Back in the days when football was more about entertainment than business, and players were valued for their skills on the field, not their trendy hairstyles or flashy agents. Let’s journey back to the afternoon of June 17, 1970, at the “Azteca” stadium in Mexico City, where one of the most spectacular and dramatic semi-finals in football history took place. The teams in contention were Italy and West Germany, and the match earned the title of the “Match of the Century” due to its numerous twists and high-quality football.
The 1970 World Cup in Mexico marked the first time this country hosted the world’s biggest football event. Sixteen teams competed, divided into 4 groups, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the quarter-finals. Our team also participated in the tournament, facing West Germany, Peru, and Morocco. The Germans dominated, winning all three of their matches, defeating Morocco 2-1, Bulgaria 5-2, and Peru 3-1, finishing first in the group with a perfect 6-point record (with 2 points awarded for each win). Peru, after an impressive comeback from 0-2 to 3-2 against us, secured the second spot in the group. In the quarter-finals, “Die Mannschaft” faced England, who had defeated them in the 1966 tournament final.
It’s worth noting that these two teams had clashed in the 1966 final, with “The Three Lions” winning 4-2 and claiming their first and only World Cup title. However, the Germans managed to exact revenge four years later, winning this quarter-final 3-2, even though neither team could secure victory within the regulation 90 minutes. They had to play extra time, during which Gerd Müller scored past England’s goalkeeper Peter Bonetti, sending the Germans to the semi-finals.
Italy, on the other hand, was placed in a group with Uruguay, Sweden, and Israel. After narrowly defeating Sweden 1-0, the “Azzurri” managed two draws against Uruguay and Israel to advance with difficulty. In the quarter-finals, the Italians faced the highly motivated Mexican team. Surprisingly, the match was played not at the “Azteca” but at the much smaller Toluca stadium, which could only accommodate 26,851 spectators. Deprived of their most potent weapon, the incredible support of 100,000 passionate Mexicans, Italy won convincingly with a 4-1 score and secured a spot in the semi-finals.
This time, there was no mistake – the semi-final was played at the “Azteca,” with nearly 103,000 spectators gathering to witness the clash between these two giants. Both teams boasted remarkable players. “Squadra Azzurra” featured legendary Inter players such as Giacinto Facchetti, Sandro Mazzola, and Roberto Boninsegna, while Luigi Riva, the top scorer for Cagliari, led their attack. One of the greatest legends of Italian football, Gianni Rivera, remained on the bench. The Germans were equally impressive, with Sep Maier guarding the goal, and players like Franz Beckenbauer, Berti Vogts, Wolfgang Overath, Uwe Seeler, and Gerd Müller.
The match began auspiciously for the Italians, as Boninsegna scored a fantastic left-footed shot from outside the penalty area in the 8th minute, leaving Maier helpless. Italy led 1-0. The game was dominated by the Germans, but they struggled to find the net. Another problem for them was the injury of Franz Beckenbauer during the second half. However, their coach Helmut Schön had already made both substitutions, so Beckenbauer played on with a shoulder injury, with doctors only able to wrap it.
The turning point came in the 90th minute when Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, the left-back for Milan, managed to intercept a cross from the left and equalized for Germany. The German commentator exclaimed, “Schnellinger, really?!,” as the defender hadn’t scored a goal in over five years, and this was his first for the national team. The match was sent into extra time.
During that era, it was rare for a Germany match not to feature Gerd Müller on the scoresheet. “The Bomber of the Nation” finally made his mark in the 94th minute after a defensive error by Inter’s Tarcisio Burgnich, allowing Müller to score from close range. Just four minutes later, it was Burgnich himself who equalized, making amends for his earlier mistake. In the dying moments of the first extra period, Italy’s all-time top scorer, Luigi Riva, received a pass from the left, beat a German defender, and scored with a precise shot past Maier. Both assists for Italy’s goals in extra time came from Gianni Rivera.
After 115 minutes of play, the score was 3-2 in favor of “La Squadra.” Müller managed to score again in the 110th minute, seizing a good position during a cross and scoring from close range with his head. However, the man known as “The Bomber” missed his chance to equalize when taking a penalty, causing Italy’s goalkeeper, Albertosi, to celebrate. Just a minute later, starting from the center, Milan’s “Golden Boy” took the ball and orchestrated a lightning-fast attack. Italy’s attack was from the left, where Boninsegna had moved. He broke through and found the unmarked Rivera around the penalty spot. Rivera, with a precise shot, sent Maier the wrong way, scoring another goal – it was now 4-3 for Italy! Italian fans rejoiced while Beckenbauer, with his injured arm, retrieved the ball from the net and hurriedly brought it back to the center circle.
However, the Germans failed to score another goal before the end of the match and were eliminated from the competition. “Squadra Azzurra” advanced to the final against Brazil. This famous semi-final was dubbed the “Match of the Century,” and a monument was erected outside the “Azteca” stadium with a plaque that read: “The Azteca Stadium pays tribute to the national teams of Italy and Germany, who played the ‘Match of the Century’ at the 1970 World Cup. June 17, 1970.”