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The Netherlands-Germany rivalry is legend, and Dutch children are raised on tales of their 1974 World Cup loss to their Teutonic adversaries. Tied with four World Cup trophies each, the Italians and the Germans eye one another with wary respect; Italy dominates in head-to-head matches but Germany just knocked the Italians out of the 2016 Euro.
And the French, next up against the boys in black and white? Their feelings of enmity extend far beyond the football pitch.
While the Dutch animus for the Germans is firmly rooted in World War II, French antipathy extends far further back. La rivalité franco-allemande (Franco-German rivalry) and the related territorial squabbles emerged in the 16th century, although they had been evident for so long that even Julius Caesar remarked upon the tension between the Gauls and the Germans in his account of the Gallic Wars. The rancor escalated with the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, continued through the two World Wars and only relented in the face of the Cold War, when Franco-German co-operation became an essential element in European unification.
But when the French and German players step onto the field in Marseille on Thursday to fight for a place in the Euro final, it’s likely not political history they will be thinking of but football history. There is plenty between the two sides to fuel antagonism — especially for the French.
The meetup comes 34 years almost to the day after the unforgettable 1982 World Cup semi-final in Seville between a legendary generation of French footballers, then helmed by former UEFA president Michel Platini, and a West German team whose members had been hit by stomach bugs and whose captain and European Footballer of the Year Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had been benched because of a hamstring injury.
The match is regarded as one of the best World Cup games of all time. Platini has said of it: “That was my most beautiful game. What happened in those two hours encapsulated all the sentiments of life itself. No film or play could ever recapture so many contradictions and emotions. It was complete. So strong. It was fabulous.”
Beautiful, perhaps, but also brutal. At the end of regulation play, the score was 1-1. French player Patrick Battiston had been knocked unconscious in a collision with German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher and forced out of the game with two missing teeth, three cracked ribs and damaged vertebrae. Schumacher wasn’t given so much as a foul.
In the first period of extra time France scored two goals, but Germany edged in a second goal of its own before the whistle. In the second period of extra time, Germany equalised. The game went to a penalty shootout and Germany won, 5-4. They went on to lose to Italy in the finals.
The rematch came four years later in Guadalajara, in the 1986 World Cup semi-finals. Although they were favoured to win, France made a poor showing. A goalie error allowed the Germans to score with a free kick in the ninth minute. France missed an open-goal chance to equalise and Germany sealed their lead by scoring again in added time. The match ended 2-0 and Germany went on to lose to Argentina in the final.
The two sides met again in the 2014 quarter-finals in Rio, but by now the French team had lost their lustre. An early German header was never matched by France, and the Germans loped comfortably to a 1-0 victory. They went on to win their fourth title.
The French team have considerably more firepower than they did in 2014, but Germany have shown themselves to be their maddeningly unstoppable selves. Still, France have the home advantage and sailed into the semis with a 5-2 win against Iceland, while Germany are likely to be fatigued from their grueling quarter-final match against Italy that they won narrowly on penalties. What’s more, they have suffered injuries that ruled out Mario Gomez and key midfielder Sami Khedira for the rest of the tournament and left captain Bastian Schweinsteiger struggling to be fit in time.
Damaged German legs aside, French coach Didier Deschamps is taking the threat seriously. “Germany are the best team, there is no doubt about that, even if Italy gave them a few scares,” he said. “But we are there in the final four and we’ll give it our all.”
There’s a German proverb that says that revenge converts a little right into a great wrong, but the French are likely to see that as just another instance of disagreement with their northeastern neighbours. Star striker Olivier Giroud, for his part, says he is looking forward to avenging history.
“It will be a great match,” he predicted confidently after scoring two quarter-final goals against Iceland. “We have a lot of desire to get our own back.”