As a blubbering Diego Maradona watched Lothar Matthaus thrust the World Cup high into the Rome sky in July 1990, the new decade was presumed to promise ten years of German dominance. Their Matthaus-inspired victory at Italia ’90 had come fresh on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it, communism in Germany.
West Germany had made it to the last 3 World Cup finals, and with East Germany soon be to reunified with the West (unification would come on October 3rd, 1990), many – with Franz Beckenbauer chiefly among them – believed that a standalone German team, with combined resources, would come to define the decade. Beckenbauer went as far as to say he could envision a unified Germany becoming unbeatable in the ensuing years.
After the near misses on the field and seismic social upheaval off it that characterised 1980s Germany, the ‘90s was filled with fresh optimism. A decade of possibility, of unified prosperity.
The unbeatable side Beckenbauer envisaged hit a major bump two years later. Germany’s first tournament as a unified force saw them denied a World Cup/Euro double when they lost in the final of Euro ’92 to an unfancied, Michael Laudrup-less Denmark side in one of the great final upsets.
Germany rolled into USA ’94 to defend their title with what in truth was an ageing squad. A majority of the players who had secured their 3rd title had also made the plane for America. Matthaus was no longer the marauding, dynamic influence the world saw steamrolling opposition players at Italia ’90; likewise for Andreas Brehme; Rudi Voller had been coaxed out of international retirement by manager Berti Vogts for one final hurrah in the States.
Drawn in Group C alongside Spain, Bolivia and South Korea, stodgy performances saw the Germans collect 4 points from their opening two games. Vogts’ side wasn’t exactly thrilling American audiences, creativity was in short supply and only registered two goals, both scored by Jurgen Klinsmann. It was classic German minimalism, doing just enough to get by. A mentality that’s now thankfully been consigned to history.
Klinsmann had been the only bright note from the Bolivia and Spain games. The Swabian striker had been playing his football in France with Monaco going into the tournament and was still, relative to his fellow Italia ’90 survivors, at the peak of his powers.
Going into the final round of games, Germany needed a win against South Korea in Dallas to seal the group, and thus avoid a potential quarter-final meeting with the German’s perennial dream-slayer, Italy.
At the Cotton Bowl stadium, Klinsmann’s goal arrived 12 minutes into a stiflingly hot afternoon (played at 3pm, the temperature was a ludicrous 55 degrees). Thomas Hassler weaved his way into the South Korean penalty area down the right-hand channel and despite being confronted by a lone South Korean player, Hassler had enough space to twist and turn, biding his time for the run of either Klinsmann or Karl-Heinz Riedle.
Klinsmann would re-direct his run to receive Hassler’s pass, and with his back to goal and the Koreans not tracking his move, would give Klinsmann ample time to let Hassler’s pass roll up his right foot before swiveling in one fluid motion like an Olympian ice skater and slamming the ball home with his fully extended left into the bottom corner of Choi In Young’s goal. It was a brilliant moment of ingenuity.
To younger readers, it can be easy to overlook Klinsmann’s playing career and focus instead on Klinsmann the manager, the instigator of the German rebirth in the mid-‘00s, and to a lesser extent his stint as coach of the US men’s national team. But Klinsmann – fluent in four languages – was a remarkably astute forward, a workhorse who also liked to indulge in the darker arts of the game.
In the pantheon of great forwards of the era, he tends to get ignored. He wasn’t as coldly clinical as Romario or Marco Van Basten, nor possessed the all-round dynamism of George Weah or Ronaldo. Klinsmann was probably somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, yet his reading of the game was exceptional.
Klinsmann would later net his 4th of the tournament and Germany were 3 up by halftime in what was their best performance of USA ‘94. In the second half, the suffocating conditions gave an advantage to the Koreans, who stormed back with two goals in the opening quarter hour and only the reflexes of Bobo Illgner denied them a warranted draw.
Klinsmann would score another marvellous goal, a give-and-go with Voller, in the round of 16 win against Belgium before the champions would run aground against Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria. It was their worst showing at a major tournament for a decade.
Whilst unified Germany did indeed prosper in the decade that followed, Beckenbauer’s unbeatable Germany never materialised.
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