The History of The UEFA Euro: 1972, Dream Debut for West Germany

Belgium seemed to be a fitting neutral host nation in the climate of Cold War relations and it was perhaps for that reason that it easily saw off efforts from both England and Italy to host the European Championship in 1972. The tournament entering only its fourth edition retained the four-team format that had by now become familiar.

There was no doubt as to which team went into the tournament as favorites. Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Paul Breitner, Gunter Netzer, and Jupp Heynckes formed the spine of a golden generation in German football. At this point Bayern Munich were also enjoying a hugely dominant period – they went on to win three successive European Cups with the familiar names that were lining up for West Germany.

The Germans had easily seen off England in their Quarter-Final qualification tie. Gerd Muller, largely regarded as the best forward in the world, was on the scoresheet in a 3-1 win at Wembley. Journalist Hugh McIlvanney wrote in The Observer after the game that “a West German team playing with grace and spirit and an absolute commitment to attack administered the most thorough defeat ever inflicted on Sir Alf Ramsey’s England on their own ground.” The game marked the first-ever victory any German side had registered over England on their own turf.

On their way to Euro 1972, West Germany recorded their first win on an English turf as they beat Sir Alf Ramsey's selection 3-1 at Wembley
On their way to Euro 1972, West Germany recorded their first win on an English turf as they beat Sir Alf Ramsey’s selection 3-1 at Wembley

The host nation will have taken heart in their performance against defending champions Italy in the lead up to Euro 1972, but their hopes of glory were tempered very early on as they drew mighty West Germany in the curtain-raiser. Unsurprisingly Der Bomber Muller grabbed the opener in a game that saw him register a brace either side of the half time whistle. His first, a well-remembered goal, saw him out jump Belgium’s backline to intelligently lift the ball over the helpless Christian Piot.

A late consolation from Belgium substitute Odilon Polleunis saw some pride restored in a game that rarely looked like getting away from West Germany. Paul Van Himst, who captained the Belgium side that day looked back at his opponents admiringly: “The Germans in 1972 – you can compare that team to the team that played the 1974 World Cup final against Holland,” he said. “With Gerd Mueller, Franz Beckenbauer, Gunter Netzer, Sepp Maier in the goal, it was the best-ever German team I think.

The other Semi-Final saw previous winners USSR face off against Hungary. Lev Yashin had by this point already hung up his gloves but this USSR side was not without talent and his replacement Evgeny Rudekov was to carry on Yashin’s goalkeeping legacy. It was a poor showing from Hungary who had the majority of possession but failed to effectively break down a solid USSR defensive display.

In what transpired to be a tactical victory with more than a degree of luck the Russian side went ahead after Anatoly Konkov’s deflected effort squirmed into the net. Evgeny Rudekov’s moment came late in the game as Hungary was offered a reprieve through a penalty kick. Rudekov guessed correctly and sprang to his left to send his country to their third final in four editions of this illustrious competition.

A moment in the Euro 1972 second Semi-Final between the USSR and Hungary, which saw the Soviets prevailing thanks to a lone goal by Anatoly Konkov

Almost certainly the most experienced nation to have contested the European Championships thus far, the USSR hoped to utilize the know-how of past players like Lev Yashin who still loomed in the background. For West Germany, this was their first entry and they had no intention of making any mistakes in their first attempt to lift what was quickly becoming a very important trophy in world football.

Nearly 45,000 people turned up to the iconic Heysel Stadium that would play host to the tie. This game captured the imagination on many levels, and the political backdrop was never far behind in what was built like an East vs West affair. The USSR played down such grand narratives and were realistic after having suffered a 4-1 humbling at the hands of the Germans only a month previous, a game in which Gerd Muller scored every goal for his side. With a majority German crowd, the players were cerebral as they imposed their game on the Russians.

Three names we’d listed earlier of West Germany’s spine were all involved in the first goal. Franz Beckenbauer carried the ball out from the back in what has become an iconic move from the German sweeper and Günter Netzer’s volleyed effort lashed against the bar. Evgeni Rudakov produced a brilliant save to keep out the rebound but, you guessed it, Muller was on hand to prod his side ahead.

Gerd Muller's opener against the USSR in the Euro 1972 Final was the pivotal image of the fourth edition of the tournament, which saw West Germany achieving glory at first try
Gerd Muller’s opener against the USSR in the Euro 1972 Final was the pivotal image of the fourth edition of the tournament, which ended with West Germany achieving glory at first try

Many papers before the game questioned whether Der Bomber would be able to penetrate a USSR defense that would look to isolate him but Gerd Muller was to flourish in the position of sole central striker. With no partner in the middle, he utilized the runs of his wingers to create space for himself in the box. His ability to react to the ball was second to none and was a large part of the reason he registered 68 goals in 62 international appearances.

A deserved goal for Herbert Wimmer after Rudakov couldn’t quite keep his effort out meant that West Germany were cruising. Gerd Muller capped the game off with his second 6 minutes after Wimmer’s goal to complete a crushing performance.

We didn’t fear the Russians in the final,” Müller said later. “Everything worked well. The team worked, the coach worked, it was great. The team was on a roll and we won. That final was the best of the lot.” And who could question him?


Read the previous episodes of our History of the UEFA Euro:

1960, The Humble Beginnings
1964, Spain’s Forgotten Glory
1968, A Year of Firsts and Lasts