Hector is the unlikely hero as Germany beat Italy on penalties

BORDEAUX, France -- What was it that Johan Cruyff said about football? "Coincidence is logical."

Saturday night's quarterfinal, an epic battle for the ages, was a perfect case in point: The unlikeliest of wins -- Germany going through on penalties vs. their bete noire Italy after missing three spot kicks -- just had to come with the unlikeliest of winners.

Step forward Jonas Hector, the 26-year-old 1. FC Koln left-back, who has never spent a day in Germany's fabled youth academies, never lifted a trophy, never played international club football and never taken a penalty in the senior game.

"I didn't expect that I'd be needed as the ninth taker," a Hector said a good hour after the game, looking rather more shell-shocked than elated. "You can't choose it, though. I had said that I would take it on, so I did. I thought about where I'd put it on the way to the spot.

"Were my knees shaky? A little bit. Luckily, it went in. I can't say that was the best way to win it; we would have been happy to win it in regular time, 1-0, too. More than anything, we are relieved."

Hector wasn't just the surprising hero on the night. His inclusion in the squad and regular starts at these Euros are minor miracles in themselves.

Born in the small federal state of Saarland near the French border, he played fifth-division amateur football for his local, tiny side SV Auersmacher until he was 20 years old and was been nominated for a youth national team.

There was interest from Bayern Munich's second team and second division 1. FC Kaiserlautern, but Hector wanted to stay in his hometown. Koln persuaded him to play for their B (and U-21) team but it would take another two years, until he was 22, before he made his debut at professional level.

A dearth of left-backs in the Bundesliga brought him into contention after the World Cup. With minimal fuss and even less noise, Hector managed to take the chance and made the position his own.

He remains the squad's most unusual member, however, in terms of his inexperience and general attitude. He still doesn't use social media, rarely talks to reporters and seems a little bemused by his own progress.

"I'm just happy to be here and that I'm able to earn a living with my hobby," he told ARD Sportschau, in all seriousness. His nickname in the dressing room is "Schlaubi" after the clever Smurf, because he wears similar glasses as the cartoon character.

Ending up as the key man on the night when Germany's historic Italy hoodoo was finally overcome must have felt otherworldly to Hector, like one of those dreams that most die-hard football fans have at least once when they're younger, in which they somehow find themselves on the pitch, playing for their favourite side in a game of enormous importance. Hector had also set up Mesut Ozil's opener, for good measure.

"I'm very happy for him, he's a very quiet guy," said team manager Oliver Bierhoff, who added that Hector's courage was matched by two young players, 22-year-old Julian Draxler and Joshua Kimmich, 21, both of whom also scored during the shootout.

"I was very impressed with them," Bierhoff said. He hadn't experienced a shootout with Germany as an official since the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina in Berlin.

That night, the Nationalmannschaft converted all their spot kicks, just as they had done in every instance since the 1982 World Cup semifinal against France. This time was very different, however, as Thomas Muller, Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger all failed to convert.

Bierhoff was a little concerned about others: "[Kimmich] had missed a penalty in the DFB Cup final [against Borussia Dortmund] not long ago," he said. "But he took it very well."

While Hector was the hero, Schweinsteiger was very nearly the villain. The captain, an early substitute for the injured Sami Khedira, missed Germany's fifth penalty to take the shootout into sudden death.

"It's never an easy thing, penalties," the Manchester United midfielder said, no doubt recalling Petr Cech's save against him in the Champions League final between Bayern and Chelsea in 2012. "It's also sad that a game like this should be decided that way. I hope it won't happen again."

For the 31-year-old, the wild shot over the bar of Gianluigi Buffon's goal could have been his last touch of the ball in a Germany kit: "The thought didn't cross my mind, though," he said. "I know that it wasn't over yet and had confidence in our keeper Manuel Neuer. We have a big advantage, having that guy in goal. He's the best in the world."

"He was a giant," Bierhoff said.

Curiously, Schweinsteiger had elected to shoot at the Italian end of the ground and to go second after winning both coin tosses. The reason was superstition.

"I thought about how things had gone in the past. We shot towards the Bayern end [in 2012, when Bayern lost against Chelsea]. We shot towards the Real Madrid end [in the 2012 Champions League semifinal, when Bayern won]. Switzerland (who lost vs. Poland at the Euros) shot towards their own fans. So I thought, let's do it on their side. The Italian fans were very happy about that."

Schweinsteiger reminded reporters not to forget that Germany had also played "good football" for most of the game. Bierhoff, too, praised the team for "keeping a cool head and being patient" and for "not taking unnecessary risks."

But like Joachim Low, who lamented wayward passing and unproductive attacking play, especially in the first half, Bierhoff thought Germany "hadn't created enough" and "had needed luck," though he also insisted that the credit for that should go to an Italy team, "who showed how much is possible with organisation and commitment."

Defeat would have resulted in heated debates about the wisdom of Low changing his system to play with three central defenders, to harsh criticism of the three unsuccessful penalty takers and endless musings about the nature of the Italian curse.

Germany, though, earned the right to change the agenda but only just, by the narrowest of margins, thanks to a penalty taker who got lucky with a not especially well-taken shot.

"Buffon almost saved it," Hector said, shuddering at the thought. "Almost."