The ‘Game of the Century’ Remembered by Those Who Were There
On this day in 1970, the Estadio Azteca hosted one of the most memorable World Cup semi-finals of all time, with Italy edging out West Germany in a seven-goal thriller. With the help of two players who took part, The Analyst looks back on a memorable afternoon in Mexico City.
On the outside wall of Mexico City’s iconic Estadio Azteca sits a plaque which commemorates one of the most iconic matches in FIFA World Cup history.
The clash featured then two-time world champions Italy and the 1954 winners West Germany, with a place in the final at stake for the nation that came out on top.
That plaque is inscribed with the following:
El estadio Azteca rinde homenaje a las selecciones de Italia (4) y Alemania (3) protagonistas en el Mundial de 1970 del PARTIDO DEL SIGLO. 17 de Junio de 1970.
Translated into English, ‘Partido Del Siglo’ means ‘Game of the Century’.
It is estimated that over 30 million people in Italy watched their team secure a nail-biting victory on television and given the time difference between Europe and Mexico, they had to wait until almost 2 am to celebrate their success on the streets.
To mark the anniversary, The Analyst spoke to two of the Azzurri’s goalscorers, Roberto Boninsegna and Gianni Rivera, who together reflect on what happened that night. Oh, and of course, we sprinkle in some data to help paint the picture.
The Azzurri Minutes Away from Grinding out Another 1-0 Win
As has often been the case at major competitions, the Italians had quietly progressed to the knockout stages without setting the world alight. They topped their group without conceding a goal, but they’d only managed to score once themselves in their three games, courtesy of a strike from Cagliari forward Angelo Domenghini against Sweden. In comparison, West Germany had progressed with a 100% record, scoring ten goals in the process.
Both teams went behind in their respective quarter-finals, but the Azzuri ended up comfortably beating the hosts, Mexico, 4-1, whilst Beckenbauer and co came back from 2-0 down against holders England to win 3-2 after extra time, establishing themselves as firm favourites to get to the final.
Boninsegna had featured in every minute of Italy’s campaign ahead of the semi-final and looking back, believes that the side, coached by Ferruccio Valcareggi, improved throughout the competition as they acclimatised to the altitude in Central America.
“Italy has always been a team that prefers to play on the counter-attack. Then each coach decides the tactics based on the characteristics of the players.
“At the beginning, we struggled but then the more we played, the more we got in shape, because when you play at two thousand metres (above sea level) you have to get into a rhythm, you have to train your body and your breathing.”
As the referee got the semi-final underway, the underdogs started brightly. Boninsegna opened the scoring in the eighth minute with a shot from outside the box. After taking the lead, the Italians then remained compact in defence and as per their game plan, looked to catch their opponents out on the break.
After holding the lead for 92 minutes, it looked as though one goal could once again be enough to close the game out. However, in the dying moments West German defender Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, who at the time was playing his club football with Rivera for Milan, equalised with his only goal in 47 appearances for the national team.
Despite the agony of being just seconds away from securing a place in the final, Boninsegna recognises that without that equaliser, the game would not have been remembered so fondly half a century later.
“We thought we had qualified and instead we went into extra time.
“It was an incredible mistake by our defence – nobody noticed Schnellinger coming in from behind. They fell asleep.
“You can’t concede a goal like that in the second minute of injury time in a World Cup semi-final. But with the benefit of hindsight, we actually have to thank them for that mistake because it was in extra time that we played a part in the Game of the Century.”
If in Range, Shoot
With the game taking place in mid-afternoon at a venue 2,200 metres above sea level, it was only once extra-time started, with fatigue setting in, that we saw the Game of the Century really come to life.
For the purists who swoon at possession-based football, the 1970 World Cup will not be fondly remembered. Of all the World Cups held since 1966, Mexico ‘70’s average of 747 passes per game is a competition low.
But what it lacked in ball retention, it made up for in shot volume. The average shots per game of 41.6 is the most of any World Cup since 1966 and this shoot-on-sight approach was encapsulated perfectly during this famous extra-time period.
Both teams played extremely directly: the average number of passes that led to each team’s shots stood at just two, and this quick, vertical play gave us the highest number of extra-time goals ever scored in World Cup history.
After equalising so late in normal time, all bets were on West Germany and no one was really surprised when Gerd Müller capitalised on an error by substitute Fabrizio Poletti to put his side in front. But West Germany’s lead lasted only four minutes, with Italian defender Tarcisio Burnich restoring parity from close range.
Boninsegna reflects on what happened during that frantic first 10 minutes of extra time:
“Their second goal was the result of a misunderstanding between our goalkeeper and a defender and at that moment it was hard because we went from being ahead, to conceding a goal in injury time, and then soon after found going behind against a strong opponent like West Germany.
“But there was still time and we didn’t give up. Luckily, they also made a big mistake in defence. A miscontrol by one of their defenders became an assist for Burnich and that brought the score to 2-2.”
Having been behind, a perfect counter-attack, sweetly finished by Gigi Riva, restored the Italian lead just one minute before the end of the first period of extra-time. That lead was again short-lived, when Müller headed home following a corner.
In total, Riva had 11 attempts on goal during the match. No Italian player has ever attempted more shots in a knockout game at a World Cup and the ex-Cagliari forward is still the record holder for most goals scored wearing an Italy shirt. Müller enjoyed a better shot conversion rate during the game (28% vs 9%) and he too held the top scorer record for his country until 2014, when his total of 68 goals was broken by Miroslav Klose.
When recalling their performances, Boninsegna remembers two players of contrasting styles, but who both had a huge impact for their team.
“Müller and Riva: two players with different characteristics. The first was more of a six-yard box striker while Riva liked starting from afar. However, at that time they were both among the best players in the world.”
Uncharacteristically, all of the goals conceded by the Azzurri came from set pieces (two from corners, one following a throw), which is the most conceded in a single World Cup game by them since 1966. It allowed the opposition to equalise twice, an occurrence which has only happened four times in Italy’s entire World Cup history.
Instead of dwelling on his team’s defensive shortcomings, Boninsegna prefers to focus on the quality of the West German’s approach at set pieces.
“When conceding goals from a dead ball situation, there is always a little carelessness, but we must also consider the quality of the opponents.
“You have to be good at timing your runs, heading the ball and being organised in your set pieces.”
The Defining Moment
Prior to the match, Gianni Rivera had featured in just 90 minutes during the competition, with half of those coming in the quarter-final against Mexico.
Valcareggi’s preference for selecting fellow playmaker Sandro Mazzola ahead of Rivera in the Azzurri’s starting line-up was controversial, as the midfielder was the holder of the Ballon d’Or at the time after helping Milan win the 1969 European Cup.
His non-selection led to reports of disharmony behind the scenes but having provided a goal and an assist after coming off the bench against Mexico, his introduction after 45 minutes in the semi-final was crucial, with the 26-year-old creating three chances before contributing the match-winning moment within seconds of West Germany’s second equaliser.
Straight from the resulting kick-off, Rivera received the ball before starting and finishing a move without a single touch from any West German player. The sequence, from start to finish, took just 20.9 seconds and was made up of six passes, by far the most for any attempt in this extraordinary game.
Looking back at his goal, Rivera remembers how they caught the West Germans off guard.
“Until the end of that game, the result was always in the balance, both if we were in front or chasing. Every game is unpredictable, and that match showed it.
“We were stubborn and after suffering the setback of going back to 3-3 we thought to take advantage of the moment of euphoria of the West Germans and to attack immediately, to react immediately. And it worked.”
The Milan forward was set up for his goal by Boninsegna, who carried the ball into the box before squaring it from the left-hand side.
“For the winning goal, I practically did everything. Although Rivera was good at keeping a cool head, being there and waiting for (the German goalkeeper) Maier’s movement to wrong-foot him, I still had to put the ball on the penalty spot for him.
“However, as it was approaching the end of extra time and given those conditions, to remain cool and finish in that way showed the class of Rivera. I remember receiving the ball, a long pass from Facchetti, before exchanging a few blows with one of their defenders as we ran together until I got close to the goal line. It had become difficult to shoot, so I put the ball into the middle hoping that Riva or Rivera would be there. Luckily the latter was there.”
Surviving the Onslaught on Goal Before Coming up Short Against Brazil
But despite the heroics of Franz Beckenbauer, who carried on playing in spite of dislocating his arm, West Germany could not reach a second consecutive World Cup final as the full-time whistle blew 10 minutes later to give the Italians a 4-3 win. In total, the West Germans attempted the most shots of any team in a single World Cup game between 1966 and 2018 (46). However, according to expected goals, the three goals they scored were in line with their projected output, as a result of a number of low-probability attempts from long range. In comparison, Italy posted far fewer shots but exceeded their output of 1.4.
Whilst the Azzurri’s run to the semi-finals was built on having a strong defence, this was an occasion where they needed their attacking players to come good. It was the first time they had won a World Cup game having conceded three goals and their keeper, Ricky Albertosi, also had to make 10 saves, the most in a single World Cup game by any Italian keeper until 1994, when Gianluca Pagliuca equalled the record in the goalless 1994 final.
Unfortunately, the Italians could not repeat their semi-final performance when they came up against Brazil in the final. Coming in 1-1 at half time, after Boninsegna had cancelled out Pele’s opener, three second-half goals for the South Americans meant that the Jules Rimet trophy went back to Brazil for a then-record third time.
One player unable to have an influence on the outcome was Rivera, who despite his impressive semi-final performance from the bench was again left out of the starting line-up and restricted to a brief cameo with just a few minutes left.
Looking back, Boninsegna thinks it was a mistake by the Azzurri not to have selected Rivera.
“Well, losing a World Cup final doesn’t happen every day. At the end of the first half, we were 1-1 and Rivera had to come on. Not playing Rivera in the final was a huge mistake, unbelievable. The year before he had won the Ballon d’Or, he was one of the best players in the world.
“Maybe we would have lost all the same but at least we wouldn’t have had any regrets.”
As for the man himself, Rivera feels that internal politics played a part in his non-selection and over 50 years on, still feels he could have made an impact in the final.
“I felt very fit, and I regret not having been able to give my full contribution in the final, the match against Brazil would have been perfect for me.
“What do I think of my exclusion in the final? Perhaps the best answer, even jokingly, was given by Pele, who said “if Rivera doesn’t play, Italy wins, because they must be very strong to give up a player like him.
“There was Pele, but Brazil were beatable. We had beaten them before and with Milan, I had beaten Pele’s Santos. The problem is that many players were tired that day, they hadn’t recovered (from the semi-final).
“We should have focused more on quality players who had spent less energy, like me, but we had to suffer a political decision that did not allow us to play at the same level.”
Whilst the physical excursions of the Game of the Century played a part in the Italians being unable to secure a third world title, the campaign, on the whole, was a success for the Azzurri, who were not considered amongst the tournament favourites at the outset.
That semi-final will live long in the memory – in the 50+ years since there has only been one other occasion where the Italians have been able to score more than one goal in a competitive game in extra time.
That game happened to be another World Cup semi-final, which took place in 2006. Their opponent that day? West Germany – who were again on the losing side.
That time though, they were able to go on and lift the title for a fourth time.
Roberto Boninsegna and Gianni Rivera were interviewed by Isabella Mazzia, Stats Perform VJ in Milan.
Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to our mailing list to receive exclusive weekly content.