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World Cup Classic Matches: Italy 4-3 West Germany (1970 semifinal)

Gianni Rivera fires past West Germany keeper Sepp Maier to give Italy a late lead. GettyImages

This week, ESPN FC is counting down, in chronological order, 10 of the greatest World Cup matches; you can have your say on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #WCTop10Matches. Fifth on our list is a semifinal meeting between Italy and West Germany that produced astonishing drama in extra time.

It is a clash dubbed the “Game of the Century,” and a plaque to that effect was placed at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, where the match took place. Yet as Italy approached the end of the 90 minutes with a 1-0 lead intact, it had looked like an eminently forgettable encounter.

West Germany had gone into the match on the back of an extra-time victory over defending champions England, and the draining influence of the Mexican heat was of genuine concern. Captain Uwe Seeler chose to draw on the positives: “Once you have beaten England, you know you can beat anyone.”

Yet after Roberto Boninsegna drilled the ball into the corner on eight minutes to put Italy ahead, their faith was severely tested as they were repeatedly thwarted by goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi and the woodwork. Franz Beckenbauer also had cause to feel aggrieved at the referee’s failure to award penalties on two occasions.

As the match approached the 90-minute mark, striker Gerd Mueller told Beckenbauer: “We are being cheated.” Beckenbauer, meanwhile, was having to play on despite a serious shoulder injury, finishing the game with his arm in a sling.

Just as all hope appeared lost, Germany left-back Karl-Heinz Schnellinger -- who had played his club football in Italy since 1963 -- raced into the area to score an equaliser with almost the last kick of the game, forcing extra time. (It is claimed the jubilant Schnellinger was warned by members of the Italian team that he would not be welcome back in the country.)

It marked the start of a remarkable sequence of goals. West Germany took the lead early in extra time through a rather untidy Mueller goal that barely trickled over the line, but Italy defender Tarcisio Burgnich then uncharacteristically volleyed home when a Gianni Rivera free kick was deflected into his path. Just before halftime in extra time, Gigi Riva provided a superb finish following a counter to make it 3-2, prompting Italian commentator Nando Martellini’s famous celebration: “Riva, Riva, Riiiivvvaaaa!”

However, Mueller scored again on 110 minutes, connecting with the indefatigable Seeler’s header. With the match at 3-3, a classic contest was on course to be decided by a coin toss. Thankfully, such a dismal fate was averted when, barely a minute later, Roberto Boninsegna raced down the left before finding Rivera to stroke past Sepp Maier for the winning goal, setting up a meeting with Brazil in the final.

After the match, Seeler again accentuated the positive: “If we had to play in the final against Brazil after our extra-time games against England and Italy, we would lose by five. This way, we get to go home as the happy heroes in defeat.”