Against a background of taunts, memories of past failure and a shock defeat in its last match, Germany captain Michael Ballack said it was character rather than ability that earned his team an unconvincing 1-0 win over Austria and a place in the quarterfinals of the European Championship.
After a scrappy and tense first half in which Austria troubled its underperforming opponent, Ballack smashed in a 25-meter (yard) free kick to give Germany a narrow victory Monday over its smaller neighbor and ensure there was no repeat of what is known as "The Miracle of Cordoba."
A draw with Poland four days ago meant that a win over the pre-tournament favorite would have put co-host Austria through to the next round, and the country's fans and media spent the intervening period speculating over the possibility of repeating what happened 30 years ago.
Austria shocked Germany 3-2 to knock the defending champions out of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, but Ballack said all the talk had simply made his team determined to prevail.
"A lot was said before the match and maybe the Austrians bit off a little more than they could chew," Ballack said. "To listen to them, you'd think we never managed to hit the ball and they were the world champions three times over."
But until Ballack scored, the most noteworthy incidents of the match had been a glaring early miss by Mario Gomez and the banishment of both coaches to the stands shortly before halftime by referee Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez for bickering with the fourth official.
"We had everything to lose in this match where we were favorites to win and you could tell the team was not as agile as usual because they had tensed up," Ballack said. "Yet we wanted to win and that was decisive."
So, Germany finished Group B as runner-up to Croatia, which won the teams' meeting 2-1 last week, and will now face 2004 runner-up Portugal in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
"While we didn't play as well as we would have wanted, I'm convinced this victory gave us the necessary push to play even better against Portugal," Ballack said.
Needing victory to edge its rival for a place in the next round, Austria created several chances in front of a sold-out crowd of 51,428 at Ernst Happel Stadium, but - as in its 1-0 loss to Croatia and 1-1 draw with Poland - could not convert them.
That lack of a single world-class player to finish off moves was the main reason a spirited and energetic team failed to make it to the next round.
"We have a very young team and they're all depressed in the dressing room right now," Austria team manager Andreas Herzog said. "With two years of hard work we've been able to show that people can play good football in Austria."
With Austria's midfielders flooding forward to support lone striker Erwin Hoffer and get the goal that could take their team through, the home defense was repeatedly left exposed Monday.
Gomez missed his chance in the fifth minute, mis-hitting a shot from Miroslav Klose's cross so badly that his effort from three meters (yards) didn't even reach the goal line. Gyorgy Glarics leapt to clear the danger from under the cross bar with a backward header.
But Austria could have had a penalty kick in the 17th when Christoph Metzelder appeared to pull Hoffer to the ground and veteran goalkeeper Jens Lehmann thwarted Hoffer and then midfielder Rene Aufausher.
Having been irked by several decisions against his team, including a yellow card to Hoffer for a late but minor challenge on Ballack, Austria's Josef Hickersberger was the first coach to be sent from the touchline in the 41st. Germany's Joachim Loew then stood toe-to-toe with a UEFA official before being sent from the field as well.
With both coaches banished, it was left to Herzog and Loew's assistant, Hansi Flick, to conduct the traditional post-match interviews.
"Whatever happened had to do with the fact that things were becoming too chaotic and hectic," Flick said. "Both of the coaches simply tried to explain to the fourth official that they wanted to keep coaching and they were sent off."
The coaches shook hands before trudging away, with whistles and jeers echoing around the stadium from bemused fans. But the jeers, at least those of the German fans, soon turned to cheers.
Ballack had often been dropping so deep he was almost in a quarterback role, prompting play from deep rather than lead it from the front as he did so convincingly at Chelsea last season.
But a foul on Lahm by Andreas Ivanschitz gave Germany a free kick and Ballack smashed it into the top corner, far beyond goalkeeper Juergen Macho's reach.
"Our team showed they had the right attitude on the field from the first minute to the last minute," Flick said. "They fought hard and for us that was our main focus."
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