There was the 1970 World Cup semi-final many dub as the ‘Game of the Century’, the ‘Tardelli moment’ of the 1982 World Cup final, the ‘Gol di Grosso’ in 2006, and Mario’s muscles of 2012. The shared history of Germany and Italy at major international tournaments is long and glorious. But only for the Azzurri.
Eight times the two nations have been thrust together in front of the eyes of the world, and eight times Germany have come up empty. They prepare for Saturday night’s clash with Antonio Conte’s resurgent Italians knowing that it will take a first ever win against their old foe in their ninth competitive meeting to reach the European Championship semi-finals for the third successive occasion.
For a nation with such a storied history – they have won four World Cups and three European titles – to have never found a way past one of their nearest rivals is quite some going. It is not as though they have faced Italy infrequently, having never gone more than 10 years without a clash, but no matter how dominant Germany have looked or how keenly they have been tipped they have always found Italy too tough to negotiate.
But why have die Nationalmannschaft only collected four draws and four defeats from the eight meetings between the two countries?
Werner Mickler, a renowned sports psychologist, who teaches at the German Sport University Cologne and is the man responsible for teaching the psychological part of coach education for the DFB, told Goal that there is always something in the mind which makes a difference in such situations.
“It always has something to do with what goes on in the head,” Mickler explained. “The first point is that not all players have been a part of these negative experiences. Second, how do you handle it? It is worth noting that we have become world champions and mastered various challenges, leading to a healthy self-confidence.
“The third point is that which is so often done: when all the events that have happened in the past must occur in the future. But every game is a new game. So it all depends on how the players or the team handle it.”
That psychological factor has helped Italy to continue their unbeaten record in recent meetings. The 2006 World Cup semi-final remains one of the greatest spectacles in international football history thanks to the end-to-end nature of the entire 120 minutes. But just as the game looked set to end scoreless and sent into the German speciality that is penalty kicks, Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero both struck in the final two minutes of extra-time.
Going by stereotypes it was an entirely un-Italian performance, and the Euro 2012 semi-final success was something a bit more akin to Azzurri tradition. Mario Balotelli’s two first-half goals, one of which produced that celebration, gave Cesare Prandelli’s men something to hold onto. Even a late consolation didn’t really give the impression that the impervious Italy defence was likely to lose the lead.
But, just as the 1970 extra-time slugfest and the 1982 slow-burner exemplify, Italy have found lots of different ways to beat Germany. While Italian national sides will almost always be built on solid foundations first and then embellished from there, the Azzurri’s four victories have hardly been cut-and-paste exercises.
This suggests that there has either been an element of coincidence or that so-called psychological edge involved in helping to form the Nazionale’s impregnable record against Germany. The last time the Nationalmannschaft managed anything close to a success against Italy was at Euro 96 when Gianfranco Zola’s missed penalty helped to ensure a goalless draw in the final match of Group C which sent Germany through and the Italians home. Berti Vogts’ side, of course, went on to win the competition.
Current boss Joachim Low needs to find a way to end the hoodoo on Saturday night. He needs to make the history the two nations share irrelevant.
“You have to convince your team that your plan can work and first of all you have to have different solutions,” adds Mickler. “So even if plan A does not work, there is plan B and plan C - then you feel very safe.
“Having won the World Cup, Germany know they can control the game. It’s crucial you to take an active role, not a reactive, take influence on the game.
“A bogey team can exist only in your mind.”
But if Italy get ahead, then surely the nagging fears of the Germans will only be intensified by the knowledge that the weight of history is against them.
Italy have beaten them up early and held out. They have left it very, very late and come through. They have ground down their opponents before hitting them hard, and they have gone toe-to-toe in a frenetic environment. And not once have Germany had an answer.
They will need one on Saturday if they are to keep alive their hopes of becoming European champions as well as world champions.