Manuel Neuer’s display against Algeria has haunted France with memories of one of the World Cup’s most notorious incidents
Joachim Löw called him extraordinary; Franz Beckenbauer described him as a tougher-tackling libero than he was, while on the internet the death-or-glory performance drew the comparison to Chuck Norris.
Manuel Neuer was Germany’s hero of the World Cup last-16 victory over Algeria on Monday, when he not only kept goal with customary assurance but moonlighted as a sweeper behind an extremely high backline. On numerous occasions, he raced from his penalty area to make tackles and even one diving header.
It was high-stakes stuff and he got away with it when the Algeria striker, Islam Slimani, took the ball around him only to find the angle to goal too tight. But Neuer was otherwise thrillingly effective, even if it was not always possible to feel entirely secure about his role. He was a factor in setting up the quarter-final tie with France in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
To many France supporters, though – particularly those of a certain age – there was a haunting quality to the display. To them, the sight of a German goalkeeper charging off his line to challenge an opposition player took them back to one of the World Cup’s most notorious incidents.
What West Germany’s Toni Schumacher did to Patrick Battiston in the classic España 82 semi-final will never be forgotten or forgiven in France. And, despite the efforts of Löw, the Germany manager, or Didier Deschamps, his France counterpart, to consign the flashpoint to history, there is little doubt that it has framed the meeting at the Maracanã.
The game was tied at 1-1 in Seville when Michel Platini’s weighted pass ushered Battiston towards Schumacher’s goal. The France substitute was always the favourite to get there first, which he did and he guided a shot in at goal.
Battiston did not see it drift wide. Schumacher had continued his bolt from the line and, leading with his hip as he jumped into the Frenchman, he knocked him unconscious. Battiston lost three of his teeth and he was stretchered off in a neck brace; Platini held his hand as he departed.
There was no penalty, no red card, nothing. Schumacher would restart play with a goal-kick. The game went on to finish 3-3 after extra-time and, in the World Cup’s first penalty shootout, Schumacher saved twice as West Germany won. France wept.
The details of the incident have entered folklore. Schumacher said afterwards that he would be happy to pay for Battiston’s dental treatment, which went down predictably badly in France. Schumacher was dubbed the barber or dentist of Seville in Germany. He would say that his post-match comment had been a joke while he argued that the ball was there to be played for. Battiston’s teeth would be exhibited in a Berlin museum.
Schumacher, now the vice-president of FC Köln, has been in demand this week, particularly from French journalists. He also appeared on a German football talkshow during which, among other questions, he was asked about Neuer’s performance against Algeria. “The way he plays is really risky for the defence because, if he makes a mistake, he could get a red card,” Schumacher said, with no apparent irony.
To the majority of Germans, the 1982 semi-final is long forgotten, part of a bygone, pre-unification era and it has hardly been referenced in the buildup to this tie. The discussion in Germany has been dominated by the analysis of the generally uninspiring display against Algeria; the question as to whether Philipp Lahm will continue in midfield (he will); the ongoing either/or teaser involving Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, and the merits of starting the centre-halves, Jérôme Boateng and Benedikt Höwedes, in the full-back positions. Neuer has also been a hot topic.
The focus has turned inwards and the attention on the France team has been diluted, perhaps, by the absence of their injured winger, Franck Ribéry.
Germany do not consider themselves to have a grand footballing history with France. In fact Friday’s match will be the first competitive fixture between the sides since unification. France’s last telling encounter with a German side was a loss to East Germany during Euro 1988 qualifying, while they only met West Germany three times competitively – each time at the World Cup. There was the 1958 third-placed play-off in Sweden, which France won 6-3, and the semi-finals in both 1982 and 1986. Germany won the latter 2-0 in Guadalajara, Mexico, in what was a rather less controversial game. Platini was half-fit and France looked drained after their quarter-final penalty shootout win over Brazil.In France, though, the memories of 1982 remain raw. L’Equipe devoted its front page on Wednesday to a montage that recalled Schumacher’s clash with Battiston while it is worth nothing that France Football devoted a one-off issue solely to the Seville semi-final on the 30-year anniversary in June 2012. They gave away a DVD of the full match, which proved very popular.
Perhaps it is because the two nations have rarely met when it matters the most that Seville has retained such clarity for the French. But, more likely, it is down to the sheer depths of the outrage that was felt. One article in Wednesday’s L’Equipe mentioned the second world war as part of the context to the fury after the 1982 game.
France felt robbed, and not because they had led 3-1 when Alain Giresse scored in extra-time. It was a golden generation of French talent, led by Platini and featuring Jean Tigana, Giresse, Dominique Rocheteau and Didier Six. They were expressionists, dreamers; a bunch of floppy-haired romantics. In 1986, after the semi-final in Guadalajara, the midfielder, Luis Fernández, said: “In pure football terms, the Germans taught us nothing.”
But Germany won. They were mentally and physically stronger; more ruthless. The only consolation for France was that they would lose in both finals.
Ideologies have changed. France have become more pragmatic since 1986, more German. Meanwhile the Germans, since their reinvention at the 2006 World Cup, have become more adventurous, even if they have shown it only in patches here. Their once inscrutable mentality is under question. Can they win a first title since Euro 96?
The desire for victory on both sides is overwhelming. France, however, might feel that they have an itch to scratch.