An essay by Alexander Osang
Two weeks ago, shortly before midnight in Durban, where Germany would later lose to Spain, I encountered two white men and a black woman in a hotel elevator. The two men were wearing England jerseys, and the woman was scantily clad. It had been a long day of football, and the Englishmen had apparently started drinking beer early on. That day, I had watched the Netherlands wrestle down Slovakia at the magnificent stadium in Durban, and I later saw Brazil defeat Chile in the fan park on the beach. I was ready for bed. The trio in the elevator couldn't decide whether to get off or stay on. Finally, one of the men jumped out and pulled the woman with him, while the second man and I continued riding the elevator upward. He was teetering precariously and fell on his backpack between the third and fourth floors.
"Where are you from?" he asked from his position on the floor.
"Germany," I replied. "Sorry, I know it was a goal."
"Oh, to hell with the goal," the man said. "Your guys were better. Faster. We brought along a bunch of slow, lazy stars. Terry, Lampard. They're not that enthusiastic anymore. Your guys were really good. I don't know how you did it. But it was really very good."
"Thanks," I said, as I got off on my floor.
"Muller, Osssil, bloody hell, damn good guys," the man said as the doors closed. He was still sitting on his backpack, smiling. I didn't have the impression that he knew where he was supposed to go from there, but he didn't seem unhappy. A disoriented, drunk Englishman who had found a moment of solace in new German football. It wasn't exactly something you would have expected. And Germany hadn't even beaten Argentina 4:0 yet. I have lost count of the hotel employees, fans sitting next to me in stadiums, TV commentators and taxi drivers who have congratulated me on German football in those last weeks in South Africa, struggling with hard-to-pronounce names like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose, and smiling ecstatically and admiringly. At times, I felt like I had become a new, lighter human being.
Two months earlier, in a different football era, Michael Becker, Michael Ballack's manager, told me how many German players are supposedly gay. We were sitting in a restaurant above the Mercedes dealership in Luxembourg, where Becker lives. The advantage of coming to this particular restaurant, Becker said, is that you can have your car washed while you eat. He seemed to be in a good mood, and he had every reason to be. The food was good, the sun was shining, and we had come to the restaurant in his Mercedes convertible, with the top down, driving through quiet streets. Ballack, his most important client, had just found his way back into the first choice line-up at Chelsea FC, he had slipped into Pierce Brosnan's role in a L'Oréal commercial, his smiling face was plastered all over German train stations, and in the American magazine Vanity Fair's World Cup issue, Ballack was chosen as the German player to be photographed in his underwear -- in Germany's national colors -- next to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Drogba and Eto'o. Ballack was Germany's undisputed captain. He was also the only star we had out there in the world. Nevertheless, Becker seemed to think that it was all too good to be true.
He talked a lot about people who were envious of his client, because they were supposedly mediocre, ugly, untalented, bureaucratic, provincial, unmanly or gay. He told me some unbelievable stories, which I wrote down on my pad of paper. Becker didn't seem to mind, perhaps because he assumed that they would never make it into print anyway, or that they were already common knowledge. A few days later, on the sidelines of a farewell match for footballer Bernd Schneider at Bayer Leverkusen, Becker told a group of agents and journalists in the Bayer clubhouse that there was a former player on the national team who was about to go public with the names of "the gay combo." I expected my fellow journalists to be all ears, but they seemed relatively blasé about Becker's remark. It seemed that every sports journalist was already familiar with the alleged homosexual conspiracy swirling around German coach Joachim Löw's team. The rumors accompanied the team to South Africa. They are apparently part of the package.
A New Lightness
After lunch, Becker showed me his office, his house and his garden, where he has been trying for some time, albeit unsuccessfully, to build a frog pond. He told me, beaming, how Elton John had sung the German national anthem at Ballack's wedding. When I asked him whether he thought that a player whose nomination to the team had come as something of a surprise was gay, Becker said: "He's half-gay." When he said that, I realized that all of this was somehow synonymous with something Becker could no longer understand. It was something that was light, non-ideological, dance-like, beautiful, joyful, and easily confusing for someone whose life had revolved around pecking orders and hierarchies until then.
Ballack is the last star Becker is still managing, and he clings to him the way some people cling to time. And even though he didn't even play in the World Cup, or perhaps precisely because he wasn't there, Ballack's story is emblematic of what happened to the German team in the last four weeks.
Ballack has become a transitional figure. This isn't just the fault of his manager, Becker, but also of the old grumblers in German football, the likes of Paul Breitner and Günter Netzer and Udo Lattek, who were constantly demanding that Ballack show leadership. At first, Ballack thought that playing well was good enough, and he did play well. He led the German team through two World Cups and European Championships, he scored important goals, he sacrificed himself and he became the face of German football around the world.
But at some point, probably when he had lost some of his strength and influence, the messages coming from the old men got through to him, and he began acting out his leadership role. He shouted and threw fits on the field, and he argued with team manager Oliver Bierhoff and fellow player Lukas Podolski. He continued to fight and score important goals, but at times he came across as an old bull reminding younger players that things weren't that bad in the old days. This became the most apparent when he injured himself. Now he was a captain without a team, and he tried to behave accordingly. With a plaster cast on his foot, he traveled to the team's training camp in Sicily, because he felt that it was expected of him, as Capitano. But at the training camp they were already discussing his replacement. From Sicily, Ballack went to Mallorca to appear on the popular game show "Wetten, dass…?" ("Wanna Bet") with TV show host Thomas Gottschalk and entertainer Dieter Bohlen. He seemed lost in his sky-blue jacket and with his foot in a cast, a symbol of something, but of what? No one was quite sure.
A few days later, the German national team routed Australia in a World Cup qualifying match, and fans got a sense of what was to come when they saw Thomas Müller in the thick of it, wearing Ballack's jersey number and scoring a goal. At a press conference after the match, someone asked him why he had picked the number 13, of all numbers.
"It happened to be available," Müller said, and laughed. Then he said that he was completely aware of the tradition he had become part of, and that it was naturally a great honor for him. But he was referring to Gerd Müller, the legendary striker of the 1960s and 1970s, not Michael Ballack. He had never seen Gerd Müller play live, he said, but he thought he was pretty good. Müller is 20. Only two weeks later, in the match against England, the new number 13 scored twice and was voted player of the match. By that point, it seemed clear that the team was doing just fine without Ballack.
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