Uwe Seeler and Karl-Heinz Schne-llinger could not do it. Nor could Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller. And last night Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil showed that they, too, could not do it. They could not beat Italy in a competitive fixture.
This result in Warsaw extends the historic sequence to four wins and four draws, going all the way back to the World Cup in Chile exactly 50 years ago, when the two sides drew 0-0 in a group match. Italy's goalkeeper that day was Lorenzo Buffon, a cousin of the grandfather of Thursday's captain, Gianluigi Buffon, whose saves and punches buttressed a defence that endured typical Italian agonies as they clung to the lead supplied by Mario Balotelli's two goals.
That was quite a side back in 1962: Cesare Maldini, Omar Sívori, Jose Altafini and the 18-year-old Gianni Rivera established a template from which the results such as this are still being stamped out. And Germany, always so full of hope with generation after generation of shiny new-model players assembled in the spotless laboratories of the Bundesliga, are still being stamped on.
Coming into this tournament, Joachim Löw's squad were just about everybody's favourites to put an end to Spain's four-year grip on international football. They seemed to be on an upward curve that began in Euro 2008 and continued at the World Cup two years ago. The style and quality of their football has made them perhaps the most widely admired Germany side since the team of Beckenbauer, Müller and Günther Netzer won the European title on home soil in 1972. This is a Germany we can all warm to.
On Thursday they fought to the end but were not quite good enough to match Cesare Prandelli's remarkable Italy, the product of a man with a vision that involves taking the long-established virtues of Italian football and adding something extra. He has made Italy much more than a brilliant defensive platform from which to mount the occasional counterattack. And, of course, he has Andrea Pirlo.
But it takes more than a Pirlo to make a team world class. The playmaker has to have someone to play with, a group of team-mates attuned to his patient geometry.
It takes a good team to extinguish Pirlo's influence, too, and that was German's priority on Thursday. Easier to say than to do. In the 20th minute he swivelled and surprised the German cover by stroking the ball to the left, to Giorgio Chiellini, who fed Antonio Cassano further up the line, leading to the cross from which Balotelli gave his side the lead. "We will not let Italy show us how to play football," Löw had said on the eve of the match, but the demonstration was under way.
Now Pirlo let the 27-year-old Riccardo Montolivo run the show. In the 36th minute, Montolivo collected Buffon's punched clearance, spotted Balotelli's run, and hit a long ball of perfect weight and trajectory for the striker to hammer past the motionless Manuel Neuer.That wasn't Route One. It was the Via dei Condotti and the Via Veneto: the world of La Dolce Vita and the bella figura. It was the football lesson Löw had been fearing.