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Pragmatism over professionalism was how West Germany won the World Cup in 1974 – England are looking to follow in their path 

Kashinath Bhattacharjee, Moscow

How can a defeat benefit a team? Ask West Germany

They were the champions at the 1974 World Cup, but the hosts were beaten by the relative minnows of East Germany 0-1 in the early group stages. However, reading between the lines offers an alternate view.

At the 1974 World Cup, there was another group stage even after the initial set of group matches. World Cups used to have just 16 teams back then. Four groups of four teams initially competed on a round-robin basis. The two top teams would then go through and form another two groups of four. The winners from those two groups would then play the final and the runners-up would compete for third-place.

Before West Germany’s last match against the East, their eternal rivals then, the eventual champions had four points from two wins against Chile and Australia. The East had three points from a win against Australia and draw against Chile. Those were the days when a win gave the teams two points only. But with four and three points respectively, both West and East Germany were through to the second group league stage already.

West Germany, under the leadership of Franz Beckenbauer, were the reigning European Champions. Bayern Munich, led by the same Kaiser, were on the way to win the-then European Club competition, now Champions League, for a record three back-to-back titles (1974-76), a feat Ajax Amsterdam achieved just before them (1971-73).

The problem was, before the match, everybody knew that the group winners would go into the mix with the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina, while the runners-up would find a place among Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia. Needless to say which group would have been preferred by a team with a great ambition to go far.

The East Germans had enviable records at the Olympics, the dubious reasons were revealed later, but they did not have any football history. The European champions were overwhelming favourites for the match.

Beckenbauer and his team did what a pragmatic team would have done. They lost the match and avoided Johan Cruyff’s Holland in the second group stage. They reached the final by easily beating Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia to meet the best team. A deliberate but a perfect ploy.

England did the same in 2018. They had rested their main players against Belgium since they did not want to be the group winners and face a tough bracket including Uruguay, Brazil and France. They lost 0-1 to a Belgium side, which were also not too keen to take the hard route. However, a Adnan Januzaj winner saw Belgium becoming the number one team from the group to go to the upper half of the World Cup bracket. 

The other half, as usual, is a lot easier with Colombia then potentially Sweden or Switzerland and then maybe Russia and Croatia.

The winner of Sweden versus Switzerland will be waiting the victor of the England-Colombia match in the round of 16. Semifinal route can never have been easier in a World Cup.

Unlike the West Germans, however, England never hid the fact that they wanted to be runners-up. It was pointless to go for the top spot. Their coach, Gareth Southgate, clearly defined their ambition which was far higher than being group champions. Whether it was ethical or not, history will judge afterwards. But for the professionals, It was the correct choice.

Looking ahead to the game and Colombia will be handicapped if James Rodriguez does not make the starting XI on Tuesday. The South Americans are a completely different team without the midfielder’s creative influence on the pitch. England, on the contrary, is a relatively young side without the baggage of history on their shoulders. The side has a golden chance of writing a new one by turning a defeat into a win.

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