Helmut Schön: The coach who took West Germany to the Euro 1972 title

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West Germany Euro 1972

When West Germany won the 1974 World Cup, they did so with a heavy dose of pragmatism.

Laboured against Chile, booed from the pitch against Australia, and defeated by East Germany in the first group stage, throughout the rest of the tournament, Helmut Schön’s side played the percentages against some magnificent teams, without truly breaking free from the rigid blueprint for success, that the West German coach had drafted.

This was a vastly different type of glory, compared to the one that Die Mannschaft had enjoyed two years earlier, at the 1972 European Championship.

There was a defined lack of anxiety to the West Germany of both the 1970 World Cup, and the 1972 European Championship. Just as with the 1974 vintage, these were teams built with intelligence, vision, and a ruthlessness in the final third when presented with a sight of the whites of the eyes of opposing goalkeepers, yet most impressively, they came without the type of handbrake that was fitted to the class of 74.

In Mexico, during West Germany’s run to the World Cup semi-finals, Gerd Müller had scored an incredulous ten goals, and then netted seven of the 13 goals that took his nation to the 1972 European Championship finals.

If the 1974 World Cup success represented the peak of Schön’s personal mountain with West Germany, then the 1972 European Championship was very much Christmas Eve. That night, when with the presents wrapped, and the shops shut, you are afforded the time for a bit of indulgence.

Schön’s path to 1972 was a long and complex one. A pupil of the legendary, yet controversial and polarising Sepp Herberger, to whom he had been assistant, until taking the top job in 1964, he had been the head coach of the autonomous Saarland national team, until the Saar Protectorate was reunified with West Germany, in 1956.

Saarland had even faced West Germany during the qualifiers for the 1954 World Cup, with Schön taking Herberger’s team to a decisive qualifier, that went the way of the eventual world champions.

Key to West Germany’s embracing of a more expansive style of play, in 1972, was the loss to injury of Wolfgang Overath, which left Schön with no option but to field the enigmatic, beautifully gifted, yet unpredictable Günter Netzer instead.

Günter Netzer West Germany Euro 1972

Netzer had dictated the first leg of West Germany’s quarter-final, at Wembley against England, operating as the fluid and mesmeric conduit between Müller up front, and Franz Beckenbauer at the back. With the resolute Sepp Maier in goal, Schön had the perfect spine to his team, yet it was vaguely at odds with his requirement for retaining greater control of his team.

Overath was very much Schön’s type of attacking-midfielder. Skilled, energetic, dangerous, yet incredibly disciplined. Whereas Overath was the man to be handed a specified mission, that he would carry out to the letter, placing Netzer into his line-up was akin to giving the midfield an intuitive and reactionary brain of its own. A brain that moved to its own beat.

Luckily for Schön, in 1972, Netzer was within the eye of his creative storm. The heartbeat to Hennes Weisweiler’s blossoming Borussia Mönchengladbach, he brought a style and verve to the national team that was comparable to Johan Cruyff’s influence on the Netherlands.

Sir Alf Ramsey’s England casually brushed aside in the last-eight, to Belgium, West Germany went for the penultimate four-nation European Championship finals, thrown together with the hosts for the semi-finals, in Antwerp.

With inch perfect precision, it was Netzer who conjured up the two opportunities that Müller readily took, one in each half, to claim West Germany’s place in the final. Yet, it had been the inspired Beckenbauer that had spun Belgium into their state of disorientation, moving forward with an almost bohemian freedom.

A passionate and vibrant atmosphere, given that Belgium narrowed the scoreline to 2-1, the noise generated at the Bosuilstadion was vociferous enough for the prison guards of a nearby jail to be distracted enough not to notice one of their inmates saw through the bars of his cell, and strike for freedom of his own.

By design, or by virtue of organic football, Schön’s side attained football perfection against the Soviet Union in the 1972 European Championship Final.

Schön fielded an unchanged line-up, which meant that players of the calibre of Berti Vogts, and Rainer Bonhof watched the entirety of the tournament from the sidelines. Meanwhile, Jürgen Grabowski was restricted to the last 30 minutes of the semi-final, yet conversely, it was a team that also had an amateur element, in the shape of Uli Hoeneß.

Despite being an integral part of the Bayern Munich midfield, Hoeneß had been denied the chance to turn professional, until he had taken part in the 1972 Olympic team’s efforts for a medal, yet here he was, walking out for the European Championship Final.

West Germany had defeated the Soviet Union just a month earlier, when they had offered themselves up for a 4-1 demolition, to mark the inauguration of the Olympiastadion, in Munich, and in Brussels the margin of victory for Schön’s team was no different.

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This time 3-0, West Germany prevailed through artistry, elegance, and a footballing geometry that Rinus Michels himself would have been proud to call his own. Two more goals for Müller, bookending a strike from the defensive-midfielder, Herbert Wimmer, this was the complete performance, a performance that was embossed at one point with a 30-pass move that took in all Schön’s players at least once.

So stylish, West Germany’s opening goal could have been scored twice, before it was forced it home, as first Netzer hit the crossbar, and then Jupp Heynckes provoked a fine save from Yevhen Rudakov, that he pushed into the path of Müller.

A goal that was symptomatic of the team ethic on display, Wimmer’s strike, and Müller’s second had hypnotic ingredients to them too, as Schön produced the type of footballing elan that would be replaced with percentage playing pragmatism, some two years later.

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