second Phase Group A v Austria, Estadio Olímpico Chateau Carreras, Córdoba, 21.06.1978
Rummenigge 19., Hölzenbein 72. / Vogts og 59., Krankl 66., 87.
Germany FR: Maier – Vogts (c), Dietz – Bonhof, Kaltz, Rüssmann – Abramczik, Beer (46. Ha. Müller), D. Müller (61. K. Fischer), Hölzenbein, Kh. Rummenigge
Austria: Koncilia – Sara, Obermayer, Pezzey, Strasser – Hickersberger, Prohaska, Krieger – Schachner (72. Oberacher), Krankl, Kreuz
Referee: Abraham Klein (Israel)
Assistants: Alojzy Jarguz (Poland), José Antonio Garrido (Spain)
Yellow Cards: Abramczik / Sara, Prohaska
Red Cards: – / –
Competitive Matches since Córdoba:
WCQ, Hamburg 29.04.1981 Germany FR 2-0 Austria
WCQ, Wien 14.10.1981 Austria 1-3 Germany FR
WCF, Gijón 25.06.1982 Germany FR 1-0 Austria
ECQ, Wien 27.04.1983 Austria 0-0 Germany FR
ECQ, Gelsenkirchen 05.10.1983 Germany FR 3-0 Austria
ECF, Wien 16.06.2008 Austria 0-1 Germany
ECQ, Wien 03.06.2011 Austria 1-2 Germany
ECQ, Gelsenkirchen 02.09.2011 Germany 6-2 Austria