France v. Germany
Any World Cup match-up between Germany and France is an opportunity to exorcise the demons of 1982, when the two countries (if you treat Germany and West Germany as the same country) met in a semi-final that remains one of the most traumatic matches in World Cup history. Certainly, it traumatised me. Most people remember it for the horrific foul committed by the German keeper, Harald Schumacher, who jumped knees-first into the onrushing French forward Patrick Battiston, knocking out his teeth, breaking his ribs and leaving him unconscious. What made it worse was that no foul was actually given. After the match, Schumacher’s lack of contrition stoked anti-German feeling in France to the point that Schmidt and Mitterrand had to issue a joint statement to calm tensions. But at the time – that is, as the game was unfolding – it didn’t seem so bad. Football was still a contact sport back then, and these things happened. The horror was what came later.
The game ended 1-1 after 90 minutes. In extra time, France took a 3-1 lead before Germany scored two late goals to level it at 3-3. Those thirty minutes were gripping beyond words, as France seemed to have the game won but then, incredibly, carried on attacking, leaving the way open for the Germans to muscle their way back. Like most ‘neutrals’ I passionately wanted France to win: this was the team of Platini against a German side that seemed to epitomise efficiency over flair. The way the French refused to shut up shop when two goals ahead only added to the Manichean qualities of the drama: one side was still playing football regardless. But after 120 minutes you couldn’t separate the two teams on the score-sheet. So, to penalties.
This was the first ever penalty shoot-out in a World Cup match. It was also the first penalty shoot-out I had seen. Penalties had been used as a way to settle a few big European games during the 1970s (including the final of the European championships in 1976) but somehow all that had passed me by. I can still remember my shock at realising that this game, in which the stakes could not be higher, was going to be decided in a way that would place responsibility for the defeat squarely on the shoulders of an individual player. Someone was going to have to be the fall-guy. The first to miss was the German defender Uli Stielike, a hard-as-nails player nicknamed ‘The Stopper’, not a natural object of human sympathy. When his penalty was saved he broke down and wept like a child. He was literally inconsolable. I had never seen such ghastly emotion on a football field. It no longer seemed to matter that France should win, only that this man shouldn’t have to carry the can. It didn’t occur to me that the French could still lose. But then Didier Six missed his penalty, and with the score tied a 4-4, it went to sudden death. The Germans scored their next kick. Maxim Bossis missed his. To describe him as appearing distressed afterwards would be an understatement. He looked like a ghost. I was 15 at the time and watching with my older sister. I remember saying to her after it was over: ‘This has ruined my summer.’
Penalty shoot-outs are now so commonplace that we barely register the horror of them. Yes, it’s still a nerve-shredding business, especially when your team is on the losing end. It must be awful to be Gonzalo Jara, the Chilean whose final penalty last week bounced off a post and sent his team out of the tournament. He looked miserable. But most players have now been through it often enough to know that forgiveness is usually at hand. Jara was quickly embraced by his team-mates. In 1982 no one really knew what came next. It looked so arbitrary and so awful. It also seemed so stupid: a match like that settled like this? I was scared that Bossis might, as they say, be a danger to himself.
France v. Germany this time round doesn’t have the same Manichean qualities: two goodish teams who can each put on a show on their day. It’s a game to look forward to as a neutral without quite setting the heart racing. The French will still be out for revenge – they got a chance at quick retribution in the 1986 semi-finals when they faced the Germans a second time and blew it, losing 2-0. But they have at least had the catharsis of their triumph in 1998. Yet for those of us who aren’t French, there still hasn’t been any real closure on 1982. If this one goes to penalties, please let the French win it.