ANTON RIPPON delves into the archives to find good reason for healthy scepticism about the potential outcomes of a significant World Cup group match this week
“We definitely won’t be playing for a draw,” said Jürgen Klinsmann, almost before anyone had asked him the obvious question.
A few minutes earlier, “United States Soccer“, as we must remember to call it, had suffered one of those gut-wrenching moments that England fans know so well.
With 30 seconds remaining in their World Cup group match against Portugal in Manaus, the Americans led 2-1 and were heading for the last 16 as probably group winners. Then Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross was headed home by Silvestre Varela to keep Portugal in the tournament.
The final, potentially decisive group game would now be the United States v Germany. It didn’t take long for the world’s media to realise that a draw would suit both teams.
Of course, there is Klinsmann’s own nationality: this is his his fifth World Cup, having played in three, including in the 1990 winning side, and coaching Germany at the 2006 tournament. The current Germany coach is his close mate, Joachim Löw, who was his assistant eight years ago.
Weigh-in with Germany’s previous record of a dodgy-looking World Cup result that benefited both teams, and you have a fascinating situation that will be sure to come under the closest scrutiny later this week. The permutations could make the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary about match-fixing of international friendlies – keepers chucking the ball into their own net? Really? – seem trivial indeed.
Back in 1982, at the World Cup in Spain, the final game of Group 2 saw West Germany meet Austria in Gijon. Thanks to some unexpected results – the Germans losing to Algeria being the oddest – West Germany were in third place in their group behind the Austrians and the Algerians.
It was a crass decision by FIFA to schedule West Germany and Austria’s final group match for the day after the Algerian underdogs had beaten Chile 3-2. The Germans and Austrians knew exactly what they had to do. A draw or a win for Austria would eliminate the Germans. A win for West Germany by three goals or more would eliminate Austria and see the Germans advance with Algeria. But a German win by two goals or less would see both West Germany and Austria through.
On June 25, 1982, 41,000 fans paid their money to see a fair sporting contest. For 10 minutes that was what they got. But then West Germany scored. And after Horst Hrubesch had nodded in Pierre Littbarski’s cross, both teams effectively stopped playing.
The remaining 80 minutes saw the ball passed backwards, sideways, and backwards again, almost at walking pace. Austria didn’t want to attack in case they conceded two more goals; West Germany didn’t want to push forward in case they let in an equaliser.
Most of the spectators booed and cat-called, but the Scottish referee, Bob Valentine, could do nothing more than enjoy a stroll around Sporting Gijon’s Estadio El Molinón.
In Germany, the game became known as the “Nichtangriffspakt von Gijon”, the non-aggression pact of Gijon. To the rest of the world it was simply that “Game of Shame”. Algeria, eliminated on goal difference, protested, of course, but no collusion could be proved.
On the face of it, two football teams did what was needed. West German FA president, Hermann Neuberger, pointed out: “There is no FIFA rule to say that teams cannot play as they wish.” West Germany progressed to the final of the tournament, where they lost to Italy.
And once all the furore had died down, FIFA ensured that, in future World Cups, all related games were played simultaneously.
However, if you want an example of a game where there literally wasn’t even one shot at goal, you have to go back to Queen Victoria’s time.
Having won the Second Division championship in 1898, Burnley were still not assured of promotion. In those days, the top two teams in that division had to play in a series of “Test Matches” against the bottom two clubs from the First Division. A bit like today’s play-offs, but with an almighty flaw: instead of a series of straightforward knock-out affairs, positions would be decided on a mini-league basis. The system had worked fairly well previously, but the 1898 series would prove its undoing.
After each club – Burnley, Stoke, Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers – had played three matches, Burnley and Stoke each had three points, Blackburn and Newcastle two each. Now Burnley and Stoke had to play each other – and if the match was drawn, then no matter what happened in the other game, both clubs would be playing First Division football in the 1898-1899 season.
On March 30, Burnley visited Stoke’s Victoria Ground. The 4,000 crowd endured heavy rain to witness a fiasco. Neither goalkeeper touched the ball because if a forward found himself in a shooting position, then he aimed for the corner-flag. Eventually the final whistle blew with the score still 0-0. Burnley and Stoke had both achieved their objective.
The Football League immediately abandoned the Test Match system in favour of automatic promotion. When play-offs were re-introduced for the 1986-1987 season, they were knock-out competitions, and generally feature lots of shots on goal.
So what will we see in Recife on Thursday? US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said that deliberately playing for a “tie” (these Americans still struggle with the language of football) is inconceivable. “It’s not what this team is about, not what this coach is about and it’s not what Germany is like,” Gulati said.
Klinsmann said: “You’re talking about a game that is decades away that is only part of the Germany history and not the United States. The United States is known to give everything they have in every single game … We have that fighting spirit. We have that energy and that determination to do well in every single game.”
A draw would clinch first place in Group G for the Germans, who have a superior goal difference, and second place for the United States and a place in the last 16. If it happens, however honestly, it will send the conspiracy theorists into overdrive.
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