By Mark Doyle
“They can adjust their game like no other team in the world,” Germany boss Joachim Low said of Italy ahead of Friday's friendly meeting in Milan. “They are illusionists." If that is the case, the greatest trick the Azzurri ever pulled was convincing the Germans that they cannot beat them in a competitive fixture.
Eight times these two great footballing nations have met in major tournaments; not once have Die Mannschaft come out on top. As Philipp Lahm admitted earlier this week: "It has been in every German player’s head that we cannot beat Italy in tournaments.”
Last year was expected to be different, of course. Germany had blazed their way into the last four of Euro 2012 on the back of a world-record run of 15 consecutive victories in competitive fixtures. Low had such faith in his squad that he had even elected to rotate his forwards for the quarter-final win over Greece - a shock move by a coach in the knock-out stages of any previous tournament. After comfortably seeing off the Greeks, all that stood between the Mannschaft and a third successive crack at Spain in a major tournament were Italy. Few pundits gave the Azzurri much of a chance against a seemingly unstoppable Germany side that many were actually tipping to end la Roja’s dominance of the international game.
However, Falix Magath, who was a part of the West Germany squad beaten by Italy in the 1982 World Cup final, claimed he knew before kick-off that Low’s men were doomed to defeat. “When you saw how passionately the Italians sang their anthem, you could see the will that they showed in the following 90 minutes,” he argued.
|ITALY-GERMANY: COMPETITIVE TIES
Franz Beckenbauer, meanwhile, was stunned that such a talented Germany side had been made to look so ordinary. The key, as far as Der Kaiser was concerned, was not that the Mannschaft had been proven inferior, but that “the players seemed to have been paralysed somewhat by all of the talk of the Italy curse”.
According to Goal’s Vittorio Campanile, that had been a deliberate ploy on the part of the Italians.
“The media and the players are all well aware of the unblemished record against the Germans," he explains, "so they always talk about it as much as possible before these games.” Most experts felt that Italy's mind games would have little bearing on the result - but they were wrong.
The Azzurri played as if they knew that they would win; as if it was fate and pre-ordained. Germany, by complete contrast, seemed racked by self-doubt. Even Low seemed to have been affected by the malaise. Indeed, he picked his side to face Greece with Italy in mind, but his decision to rest key players such as Mario Gomez, Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski backfired, as it merely disrupted the momentum and rhythm Germany had built up during the group stages.
What is strange, of course, is that Germany never betray such insecurity when it comes to tackling any of the other traditional superpowers of the international game. If anything, the Mannschaft are feared by other nations primarily because of their mental strength.
The weight of history has obviously played its part in their dismal record against Italy. The Azzurri got the better of West Germany in that aforementioned clash in Spain in 1982, but also 'The Game of the Century', that epic semi-final at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. However, Goal's Falko Bloeding believes that the mental block that was so evident in Warsaw last summer has its origins in the 2006 semi-final showdown in Dortmund, which Italy won thanks to two goals in the final two minutes of extra-time.
“I really don't think there was a psychological problem before that game," he argues. "Italy not only triumphed at the Westfalenstadion, where Germany had never previously lost a competitive match, they also destroyed a dream that night.
"There was so much euphoria back then, throughout the country as a whole, and the way in which Italy crushed that was really painful.
"There's also the fact that Italy always is so strong mentally; they never give in. So, basically, Germany has to go up against an opponent with the same characteristics, which is something they're just not used to.
"So, now it's become a mental block. Still, it's my feeling that it can finally be overcome by the current team."
Victory in Friday's friendly in Milan would certainly help in that regard. As the legendary Bill Shankly once said, "a lot of football success is in the mind", and Low's men could do with a psychological boost with the World Cup looming.
If they don’t get one, all of that self-doubt and insecurity will come flooding back if the two sides are paired together in Brazil next summer because, as Germany know only too well, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
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