Much has been made about the various tournament formats, and format changes, which have become a fixture of the football news cycle over recent weeks. In typical South American fashion, especially when involving Argentina, the new Copa América format (just the two groups of 5 teams, where just 2 teams will be eliminated) is to continue, despite the invited nations of Qatar and Australia withdrawing from the tournament. The UEFA Conference League brings more chaos to the coefficient system and qualifying rounds among teams from UEFA’s mid-ranking leagues. There remains scepticism of the new Euros format of 24 teams, with defensive football pre-eminent at Euro 2016 with 3rd placed sides potentially going through. Most of all, the recent propositions to change the Champions League format to include even more pointless group stage games seems a shoo-in, in another vulgar attempt from Europe’s elite to turn the Champions League into an exclusive club, if it isn’t already there.
However, one past tournament where the format caused serious issues was the 1982 World Cup, often remembered as the greatest World Cup, as discussed in a previous piece for The Football History Boys. Not too much so with the literal format, involving two group stages, famously shafting England after unfairly ending up in a second-round group with hosts Spain and West Germany. The latter were one of many incredible sides at the tournament: maybe the best side never to win a World Cup in Brazil’s ’82 iteration; Bearzot’s Italy; and a new wave France- whom West Germany played in one of, if not the, greatest games of the tournament, in an epic semi-final.
Yet another match of theirs is the subject of this piece- the famous Disgrace of Gijón, in their final group match against Austria. Viewers hoping to see a repeat of the The Miracle of Córdoba at the 1978 World Cup (known as such in Austria, although known as Schande (disgrace) in Germany), arguably the greatest game in Austrian football history as they beat West Germany in a dazzling 3-2 win, their first win over them for 47 years, would be left not just desperately disappointed, but outraged.
In German, the ‘82 match is known as the Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón, meaning the ‘non-aggression pact' of Gijón, deliberately invoking rhetoric of pre-war Nazi Germany, specifically the non-aggression with the Soviet Union in 1939 (the Nazi-Soviet pact), and similarly invoking the other expansionistic and disgraceful actions of Nazi Germany in the period, including the 1938 Anschluss of Austria. It was at this game, on the 25th June, that the formatting problem of the tournament became clear- Second placed Algeria and Chile played each other in their final group game the previous day, leaving West Germany and Austria to play 24 hours later. However, with Austria on 4 points and West Germany on 2, a 1-0 win for West Germany would see both sides through, with Austria’s superior goal difference over Algeria making the difference.
However, not only would a 1-0 win over Austria put West Germany through, it would also see them replace Austria at the top of the group. On paper, this would be a deterrence to any collusion with West Germany in Austrian eyes, given it might compromise their group for the following round. However, circumstances dictated that finishing second in the group may have been beneficial. Winning the group would place said winners in a second-round group with Spain and England, the former tipped to have a good tournament on home soil, and the latter being in electric form after winning all 3 of their first-round group games (Brazil being the only other side to do this). Meanwhile, the side finishing second in the group would face France, thus far disappointing during the tournament after being thoroughly beaten by England in their opener in Bilbao, and also Northern Ireland, a side seen to be punching above their weight after a draw with Honduras and an arguably fortunate win over Spain, in one of the finest moments in the Green and White Army’s history.
In the match itself, West Germany flew out of the traps, laying down a series of aggressive attacks, with Austria looking, at most, semi-interested in defending resolutely. Horst Hrubesch put West Germany in front in the 10th minute, after a ball in from the left wing wasn’t closed down in the slightest by Josef Degeorgi, with Hrubesch meeting the ball in the centre of the box just 3 yards out. Austria’s centre back pairing of Erich Obermayer and Bruno Pezzey were wider than a prime Alex Ferguson 4-4-2 and forgetting to mark centre forwards can be useful tip. Before half time, the intensity of the match significantly dropped, despite certain attacking moves raising the eyebrows, notably a few nice pieces of link-up play for Austria between Hans Krankl and Walter Schachner, this is likely due to their characteristic flair as players. Wolfgang Dremmler tested Austrian goalkeeper Friedrich Koncilia, though a save that was far from overly taxing, even in the context of the time.
It was the second and would be the last shot on target of the match. Then came the totally dire second half, the crowd and commentator irritation became more and more audible. Well, perhaps not literally- commentator for West German TV, Eberhard Stanjek, stopped talking over the match midway through the 2nd half in protest. Similarly, Austrian commentators asked viewers to turn the match off- both out of principle, and as a waste of time. The crowd certainly were audible however- as passes around the back became the norm, with players dovetailing each other on the ball for extra cover (no, that’s not a joke), crowds allegedly chanted "¡Que se besen, que se besen!" (“Let them kiss! Let them kiss!”), though this is difficult decipher from the somewhat grainy footage of the match. El Comercio, the local newspaper for the Asturias region, infamously published and buried the match in its crime section (in that middle section of the paper nobody really touches). Paul Breitner, one of only 4 people to score in two different World Cup finals, uncharacteristically and somewhat blatantly shegged two efforts on goal for Die Mannschaft, before Scottish referee Bob Valentine blew the full-time whistle, putting the crowd and any spectator involved out of their misery.
Austria not only lost all their momentum in the ’82 tournament for the second round, but Austrian football as a whole soon went into a lull. With the wind, passion, swagger and vim knocked out of their sails for the France and Northern Ireland games, they were outplayed in both, comprehensively so by France despite the 1-0 scoreline and were fortunate to draw with Norn Iron. Granted, key players such as Krankl and Schachner were past their peak and ageing after the tournament, but a Rapid Wien appearance in the 1985 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final came as small consolation to a desperately poor 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign, where The Netherlands, a side who didn’t qualify in ’82, beat them to a playoff, and were humbled 3-0 at home in Vienna to rivals Hungary. The ’82 team remains Austria’s last good national side- all the iterations since have been, at best, average, despite two more World Cup appearances in 1990 and 1998. Hopefully their most talented batch for a generation (one of the few cases of this cliche where it isn’t an exaggeration) can make that different.
Both sets of managers denied collusion immediately after the game. The West German squad were ambushed upon their return to the hotel, where scuffles broke out between players and fans. The Algerian FA, rightfully seething, launched an official complaint to FIFA. When Germany and Algeria met again, in the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup, constant evocations were made to the ’82 debacle and the need for revenge, even from Bosnian manager Vahid Halilhodžić.
Iconic image of an Algerian fan at the match. Credited to The Guardian.
It didn’t deter West Germany too much for the remainder of the tournament- they dulled their way past Spain and England to reach the semi-finals before bursting into life against France in an epic semi-final, though that is a story for another day.
As many readers will know, the biggest global impact of the game was to have simultaneously played games for the final matchday of group stage fixtures, first at the following 1986 World Cup before being adopted in all circles since. The revamped World Cup format, starting in 2026 with 16 groups of 3 teams, throws a spanner in the works for this, however. FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s best response to fears over collusion so far has been a crass “Penalty shootouts!?” before chuckling the issue away like some sketchy Genevan banker to his clients over the issue of money laundering commission.
West Germany remained perennial on the international stage- 1982 was the first of three consecutive World Cup final appearances. But Austrian football never really recovered. The malaise surrounding the Nichtangriffspakt never went away and festered the Austrian game for the rest of the decade. All momentum was lost.
Maybe, as some revisionist works have pointed out, the Disgrace of Gijón was akin to the final group stage game between Japan and Poland at the 2018 World Cup; the game was competitive for a certain period until around the 75th minute, with both sides content with their respective outcome and thus opting for overly conservative football. However, such a parallel doesn’t work- no such game of collusion will ever match the narrative, the blatancy and the vulgarity of the Disgrace of Gijón.
Any comparisons to the Nazi era with events in football are not particularly tactful. But the bluntly put Disgrace of Gijón remains an apt description. It disgraced Austrian football, and they’ve never truly recovered.
This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Alfie Wilson - you can follow Alfie on Twitter @alfieeswilson
Also, check out his other pieces for The Football History Boys here:
(All pictures borrowed and not owned by TFHB)
©The Football History Boys, 2021