One could forgive media consumers in Germany for feeling a little bit ill this weekend. This year's Euro 2008 football tournament has been an extraordinary roller-coaster ride -- and never mind what's been taking place on the field. The headlines themselves have been enough to make Germans queasy.
Spain and Germany are ready for battle on Sunday.
But then, just before the tournament, a survey came out showing that an absurdly high percentage of Germans thought their side would win the tournament. Bookkeepers too had the Germans as overwhelming favorites. The optimism was apparently borne out by the teams 2-0 drubbing of Poland in its opening match.
But the loss to Croatia darkened moods once again, only for fans to again hit manic highs after beating Portugal and then Turkey on its path to the finals.
And now? Cautious optimism with an emphasis on the caution. After watching the Spanish dismantle a Russian team that had played a strong tournament, German sportswriters have decided that their team is an underdog going into Sunday's final against Spain.
After weeks of hyperbole, they may, this time, be right. The Spanish team has been very impressive with its possession-oriented, quick passing style of play. Russia, which just one match earlier had managed to get by a strong Dutch side, could do nothing. It is not difficult to imagine an uncharacteristically shaky German defense having trouble with the Spanish attack as well.
Some of that defensive weakness was on display against Turkey on Wednesday night. Turkish players seemed to have all the space in the world to develop their moves forward. Even Philip Lahm, usually an anchor on the left side, was uncharacteristically sloppy on Turkey's second goal. Keeper Jens Lehmann, a point of worry for the German team ahead of the tournament, looked far from comfortable against Turkey. Spanish trainer Luis Aragones will no doubt have noticed, though he will be missing David Villa, the team's top scorer in the tournament. He tore a muscle in the game against Russia.
Spain's young team, though, certainly won't lack for motivation. The Spanish have gone through decades of failure and under-achievement in international tournaments. The country's World Cup record is miserable and they haven't won the European Championships since 1964.
"I think they have a bit of a complex about these tournaments," German defender Christoph Metzelder said of the Spanish at a Friday news conference. "It has taken them decades just to get beyond the quarter-finals. I know they have respect for us and that will be in the back of their minds when we play on Sunday. They are an excellent side but this is a big game and big games have their own rules."
This, of course, is a truism all too familiar to one member of the German team: Michael Ballack. The German star has often been called Mr. Runner Up for a long list of second place teams he has played for. His early years in Bayer Leverkusen were marked by second-place finishes in the Bundesliga and the Champions League. He came in second in the Champions League again this year with Chelsea as well as second in the Premiership. His Germany team also finished as runner ups in the 2002 World Cup final against Brazil.
Ballack has, of course, racked up his share of championships, winning a trio of German league crowns while playing with Bayern München. But he will certainly be looking to add an international trophy on Sunday.
But if he really has hopes of beating the Spanish, he might be well advised to avoid reading the German press between now and then. Spain, the German media seems to agree, is the "clear favorite."
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