“We are the champions, we are the champions!!!!!”
Yeah, I know, I promised going back on a regular schedule in my last post, but I was down with a serious case of football fever. So I decided to interrupt my usual blog and instead decided to give you an insight in the German (female) football soul.
1. Why is football so important?
Well, why is any sports event important? Why do we bother to cheer some strangers for being the best athletes in the world? I know people who say that we shouldn’t cheer and above all, shouldn’t feel proud, because we have done nothing for the to succeed. I disagree. With parents we expect them to cheer their children on. So why shouldn’t a society cheer on their “products”?
If you are part of a group, you always want this group to succeed. But measuring success is especially for societies difficult. I guess we could go out on the street and celebrate that the crime rate went down again, or that the export rate is particularly high, but who does this? The genuine moments one feels success on a more political or economical lever are rare. The last time I experienced something like this was when the Berlin Wall went down.
Sport events on the other hand are a safe opportunity to measure success. Usually countries which are particularly big and particularly wealthy are the ones which win the most medals at Olympia. Winning is, in a way, a display of power, but a safe one. If you win fair, you might even win the respect of your competitors.
After Olympia, I consider the Fifa World Cup the most important sport competition. Not because I think that football is necessarily the superior sport (to each their own), but because it is a sport which is important in the most countries in the world. And it is a sport in which everyone can train. For the beginning, you only need a ball and a place to kick, none of the overcomplicated gear some other sports require (Basketball comes close).
So when every four years the best teams of the world compete for the cup, it is not just fun, it has also a political dimension. Economically the beer and snacks seller make a killing during this time. Politicians meet in an non-official environment and can use the opportunity for some overdue talks (I am ready to bet that Angela Merkel talked to Putin during the final game, and not just about football). Government officials take advantage of the distraction, decides some questionable laws and rise their salaries. And every win adds to the optimism in the own country.
“We won, we showed everyone what a great society we are, so in the end, not everything is bad, right?”
This can be a very negative effect, when it is used to hide problems (nowadays it is not religion which is opium for the folk, sport is), but often it is a positive effect. Especially in Germany.
2. The History
I guess it is difficult to grasp for other nations what football means for the Germans (perhaps with one or two exceptions, like Brazil). I am not saying that football isn’t important in other countries, too, every country which doesn’t confuse football with a strange version of rugby has their own heroes and their own special memories. In Germany, though, football is more than just a sport, it is what the whole national identity is build around. Football matches literally change or mirror history in Germany.
Let’s go back to 1954. Germany is in the process of recovering from the war, and are allowed to participate in the World Cup again. After the war the country was banned from all sporting events, and while the Fifa reinstated Germany in 1950, they did so after the World Cup. This was basically the first chance of Germany to present itself to the world again.
So they send a couple of players, mostly from the Ruhr Valley, in order to face off professional teams. In the early rounds, Hungary, back then the dominant team, dished out a 3:8 loss. But Germany survived the group stages and had to face Hungary again for the final. And won.
When you drive down the A40 from Essen to Dortmund, you’ll see a couple of highway bridges with the following writing on it:
“Rahn müsste schießen!”
“Tor, Tor, Tor!!!!”
Those quotes (though the first one is slightly altered, it should be “Aus dem Hintergrund müsste Rahn schießen”) are a reminder of the last game which the Germans coined “the wonder of Bern”, in which Essen-born Helmut Rahn made the goal which allowed a whole nation for the first time in years to celebrate themselves again. The underdog had managed to come out on top, and the Germans sought inspiration from it.
After the second world war, Germany had been as down as a nation can be, the big towns were in ruins, millions had died in the battle, from the bombs, in the KZ’s (There is this strange tendency to talk about the Jewish suffering as if they were some sort of foreign population, but those Jews were also Germans, deported while their neighbours just watched, never mind that there were also a lot of political prisoners and people which the Nazi’s just wanted to get rid off for one reason or another), and during the flight from the East, and the Germans had no one to blame for it but themselves.
It was mostly women who picked up the pieces. Suppressed under the Nazis the so called “Trümmerfrauen” (rubble women) where now needed to clean up the mess, because the men either died in the war or were still prisoners. They cleaned up the big cities and laid the groundwork for a new Germany. Around the time when the “Wonder of Bern” happened, the last PoW’s returned home, and the industry was picking up again. It was the start of the “Wirtschaftswunder”, and while the Marshall plan was certainly the basis for it, it was a simple football game which gave the Germans the hope they so desperately needed.
Since then the German team participated in every single World Cup and always made it at least to the quarterfinals, which lead to quotes like the one from the English striker Gary Lineker: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
Those were not beautiful wins…most of the time the team prevailed per sheer will-power. But football became some sort of refuge. Germany has no interest on another war ever again, but on the pitch, they can fight (and win) again – it’s a safe outlet, and nobody would deny a country to be proud of achievements in sport.
Fast forward to 1972. Western Germany hosted the tournament, and for the first (and last) time ever Eastern Germany competed. During the first group phase (this tournament had two), they ended up in the same group, and what should have been a normal game for place one and place two ended up the symbolic fight of two political systems.
Eastern Germany won. A late goal of Sparwasser was celebrated in Eastern Germany like the final victory.
Turned out that they won the battle, but not the war. Ironically, the defeat had positive consequences for Germany, because the second group had by chance easier teams to play against, and the team learned from the defeat and eventually snatched the first world championship. Though there was really a lot of luck involved, overall.
It is kind of ironic that the next time the German team managed to win a title was the end of an era. 1990 was the last time a “Western Germany” team competed, because shortly after the official reunion of Germany was sealed. It was a tournament in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Germany won against Argentina lead by Diego Maradonna, the team which won the title four years earlier against Germany. It was the only time the same two teams reached the finals in subsequent years in the history of the World Cup. It also happens to be the World Cup with which my own football memories started. I still remember the penalty shoot-out against England in the half-finals, and I remember this game, which was sadly a sorry thing to watch. The Argentinian team spend most of the time fouling the Germans (they ended the game with nine players…in a final!!!! They were the first team every who got one red in a final, never mind two), and the Germans trying to get the ball into the goal, but it was one of those matches in which the ball somehow doesn’t want to go in. When Germany finally got the lead through a penalty shoot by Andi Brehme, it fit right into the euphoria in the country.
The first World cup win was a wonder. The second one was luck. But this one was well deserved and it felt like Germany finally was on the right track, as a football nation and as a nation in General. Finally reunited, finally without foreign soldiers on the own soil and ready to proof that the new united Germany was ready to make responsible decisions for the future.
The euphoria was pretty short-lived, though. See, just because the wall was down, it didn’t mean that suddenly everything was okay again. Eastern Germany was bankrupt, so the unification put a serious strain on the finances of Western Germany, especially on the social system. The reunion on paper looked easy, in reality it was the clash of two cultures which developed very differently for 50 years and now struggled to find a common ground – to this day there is an invisible wall in the head of some people. On top of this, Europe rearranged itself, there were wars directly at our doorsteps and the overall mood in the country was very depressed. Even football wasn’t a joy anymore. Germany got one last title in the Europe Cup, but to be honest, it wasn’t fun to watch the team. They prevailed in the competitions through luck and willpower, until Germany went out in the Group stages during the Euro 2000.
This might sound strange – other countries are happy if they are even participating. But for Germans, surviving the group stages in all major tournaments is the least which they expect of their teams. But they didn’t during the Euro 2000 and 2004, and while the team made it to the finals in 2002, everyone knew that the team was not that good. They mostly got as far with a lot of luck and the goalie abilities of Oliver Kahn.
Either way, when Germany hosted the cup again in 2006, nobody expected much of the team. On top of this, everyone was very nervous. There had been surges of racism in the wake of the Reunification, especially in former Eastern Germany, and if there is anything most Germans don’t want to get connected with, it is racism. Everyone was worried that something might go wrong and everyone was set to be a good host. Nobody expected what happened next.
First of all, everything, really everything, went well. So well in fact that after the World Cup, the reputation of Germany reached an all-time high. For four straight weeks it didn’t rain once during a game. And the national team was suddenly one which played really good football. And in the midst of it all, the euphoria and the success, Germans came to terms with the past.
There used to be some sort of collective guilt in Germany over what happened during the Third Reich. But when the new century started, it slowly shifted to collective responsibility. One can’t feel guilty over something which happened before the own birth, but Germans are big on awareness. The Third Reich is a topic which is discussed in school at least once a year. And most Germans live following the directive “We can’t allow it to happen ever again”.
Which, all in all, is a good thing in my book. I think every nation should study exactly the mechanism of genocide and the consequences of it. Every person should be raised to question the decision of the own government. But it also resulted in young Germans having difficulties to show that they like to be Germans. Before 2006, having a German flag was something frowned upon. Singing the national anathema? One barely dared. But in the overall good mood, everyone got into the spirit. Flags were suddenly en vogue, the people were singing the anathema in the stadiums, and those who didn’t have a ticket got into the spirit of celebration, too. I am not sure where the idea of “Public Viewing” (yep, this is the German word for the process) came from, but soon the games were shown on giant screens. And when the German team managed to reach the third place, it was celebrated like a victory, right in front of the Brandenburger Tor. Germany was finally whole again.
Later on, this month of excitement was called the “Sommermärchen” (summer fairy tale). And since then, Germany has tried to recreate it’s spirit during every World Cup (and to a lesser degree, Europa Cup). In a way it carried Germany right through the financial crisis. Those moments of celebration are simply important when you have the feeling that everything is falling apart. The only thing missing was the title. Which Germany now finally got.
3. My Personal Experiences
Let’s go back to the debacle in 2000. After a decade in which football players made more headlines off the pitch then on it (a bunch of braggers, if you ask me, with a few exceptions), the DFB (the German Football Association) completely overhauled the system. They set clear rules for the clubs that they had to have a youth program, and for buying in foreign players (there is also an agreement between the clubs concerning the salaries of players). The DFB also started their own programs, and they sent out head hunters in order to find some fresh blood for the team.
One of the players they found was Miroslav Klose. With 21 (fairly old for a player) he became part of the national team in 2001 and was starter player for Germany during the World Cup 2002. He literally headed to success. As a classical poacher, he was especially dangerous in the air and along with Kahn and Ballack the main reason Germany even reached the final, with a lot of luck and mostly sheer will power.
They played against Brazil in the finals, the first time the two nations faced off each other during a World Cup (both being top nations they usually end up at the opposite sides of the draw). Brazil, back then on the high of their abilities and with Ronaldo as main striker, won. It was a truly deserved win, and to be honest, a part of me was glad about the result. The team put up a good fight, but in the end, the second place was exactly where they deserved to be. And many Germans felt the same. They celebrated the second place (and the golden ball for Kahn, so far the only time a goalie got the price) like a win.
In 2006 Germany saw the start of a new generation. Players which have been since then part of the team where Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker. All young talents with a bright future, though for some players the career went better than with others. In 2010, talents like Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira, already very successful with the U-21 team, became part of the squad. Also André Schürrle, but he was sitting on the bench back then.
Let’s talk about Manuel Neuer. This is a player whose career I have followed for a long, long time. Once, I think it was in late 2008 or early 2009, I watched one of his games at Schalke. He had a “bad phase” and I was surrounded by people who were claiming that he had too many weaknesses. I took one look on the way he could kick a ball over the whole pitch right on the foot of a team mate, and told my father: “You shouldn’t complain about him so much. That is a really big talent, and I bet with you that one day, he will be the number one in the National team, and he will be one of the greatest goalies Germany every had.”
Naturally I couldn’t know back then that shortly before the next world cup, Keeper Robert Enke would commit suicide, and that his replacement Rene Adler wouldn’t be available due to back problems. Manuel Neuer mostly ended up in the German goal despite his youth because of a series of unforeseeable events (though I am convinced that he would have made it there sooner or later either way), and soon showed his quality. During this World Cup I told my father that I consider the second part of my bet fulfilled, too. He is the best, because he is more than just a goalie, he is also an additional field player.
Either way, in 2010 Germany made third place again, and we were ready to celebrate again. But the players weren’t. They didn’t want to celebrate unless they brought the title home. Place three was not enough any longer.
Which brings us to the current World Cup. Again new young talents have been added to the squad. But the team had a stroke of bad luck. Before the tournament even started, there was a long list of players which were not eligible for the squad due to injury. The biggest loss was the last minute injury of Marco Reus, perhaps the best attacker in the team. On top of this, a lot of players were still recovering. Nobody was sure if Schweinsteiger or Khedira would be able to go the whole distance, and even Manuel Neuer was recovering from a shoulder injury. That Germany managed to win nevertheless shows how many high qualities players are by now playing in the club. It was a long way to the cup though.
Germany was off to a good start…somewhat. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed with the game against Portugal. I wanted to see Germany defeat Portugal, not Portugal defeating itself. I don’t know what was worse, Pepe’s well deserved red card or Christiano Ronaldo managing to hit a “wall” which consisted only of Phillip Lahm (the smallest player in the German team).
Ghana was, predictably, a difficult game, especially after Boateng had to leave the field for the second half due to injury. See, the German team has a lot of good midfielder, so many that there are more than placements in the squad. But the situation in the defence is a little bit more difficult, especially as long as Lahm was playing midfield, instead of defence. Either was, the game Ghana/Germany might have been the best of the whole tournament. It had everything. Two teams which were set on creating chances, both teams being in the lead at one point, and Klose making the goal which equalized with Ronaldo’s (the Brazilian one) number of World Cup goals. I think this was the best part. I was so disappointed back in 2010 when Klose was ill for the game against Uruguay. Back then, I was convinced that he wouldn’t participate in 2014 (he is already 36 after all). For me the draw felt like a victory, because the team showed that they can deal with falling behind.
The game against the USA was a boring matter, because of the circumstances. Needing only a draw for the group win, the German team was content with the goal it made against extremely defensive playing Americans. And the US team was mostly set on not falling behind too much. It was not a repeat of the Disgrace of Gijón, but I don’t think that anybody was particularly keen on kicking Klinsmann’s team out of the tournament.
The game against Algeria started off very badly. Hummels was down with flu, his replacement Mustafi certainly tried his best but didn’t really find into the game, and Götze had a really bad game too. Germany played effectively with ten man against Algeria for half of the game, because nobody dared to pass to Mustafi at one point. The high defence line also resulted in Neuer having to make some very spectacular saves out of his box. Here is the famous heat map of him during the game:
Honestly, the whole situation was kind of ridiculous. When the Germans created the most comical free-kick I have ever seen (it involved four players hopping over the ball with Müller falling down before scrambling past the wall), I was just laughing helplessly. But the actual turning point of the game was when Mustafi got hurt and Lahm was forced to play defence again – a position he kept for the rest of the tournament. He is really good in the midfield, too, but it didn’t make much sense not to use him where he was really needed. When Germany finally made the first goal, it was to be expected…the only frustrating part was that it didn’t happen two minutes earlier, in regular time.
France was a clinical affair. Hummels was fit again and made one goal, but the French team didn’t really open up until shortly before the very end. The only memorable part was the ref allowing four minutes overtime for a game with next to no interruptions, which lead to Neuer’s spectacular last minute save.
After that display, I wasn’t worried about the game against Brazil. I expected Germany to win high, because I knew that Brazil’s defence would finally give them enough room to play the game the way they like, instead of yet another frustrating game against an extremely defensive team. But I could have never predicted what happened. It was the kind of game which will be talked about for ages, the kind you normally only find in movies. Not only was Germany in the lead with 5:0 after 30 minutes. Klose also broke Ronaldo’s goal scoring record right in front of his eyes in his own country in a game against his own team. After that game Germany not only had the record for the highest win in a halffinal, Germany now also made the most goals during a world cups (beforehand Brazil hold the record) and the fastest goals made by the same player during the knock-out stage (Kroos with the third and fourth goal).
The whole thing was just unbelievable. So unbelievable that the BBC felt compelled to write out the number seven under the end result (1:7), so that nobody would confuse it with another one. But what I liked the most about the game was not that the team won, but how they won. After the first half, the players agreed not to humiliate Brazil and slowed down a little bit (this game could have been easily ended in a two digits loss), and after the game was over, they went and comforted the players of the other team.
I honestly feel sorry for the Brazil team, but especially the fans. The players are actually not that bad, but football is not just about abilities, but also about mental strength, and the team had a completely emotional meltdown. I also think that the end result of the Brazil/Netherland game flatters the Netherland a little bit. They were better, but the first goal was a wrongly given penalty, and the second one was clearly offsite, plus the ref actually gave a Brazilian player a yellow card for supposedly flopping, when in truth it was a clear foul inside the box. Brazil was not really good enough to make it as far as they did, but they were not totally awful either before the team broke down.
For the final match I was awfully nervous. See, I usually don’t mind that much if the German team looses, as long as they play well. In 2002 I was even kind of glad that the win went to the better team instead of Germany. In 2006 and 2010 I was pretty much “Never mind, there will be another tournament in four years”. But this time around I wanted the win so much. I would have felt so sorry for players like Klose, Lahm and Schweinsteiger if they never got the title they deserved.
Plus, they seemingly had every advantage. All players were healthy, they had an easier half-final and one day more to recover. Plus, the German team has become kind of the bogey man of the Argentinian one by now. I remember very well the game 2006 which went to penalty shoot out, mostly because I had training at this day, which forced me to stop watching for the second half of the overtime. I drove through empty streets (no kidding, there was no other car, everyone was busy watching the game) and arrived just in time to see the shoot-out in the office of my trainer with everyone else who was actually there for the lesson. I also remember Germany’s 4:0 victory in 2010.
I knew it wouldn’t be that easy this time around. Argentina played very defensive during the tournament (the tactic was basically to keep eight players in their own half while trying to give Messi the opportunity to score), so there were thee possible scenarios in my mind: Either Germany manages an early goal, which would lead to an open game and a game with a lot of goals (for Germany), or they manage a late goal, perhaps in overtime when the Argentinian players tire out, or someone makes a big mistake Argentina uses to make the goal after all.
The last scenario nearly came true, because of a rare Kroos mistake. It was a true heart-stopping moment. The other was the clear offsite-goal. But when the overtime started, I was just waiting for the German goal – which was finally made by Götze, who, in a way, was already the replacement of the replacement. If Khedira hadn’t gotten hurt during the warm-up, if there hadn’t been the need to sub Kramer early on due to head injury, he might not have been on the field at all. It was kind of ironic…like I said, there are so many good midfielders in Germany, but this time around, the team run out of options fast. They had to rotate in a couple of positions when they subbed Schürrle for Kramer, which shows how versatile most of the players are.
In any case, it was a well deserved win. Especially Boateng and Özil showed their best game of the whole tournament. Klose run over the whole pitch a couple of times to help out in the defence (very impressive for a 36 year old). Neuer was so intimidating that I wasn’t even worried about a possible shoot-out. Schweinsteiger took more than one for the team (honestly, he looked more like a boxer than a football player after the game).
It was also a win for football in general. Too many teams in this tournament were built around one so called star despite football being a team sport, and too many came close to parking the bus with their extremely defensive style. Hopefully more teams will try to adopt a more open game play now, inspired by Germany’s success.
This tournament was the culmination of Germany’s own personal fairy tale which started 2006 and finally got an happy end. But who knows. What feels like an end might be only the beginning. After all, there are a lot of young players waiting for their chance. I certainly look forward to the woman World Cup in 2015, the Europa Cup in 2016 and the next World Cup in 2018.