Friday, June 13, 2008

EURO 2008: Austria v Germany - deal or no deal?

EURO 2008: Austria v Germany - deal or no deal?
VIENNA - The celebrations went on long into the night here after 38 year-old Ivica Vastic's last-gasp penalty kept the host nation just about in the competition.

Only joking, old Vienna is as quiet as a mouse as usual. Bacchanalian revelry is just not in the Austrians' nature, though we'll see what might happen if the Osterreicher Mannschaft beat the Deutsch equivalent on Monday.

Assuming Poland do not beat Croatia by a cricket score, the Austrians have only to defeat their former masters at the Prater to advance to the quarter-finals with the Croats.

Memories of the 1982 World Cup disgrace loom large. In Gijon, Spain, on the 25th of June that year, Austria and Germany conspired to arrange a result that would send them both into the second round of the tournament.

A greater margin of German victory would eliminate Austria, an Austrian win Germany.

Algeria was the unlucky loser, eliminated on goal difference despite having miraculously defeated Germany 2-1 in the group.

Germany dominated from the off and scored within ten minutes through Horst Hrubesch. For the rest of the game the players passed the ball between each other but made no effort to threaten the opponents' goal.

The fans in the stadium quickly sussed a deal had been brokered and whistled and waved handkerchieves. Austrian TV asked viewers to turn off at half time. Oh to have been a journalist confronting the players and coaches after that game!

This 'anchluss' (annexation - Hitler's term for incorporating Austria into the German Reich) was referred to by the German international Karl-Heinz Forster at the time as a Nichtangriffspakt - non-aggression pact, a label which has stuck.

Shameful the episode was, but FIFA had let the door open for chicanery by not having the two final group games kickoff at the same time in 1982, as they do now.

The other benficial consequence of the game was that FIFA started seriously considering banning back-passes to the goalkeeper to help the game flow better, a rule which arrived after the 1994 World Cup finals in America.

Match-fixing is still to be found in the nooks and crannies of football, and even some international games, such as the USA's 2-1 defeat of Colombia in 1994, have been heavily rumored to have involved 'bought' teams (the latter allegedly told to lose by Pablo Escobar's Medellin drugs cartel).

But peace-treaties during games are rarer, although the suspicion of possible connivance is always there when countries with linguistic and/or cultural ties play each other.

Eire and the Netherlands appeared to take it easy for the closing minutes of their 1990 World Cup clash when news of England's lead over Egypt filtered through, meaning an unchanged scoreline would send them both through to the next round as well.

Then, in 2004, Viking neighbours Denmark and Sweden enraged Italy at the European Championships by apparently conspiring to finish the game 2-2 and eliminate the Azzurri.

What was saddest about that day in Gijon was how Algeria were cheated out of a place in the second round. Who knows, an African team might have starred on the world stage eight years before Cameroon did in 1990.

Thankfully, this time there cannot be any deal-making in a winner-takes-all eliminator. Both sides cannot qualify. So 26 years on, Austria and Germany will slug it out in a major finals for real.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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