Think of the 1970 FIFA World Cup™ and the Azteca Stadium and you will doubtless picture Brazil’s fantastic, free-flowing final victory over Italy.
Yet while the iconic Mexican arena does indeed have a plaque on its exterior commemorating the ‘Partido del Siglo’ (Game of the Century), this grand title has been bestowed on a match in which Pele, Carlos Alberto et al were nowhere to be seen. It is instead to the Italians and West Germany that the Azteca memorial “pays homage”, honouring a seven-goal thriller that is similarly remembered as the ‘Partida del Secolo’ and ‘Jahrhundertspiel’ by its respective protagonists.
Not everyone involved remembers it with fondness, of course. “No-one has forgotten that match,” said the late Gerd Muller, scorer of two extra-time goals for Germany. “It still drives me crazy thinking about it and I haven’t recovered from it to this day.”
It was during those additional 30 minutes in which Muller grabbed his brace, and Gianni Rivera scored the 111th-minute winner, that the match became the stuff of legend. For much of the regulation 90, it had been forgettable fare, with Italy defending typically stoically a lead fashioned by Roberto Boninsegna’s eighth-minute opener. That rearguard action seemed set to win them a hard-earned spot in the Final until, with less than a minute remaining, an AC Milan player sent the game into extra time.
This was no ordinary Rossoneri star either; it was Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, a defender who didn’t score once in 222 appearances for Milan, and managed just a solitary goal – this one – for his national team. As the German commentator, Ernst Huberty, famously cried: “Schnellinger, ausgerechnet! Schnellinger!” (Schnellinger, of all people! Schnellinger!)
At half-time, Italy’s coach Ferruccio Valcareggi had maintained his controversial ‘Staffetta’ (Relay) selection compromise of substituting Rivera, Schnellinger’s Milan team-mate, for the more industrious Sandro Mazzola. The former was the reigning world player of the year winner and hugely gifted, but Valcareggi considered him most effective when opposition defences were tiring – as he expected Germany’s to after a draining quarter-final against England. “I was mistaken,” the Italy coach later admitted. “In fact I was amazed by their stamina.”
Indeed, even with captain Franz Beckenbauer playing with his injured arm in a sling, the Germans headed into extra time in the ascendancy and quickly took the lead through the prolific Muller. Italy hit back, though, levelling four minutes later through Tarcisio Burgnich before Luigi Riva put them 3-2 in front just before the interval. And there was yet more in store for the breathless crowd as Muller, with his tenth goal of the tournament, restored parity once again, beating a less-than-alert Rivera at his position guarding the near post.
Goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi was seen berating Italy’s ‘Golden Boy’ for his sloppy attempt to block and yet, within 60 seconds, the villain had become an Azzurri hero. In sweeping home the winner following fine work by Boninsegna and Giacinto Facchetti straight from kick-off, Rivera also set the seal on one of the greatest and most dramatic World Cup matches ever seen.