Eras are difficult to define. In terms of international football, there is an argument to say that German pre-eminence in this field began with the Miracle of Bern in 1954 and has never ended. Even in their supposed fallow period, between winning Euro 96 and their triumph in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, they still managed to score a runners-up medal and two third-placed finishes in three World Cups in a row, and reach a European Championship final. If they hadn’t seen such riches, they could live with being comfortably well-off.
Most observers however would nail the German imperial phase to the years 1966-1996, a 30-year span that contained some hurt but plenty of jubilation. In sixteen tournaments they reached the final on ten occasions, winning two World Cups and three European Championships along the way. That success was essentially bookended by two generations – the Ramba Zamba team of the early 70s and a new era of players at the turn of 90’s spearheaded by Lothar Matthaus, Rudi Voller and Jurgen Klinsmann, the latter of which would captain Germany to their first title as a unified nation at Euro 96.
Almost right in the middle of that run is a largely forgotten victory. At the 1980 European Championship in Italy, a vibrant and dynamic young team took West Germany to their third final in a row and ultimately to victory in Rome. For a variety of reasons including the climate of the time, the ennui of constant success and a team composed of spiky characters, that winning team has become the problem child of family reunions in German international football, awkwardly folded out of all the photographs.
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Banking on success

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in training

Image credit: Getty Images

When West Germany began racking up international titles on the abacus in the mid-seventies, they nearly lost the captain of that 1980 triumph to a career in number-crunching. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s career started in the youth system of his local amateur side Borussia Lippstadt. At 18 there was no guarantee that a career in football was going to work out, so Rummenigge pursued a career as a bank clerk at the same time. In 1974, Bayern Munich spotted his talent and signed him up immediately, nixing his alternative career in the same breath. The Bundesbank’s loss was the Bundesliga’s gain.
Rummenigge joined a team of ruthless professionals including Franz Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Uli Hoeness and Gerd Muller. Learning the ropes in banking had been traded in for a crash course in serial winning. "I had massive respect for the players," Rummenigge said in an interview with the Bayern website, "and for the first two weeks I was extremely polite to them. Until the moment Gerd Muller said to me, 'Call me Gerd.' After four weeks it was clear to me: the only thing that counts here is winning, that's what the whole club is built on. That's the school of FC Bayern. If you don't internalize that, you'll never make it here."
A core of the Bayern squad had just won the 1974 World Cup with West Germany, and the European Cup against Atlético Madrid. The latter victory was the first of three in a row for Bayern. Rummenigge established himself in the team as a foil to Muller in attack in the 1975-76 season, where Bayern completed their hat-trick with victory over St Etienne in Glasgow. He also made his debut for West Germany that year and pinned down a place in the national side in time for the 1978 World Cup.
That campaign in Argentina was the end of an era for West Germany. After finishing third in their second round group, manager Helmut Schon resigned after 14 years in charge. Virtually all of the great Ramba Zamba team of the early to mid-seventies had retired or drifted away from the national set-up. The new manager Jupp Derwall now had to cobble together a new team to carry the torch after West Germany’s flush of success earlier in the decade. By the time that they were preparing to play in the 1980 European Championship Derwall had found his spine, and they were a combustible mix.
In goal was FC Koln’s Harald ‘Toni’ Schumacher, a physically and verbally aggressive presence behind the defence. Uli Stielike was a temperamental defensive midfielder for Real Madrid but dropped into the back line to play sweeper for West Germany. Ahead of them both was Bernd Schuster, an outrageously gifted young midfielder who could scorch through the centre of the pitch, leaving a streak of long blond hair behind him. He was as opinionated as he was talented, and fond of a frank exchange of views with opponents and team-mates alike. As difficult as all three characters could be, they were serious, hardwired professionals and, ahead of them, they had the best player in German football.

The rise of Rummenigge, and a new Germany

Herbert Zimmermann, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Hansi Muller relax by the pool during Europa 80

Image credit: Imago

In 1979-80 Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s talent had exploded in the Bundesliga. Bayern won the title and Rummenigge was the top scorer with 26 goals, winning the German Player of the Year award. His devastating one-two partnership with the midfielder Paul Breitner, another 1974 World Cup winner who had just returned from a stint at Real Madrid, led to Bayern being dubbed ‘FC Breitnigge’ in the media. Breitner was another forthright and difficult character in German football and was ostracised from the national team until 1981. Rummenigge by contrast was a relative diplomat in comparison to some of his national team colleagues. He went to the 1980 European Championship as Derwall’s captain, charged with keeping a harmonious balance within the squad.
"We had a team with what I would call a good team spirit," Rummenigge remembered. "A very young team, that was still hungry and didn’t have any great successes under their belt yet. I think we were a surprise for everyone – for the German fans and also for the international football world, because no one had really taken us seriously."
It was a new team for a new tournament. The first major international championship of the decade had gone in for a rebrand. The European Championship in Italy was called ‘Europa 80’ by the organisers and had expanded to eight teams to be split into two groups of four, with the winners of each group to progress directly to the final. It was an awkward format, and one that would not be repeated. In Group 1 West Germany would face Czechoslovakia in Rome, the Netherlands in Naples and then Greece in Turin.
Rummenigge’s influence on the new German team was apparent immediately. In the opening match of the tournament, a rematch of the 1976 final with Czechoslovakia in front of a crowd of barely over ten thousand, he scored the only goal of the game in the second half. Midfielder Hansi Muller juggled with the ball on the left side of the penalty area before lobbing a hopeful cross to the back post, where Rummenigge was waiting to plant a towering, angled header back across goal and into the net.
Their second match of the tournament saw a resumption of hostilities with the Netherlands. Both sides were pale imitations of the iconic teams that had contested the 1974 World Cup final, though the Dutch were by far the more translucent. Striker Klaus Alloffs, a replacement for the injured Klaus Fischer, scored a hat-trick to put West Germany 3-0 after just over an hour. A Johnny Rep penalty and a Willy van de Kerkhof screamer in the last 11 minutes gave the Germans a bit of a late scare, but the 3-2 scoreline flattered the Netherlands. With the other matches in the group failing to project a team past them, West Germany had already qualified for the final before they played out a 0-0 draw with Greece in front of another derisory attendance in Turin.
Their opponents in the final would be Belgium, who caused a shock by edging Italy in Group 2. The Belgians drew 1-1 with England in their opening match, which had to be temporarily abandoned when some England fans rioted and the tear gas used by the police to counteract the trouble drifted onto the pitch and temporarily blinded Ray Clemence. They then backed this up with a 2-1 victory over Spain before facing the hosts in Rome to decide the group.
Italy had been traumatised by the Totonero betting scandal on the eve of the tournament, which uncovered match-fixing and led to some severe punishments. Most damagingly of all, Italy’s best striker Paolo Rossi copped a three-year ban for his involvement and missed Europa 80. As a result, Italy struggled to score; a 0-0 draw with Spain was followed by a tight 1-0 victory over England. In Rome, the Belgians only needed a point to reach the final on goal difference and packed their defence in front of their goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff. Italy created a slew of chances for the goal that would put them in the final but could not convert them. Pfaff kept a clean sheet, it finished goalless and Belgium went through to the final.

Rummenigge calls the shot

Germany celebrate their win at Europa 80

Image credit: Imago

The Belgians had an excellent nucleus of their own. Ahead of Pfaff were Eric Gerets, Jan Ceulemans, Rene Vandereycken and Francois Van Der Elst, all part of the best generation of players Belgium had ever had. In international football though, history weighs heavily in the scales. Their opposition might have been a young team, but it was West Germany, twice world champions and in their third European Championship final on the spin. The Germans dominated the first half against an overawed Belgian side. A chest trap followed by a smart finish by Hamburg forward Horst Hrubesch put the Germans in front, and they would have been out of sight by half-time but for brilliant saves by Pfaff from Muller, Schuster and then Alloffs.
In the second half Belgium came back and the Germans were stretched for the first time in the tournament. Vandereycken levelled the game with a penalty after 75 minutes after Stielike had committed an outrageous professional foul on Van Der Elst, which had been just outside the penalty area. To regain control West Germany started to shift the ball to Rummenigge on the left. One jet-heeled burst past three Belgian defenders and into the penalty area almost set up a chance for Muller; with two minutes remaining, he helped to force a corner.
"I was always allocated the job of taking corners," said Rummenigge, "because of course Horst Hrubesch in the middle was our header monster." There was a photographer nearby as Rummenigge prepared to swing the ball in. "I said 'Aim your camera at Hrubesch now,'" remembered Rummenigge. "He looked at me and said 'Why?' and I said, 'Just point it.’" If the photographer followed the instruction, he would have snapped the winning goal; Rummenigge planted his corner perfectly onto the head of Hrubesch in the six-yard-box, who glanced the ball into the net. West Germany had won the European Championship for the second time.
The timing was brutal for Belgium, who had created good chances of their own in the final minutes of normal time. Yet there was little doubt that the superior team had won the tournament. "The team with the best attack had defeated the side with one of the most obdurate defences," wrote David Lacey in The Guardian, "and that, more often than not, is how it should be." Shortly after the final, Rummenigge was voted the best player at the tournament ahead of Ceulemans and Schuster. At the end of 1980 he won the Ballon d’Or and retained the award the following year. Yet just as the eighties were shaping up to be his decade, he suddenly went from being The Man to The Nearly Man.

A cursed future

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of West Germany receives his runner up medal after losing the FIFA World Cup final on 29 June 1986

Image credit: Getty Images

In the 1982 European Cup Final a preposterous overhead kick by Rummenigge came within inches of giving Bayern the lead against Aston Villa in the opening minutes. That seemed to break Rummenigge’s relentless spell of success, and Bayern went on lose to a late sucker punch on the counter. Weeks later at the World Cup in Spain, Rummenigge scored five goals to take West Germany to the final. He carried an injury into the game and had to overrule Derwall to put himself back in the team. West Germany lost to Italy and the world celebrated; the European champions had compiled a rap sheet of controversies against Algeria, Austria and France earlier in the tournament, which had turned them into one of the World Cup’s most memorable villains.
West Germany also lost the 1986 World Cup final in Mexico, giving Rummenigge the ignominy of being the only man to twice captain the runners-up at the tournament. Success at club level dried up too; Rummenigge never got back to the European Cup final, and his last league title was with Bayern in 1980-81. In 1984 he completed one of the biggest transfers in football history, moving to Inter Milan for €5.7 million, but his time in Serie A was disrupted by injuries and he won no trophies. After leaving Italy he played out a couple of seasons with Servette in Switzerland before retiring. Still, he’d always have Europa 80; it’s just a shame that not many others are keen to remember it.
A threatened strike by outside broadcast technicians in Italy’s television industry on the eve of the tournament almost led to none of the tournament being televised. That may have been a mercy, even for the champions; the official West German account of the tournament summarised it as "a hideous disfigurement of football." In some senses Rummenigge’s team were unlucky; they were by far the best team in a weak field and were only seriously tested in the closing stages of the final. As the saying goes, you can only beat what is in front of you.
The European Championship had a far broader problem than the quality of its winners. The attendances in Italy had been a huge disappointment, and the tournament struggled to fill its new dimensions. As with the 1974 and 1978 World Cups the organisers had decided that the finalists would be decided after group phases, which removed the jeopardy of knockout football that is so vital to the narrative arc of a tournament. After two decades of the European Championship, it would need a hero to resurrect the competition. The man who would supplant Rummenigge as the best player in Europe was about to step forth and do the necessary.

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