A recent poll elected Italy's 4-3 victory over West Germany in the 1970 World Cup semi-final the competition's best match of all time. On Tuesday, improbably, Italy will play a united German side at the same stage of this year's tournament. Improb-ably, because when the teams met just three months ago in Florence, German football suffered one of its most embarrassing days in the 17 years since the Berlin Wall was hacked to the ground. Four-nil down at half-time, the visitors were considered fortunate to suffer no further damage after the interval and escape with a 4-1 defeat.
Criticism of Jürgen Klinsmann, the transatlantic commuter-coach, reached such a pitch that his very job was in jeopardy and a group of MPs wanted him hauled in front of a parliamentary committee. (Not even Sven Goran Eriksson has suffered that indignity.) But Klinsmann kept the faith and kept his job, for which he had at the best estimate been third choice when he was appointed following the humiliation of Euro 2004.
Now his much-debated methods, which include the use of a sports psychologist and an American fitness coach, and above all continuing to base himself in California, have been vindicated with a minimum guarantee of finishing fourth in the world and the prospect that a young side will only improve over the next few years.
"At the beginning we couldn't believe what he said, when he told us we were able to be world champions," said Christoph Metzelder following Friday evening's epic victory on penalties over the tournament favourites, Argentina. The erudite central defender had been in the team, moderate by German standards, who somehow staggered into the World Cup final four years ago before losing to Brazil. Failing to win a game at Euro 2004 seemed a more accurate reflection of football's standing in one of its traditionally strongest homes.
"We struggled in the European Championship and the whole of German football was on a very low level," said Metzelder. "A new coach [Klinsmann] comes in and says, 'I want to win the world championship'. Of course every-body criticised him. But he created a great atmosphere. He's an optimist and tries to show that to the team. Even if he was criticised, he kept on the same way and prepared the team very well for the tournament. It was his vision. We needed time to adapt to the new style, but with everything we did, the focus was always on 9 June."
On that day, Costa Rica were dispatched 4-2 in the opening game, though not without difficulty. Paulo Wanchope's runs appeared to have exposed a weakness in the centre of the German defence, where because of an inopportune injury to Chelsea's Robert Huth, Metzelder was paired with the younger Per Mertesacker. Much work on the training ground, concentrating on playing a little deeper and placing less reliance on the offside trap, led to three clean sheets by a back line not breached for another five-and-a-half-hours, until Rob-erto Ayala's brutish header from a corner for Argentina on Friday.
Even that goal was another challenge for a young squad: the first time they had been behind in the tournament. The Berlin crowd stuck with them and the players reacted splendidly, recovering from having had a mere 35 per cent of possession before the interval to come out following Klinsmann's half-time talk and dominate play thereafter. Michael Ballack, outshone by Juan Roman Riquelme for an hour, ended up hobbling throughout extra time, yet still took a crucial penalty with utter confidence. The most naturally two-footed player around, he will surely be an invaluable asset to Chelsea as they seek to transform domestic domination into European success.
Then there was Arsenal's Jens Lehmann, touchingly encouraged by his great rival - many would say enemy - Oliver Kahn before the penalty shoot-out and furthering his already considerable reputation for saving them by thwarting Ayala and Esteban Cambiasso. All in all, Germany are one of those sides who head tentatively into a tournament (there had been another embarrassing friendly at home to Japan, only drawn with two late goals and decisive saves by Lehmann), then pick up steam and confidence from the first whistle. Bring on the Italians, in passionate Dortmund. "We had a crucial defeat in Italy in March but now it's different and the World Cup is in our home country," said Metzelder. "We appreciate the skill of the Italian players but we're very self-confident."
Skill, as Argentina reminded us on Friday, is not enough. For that proud nation, of course, there is huge disappointment, worsened by having reverted to stereotype in the wild scenes that followed the penalty shoot-out. They had briefly looked like the team of the tournament, contributing the most impressive performance, against Serbia & Montenegro, as well as the best goals by a team (in that game) and an individual (Maxi Rodrig-uez against Mexico). Now they are gone, as is their coach, Jose Pekerman, whose nerve deserted him at a crucial moment against the Germans. He sacrificed the sublime playmaker Riquelme for the more defensive Cambiasso and left Lionel Messi kicking his heels in the dug-out for the whole evening. That a team-mate or two should end up kicking Germans instead only added to the undignified exit of a potentially great team.
And Pekerman's opposite number? A street in Geislingen near his native Stuttgart was last week named Jürgen Klinsmann Weg, Klinsmann's Way. It has a certain ring to it this weekend.
Germany v Italy
1996 EUROPEAN CHAMPS: Germany 0 Italy 0
1988 EUROPEAN CHAMPS: Germany 1 Italy 1
1982 WORLD CUP: Germany 1 Italy 3
1978 WORLD CUP: Germany 0 Italy 0
1970 WORLD CUP: Germany 3 Italy 4 (aet)
1962 WORLD CUP: Germany 0 Italy 0
OVERALL RECORD: Italy won 13, Germany won 7, draws 8.Reuse content