With Gerd Muller retired and 10 minutes to go, West Germany needed a goalscoring hero. What about the untried Muller on the bench?
It was all going so well for Yugoslavia. Having qualified by seeing off Wales in a testy double-header, the 1968 finalists were chosen as hosts, and had raced into a 2-0 lead in the semi-final.
True, they were playing the holders and world champions, West Germany. And true, the Germans were captained by Franz Beckenbauer – still only 30 and the leader of the Bayern Munich side who’d just completed a hat-trick of successive European Cup wins.
But since their high-water mark of winning the 1974 World Cup on home turf, the Germans had declined a little. They’d been held four times in their eight qualifying games and had lost experienced heads like Wolfgang Overath and Jurgen Grabowski – not to mention pipe-smoking Maoist left-back Paul Breitner, who had controversially quit the Mannschaft in his early twenties.
They’d also lost Gerd Muller, whose 68 goals in 62 caps so often made the difference between defeat and a draw, or stalemate and victory, but who had retired from international football after the World Cup final aged just 28.
Muller would be a tough act for anyone to follow, but the drop-off in forward options was almost vertiginous. By Euro 76 Bernd Holzenbein was in his thirties, and rarely prolific (he ended up with five goals in 40 caps). Ronald Worm was 22 and had only scored in hammerings of unheralded footballing nations Malta and Turkey.
Such was the paucity of options that Helmut Schon tended to trust Erich Beer, arguably more of a midfielder. And for the Euros squad, he named uncapped striker Dieter Muller, who had scored 14 in 19 that season for Cologne. If Schon’s decision was partly because of that totemic surname, it’s not something the 22-year-old was born to – he changed it in his teens to match his stepfather.
June 17, 1976
In front of the 50,000 crammed into Red Star’s Marakana, Yugoslavia came out at pace and dominated the first half. Ante Mladinic’s team revelled in ball skills and forward motion, as demonstrated by their first goal after 19 minutes.
Crossing the halfway line on the left flank, Branko Oblak spotted the run of Danilo Popivoda floated a gorgeous ball over the defence. Even the great Beckenbauer was a spectator, hopelessly gazing upwards as the ball landed at the feet of the 5ft 7in forward – who, after an utterly exquisite cushioned first touch, tucked it past Sepp Maier for 1-0.
Maier kept his team in the game, blocking a deflection off left-back Bernhard Dietz – a solid player, but one who wouldn't have earned nearly his 53 caps if Breitner had been available – and a 20-yard free-kick from the irrepressible Popivoda.
Sadly for Maier he was at fault for Yugoslavia’s second, spilling a cross to the gleeful Dragan Dzajic – the ‘magic Dragan’ who eight years earlier had eliminated world champions England. At least Maier stopped Jovan Acimovic making it three before half-time.
Schon had to change something at half-time but could only tweak his midfield, replacing Dietmar Danner with Heinz Flohe. Just after the hour Flohe gave West Germany hope when his shot deflected off Bernd Holzenbein and past the wrong-footed goalkeeper Ognjen Petrovic.
Now the Germans had their tails up, fired by memories of other comebacks – from the 1954 World Cup-winning Miracle of Bern to the 1974 from-behind triumph over the Netherlands. But with 10 minutes to go, such history wouldn’t be emulated unless Schon could find a goalscorer.
In the circumstances, it was brave but necessary decision to replace ageing midfielder Herbert Wimmer – the only outfielder in the squad born during the Second World War – with an uncapped newcomer. Would the gamble work?
Muller answered with his first touch, in the 82nd minute, nodding in Rainer Bonhof’s corner. He was completely unmarked, six yards out in the centre of goal (seriously, just watch it). The hosts and the holders were going to extra time.
A regrouped Yugoslavia had the upper hand in overtime, Maier saving Josip Katalinski’s free-kick among a handful of other stops. But the night was to belong to West Germany – and Muller.
With six minutes to go, Flohe burst down the left and fizzed a ball across the six-yard box; Holzenbein, collecting beyond the far post, calmly laid back for Muller to lash home from seven yards. And with seconds remaining, Bonhof’s shot bounced off the post, round the back of Petrovic and straight to the waiting Muller to complete his hat-trick.
What happened next
Understandably, Muller started the final against Czechoslovakia, replacing Dietmar Danner; he scored – again, starting a comeback from two goals down, with Holzenbein equalising in inury-time – but the Germans lost international football’s first penalty shootout. They haven’t lost one since, unless you count a minor tournament in spring 1988 (Sweden profiting from spot-kick failures by Lothar Matthaus and Rudi Voller).
Yugoslavia went into decline, either failing to qualify (1978, 1980, 1986, 1988) or crashing out at the first hurdle (Spain 82, France 84). A quarter-final spot at Italia 90 was the last hurrah before the wars of independence splintered the country.
As world champions, West Germany qualified automatically for Argentina 78; Muller scored three goals in friendlies (including the opener on the team’s return to Belgrade) plus two at the finals, but the holders were eliminated.
Schon retired, replaced by his assistant Jupp Derwall; unable to dovetail with fellow forward Klaus Fischer, Muller fell out of favour, never to play for his country again. But his record of nine goals in 12 caps includes one of football’s most extraordinary debuts.