How a Bayern Munich defeat paved the way for West Germany’s 1974 World Cup triumph
The 1974 World Cup final is a signpost match in football history, yet, for all the famous images and impressions from that game, they are not what Paul Breitner immediately recalls. His memory doesn’t focus on the Netherlands’ astounding first minute, nor on Franz Beckenbauer remonstrating with the referee Jack Taylor, nor on Gerd Müller’s scuffed winner.
What Breitner remembers first is an emotion, but it is not the emotion you would expect. It certainly isn’t the exhilarating feeling of victory, as West Germany defied expectation to defeat the Dutch.
Rather, it is the emotion that fired that win: anger.
Breitner recalls the rage he felt just after the Netherlands’ opening goal. In what had seemed the most sensational expression of Rinus Michels’s Total Football, the Dutch went ahead without any West German player touching the ball. Johan Cruyff had been taken down in the box, leaving Johan Neeskens to score. Except, the Dutch players apparently didn’t think that was the most sensational expression of Total Football. They wanted total humiliation and began to try to embarrass the Germans through open play, rather than actually beating them with goals. It provoked a response.
“This is the moment you want to go home, that you want to leave the stadium,” Breitner says. “You start the game convinced you will win the final and with very concentrated emotions… and then you are losing after two minutes. Then they start playing, laughing at us. ‘Here’s the ball, there’s the ball.’
“They were playing so arrogantly that we started to respire, we started living again. We saw they don’t want to kill us, they just want to laugh at us, so we thought, ‘you will not play the way you like to do.’”
What happened next has ensured that World Cup final has become one of the most analysed events in sport, but almost completely from a Dutch point of view. It has been placed in the context of everything from the exact application of a philosophy to the nature of how you best beat an opponent, and even the effect of the Second World War and the countries’ mutual history on a mere 90 minutes of sport.
Within all of this, West Germany have almost been caricatured as mechanistic winners who neither valued the victory in the way they should have nor proved fully worthy winners when set against the quality of the Dutch. The parallels with 1954, when the Germans defeated an equally admired Hungary team, made that feeling all the more pronounced.
It was almost as if they weren’t seen as a team undergoing their own development but mere cyphers just waiting to take advantage of any slip by anyone else and spoil the party.
That World Cup victory was a peak in terms of German victories, with the country itself represented by one of the most successful cores of players the game has seen. Bayern Munich supplied six of West Germany’s starters in that final and at the final whistle those players held the World Cup, the 1972 European Championship, the 1974 European Cup and the Bundesliga, having claimed the domestic title for the third successive season.
Breitner was one of the key members of the squad and, as he sits in Bayern’s Säbener Strasse base talking to The Blizzard, he expands on the other side of the psychology of that 1974 final – the psychology of winning and what forges winners. The anger illustrated the very human side of West Germany’s own development, which is so often underplayed. They had their own long nights of the soul.
There are few so well equipped to talk about the process as Breitner. He has not just won more than most players in history, but tends to think about these things more than most players.
Occasionally, he sounds like Roy Keane, not least when he’s asked about the differences between Bayern and an even greater side from that era: Cruyff’s Ajax.
“They didn’t just want to win every match,” Breitner says of their Amsterdam contemporaries. “They wanted to create a spectacle. They wanted to give the crowd a spectacular match. We, Bayern Munich, we played just for winning. We were not interested in giving fans a spectacle. Spectacular is winning!”
This is relevant to so much of that 1974 World Cup final. The Dutch did not want just to offer a spectacular win. They also wanted to make a spectacle of West Germany, for so many reasons.
Had Michels’s team done that, and properly built on that brilliant start to hammer Breitner and his teammates, it would have been the second such experience for those Bayern players. They had been battered by many of the Dutch squad just 16 months earlier in the European Cup quarter-final. Just as Bayern provided the core of the West German team, the Netherlands were based around Ajax. The two clubs met in the 1972-73 quarter-final, with Ajax winning the first leg 4-0. Breitner feels that was almost as important to winning the 1974 final as the Netherlands’ offensively good opening spell. Setbacks set up both Bayern and West Germany.
“After five or six minutes [in 1974], we saw that they were not interested in killing us,” Breitner explains. “In the match against Ajax [in 1973], they did kill us. They won 4-0. This [World Cup] final, they could also have won 4-0, 5-0, 6-0, maybe, if they had scored the second or third goal in the next few minutes.
“It [the European Cup match] was one of the most important defeats you can have. Sometimes, a defeat is very important for your future. I think this was the moment when we [this core of players] started to understand what we had to improve to win the European Cup the following year. We had to learn.
“I think it was the key moment for winning the European Cup the next year, and the World Cup. We played a quite open football. We changed sometimes from playing just man contra man, so we made some important tactical changes. We also needed them for the World Cup to play in the national team.
“It was maybe a moment, a defeat you can compare with the final against Chelsea here in the Allianz Arena [in 2012]. I would compare it. The team that lost against Chelsea went through the defeat, learnt from the defeat and did better the next season, and the same happened with our team that lost 4-0 against Ajax.”
The comparison with the modern Bayern is all the more relevant because they are a rare instance of that special dynamic and duality having been replicated. For Ajax/Netherlands and Bayern/West Germany in the 1970s, read Barcelona/Spain and Bayern/Germany over the last five years.
As with many of those teams, Breitner traces the start of their rise to one critical match. Important defeats may finish a team’s development, but a crucial victory was what first took them to that level. The latter makes them regular winners, the former transforms them into relentless winners.
“The important moment was winning against England in April [1972, at Wembley in the European Championship quarter-final]. That was the birth of the great German team and also for Bayern Munich. This was the moment in which the young players - especially Uli [Hoeneß] and I – started to become stars, started to become dominating players, decisive players, for the national team and also for Bayern Munich. This international match was one of the biggest highlights in the history of Bayern Munich.”
In that 3-1 win over England Gerd Müller scored the clinching third goal, setting a trend that was to become even more frequent than Bayern and West Germany winning. In fact, many of those wins came directly because of Müller goals. The striker followed on from that goal against England to hit the opening goals in both the semi-final and final of that European Championship, two goals in the 1974 European Cup final against Atlético Madrid, the winner in the World Cup final and then the second in the 1975 European Cup final.
That was a clutch player. Müller came almost to personify this German era of victory for the purity of the way he just kept doing the single thing that would guarantee victory. His performances were all the more remarkable because he was maintaining goal ratios from the fifties – hitting more than one a game – at a time when catenaccio and the increased systemisation of football made scoring so much more difficult.
Even a man as forthright as Breitner remains in awe of Müller. “I tell you what I tell everybody. Gerd Müller was the most important German football player after 54, after the German team who won in 54 the World Cup in Switzerland. Gerd Müller was the most important, not Franz Beckenbauer, not Uwe Seeler, Gerd Müller because he gave Bayern Munich and the national team all the titles, all the cups, all the victories. He was the winner. He is the man who is responsible for all this we have here as Bayern Munich. Those are the basics. Without Gerd Müller, Bayern Munich would now be a quite normal club but not this super, super club we are right now.
“We had Gerd Müller. In 19 of 20 matches he was able to score a decisive goal.
“We knew it, we knew it, and even if he had a very bad day and it was, ‘Oh my God, what a bad day he’s having today!’ we gave him the ball, we gave him the ball, we gave him the ball, and maybe he lost the ball 10 times, 15 times, 20 times, but the 21st time he scored. It was crazy.”
It led to an era with a crazy return of trophies, when the overriding emotion was not rage. It was glory.
“A supporter doesn’t want to see his team play a spectacular match,” Breitner says. “He wants to see a victory.”
It feels all the more special when it comes with righteous vindication.