Seth Vertelney: Thirty years later, 'The Shame of Gijon' still resonates

A look back at the game that changed the way major international tournaments are played.
During major international tournaments, viewing the final matches of the group stage is a frantic experience.

Whereas the opening two matches of the group phase are conveniently separated, the final set of matches transpire simultaneously, creating a variety of brain-disintegrating options:

Watch one match on TV and one on a computer? Watch one on TV and listen to one on the radio? Flip back and forth between the two games on TV? Picture-in-picture? Bunker in a dimly-lit room, huddling around Twitter for warmth?

None of these are ideal, but the root cause of all of this is nearing its 30th anniversary: a game which forever altered the landscape of tournament soccer. A game which, while it was ongoing was referred to as “disgraceful”, and after its completion was compared, in reasonable Spanish tabloid fashion, to Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938.

When it was over, it would forever be known as “The Shame of Gijon.”

On June 25, 1982, West Germany and Austria met in the final match of Group 2 in Gijon, Spain. Both teams were still alive for a berth in the second round of the World Cup.

The previous day, Algeria defeated Chile in the final match of the group stage for both teams. Heading into the final match, West Germany was on two points, with Algeria and Austria both on four points. With goal differential as the tie-breaker, both teams knew a one- or two-goal West German win would see both sides through at Algeria's expense.

Needing a victory, the West Germans came out flying, and got the crucial goal just 11 minutes in, courtesy of Horst Hrubesch. The scoreline read 1-0, and both teams would advance if it held.

With 79 minutes left to play, the soccer stopped.

Whether it was unspoken, or whispered among the players, the “gentleman's agreement” was on. The teams passed half-heartedly around their own halves, with the opposing side offering little pressure. Attacks were few and far between.

To say the game devolved into a training exercise would be a misrepresentation, because players sometimes try during training exercises.

Every observer knew exactly what was happening, and made their displeasure known. The fans began chanting “Fuera, fuera” (“Out out”) and waving banknotes at the players. The German television announcer refused to comment on the game at one point, while the Austrian announcer encouraged his audience to turn off their televisions.

Working for the German channel ARD, Eberhard Stanjek summed it up best:

“What’s happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football. You can say what you want, but not every end justifies the means.”

The final score, as could have been predicted long before the final whistle blew, was West Germany 1, Austria 0. Both teams were through. Algeria was out.

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The backlash was swift, and unmerciful.

“Shame On You!” read the headline of Bild, one of Germany's largest tabloids. The German press quickly christened the match “Schande von Gijon,” or the “Shame of Gijon.”

One Spanish paper took it a bit further, branding the match the “Anschluss,” which references Adolf Hitler's occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. So much for subtlety.

Algeria lodged an official protest with FIFA which went nowhere, as no rules had technically been broken during the match, and no concrete evidence of collusion could be offered.

While it may have been too late for the Desert Foxes, the end result of the debacle changed the face of major international competitions. Starting with the 1984 European Championships, every final set of group matches would be played simultaneously, avoiding a potential sequel to “The Shame of Gijon.”

Nearly 30 years later, the events of that late June day in Northern Spain still resonate around the soccer world. While viewing the conclusion of the Euro 2012 group stages, spare a thought for the 1982 Algerian World Cup squad, the team that had to lose in order for the soccer world to gain.