Interviewing athletes can be a tedious business. No matter how provocative the question, the well-seasoned kicker will revert immediately to platitudes -- about taking it one game at a time; about how every opponent is dangerous; about the importance of playing as a team.
And then there's the mother of all banalities: "For us, politics played no role at all. The most important thing was the sport itself. Everyone thought that we had no chance and we just wanted to prove to the world that we could play football."
From a player's point of view, of course, there's some truth to the above. After all, the Iranian players in this year's tournament just wanted to win. But the quote isn't from an Iranian. It's from former East German soccer great Bernd Bransch.
Bransch, captain of East Germany's 1974 World Cup team, took the field with many of his former teammates -- now all well into their 60s -- in Leipzig on Thursday evening. The most immediate purpose of the match was to raise money for a local hospital which cares for children suffering from cancer. But the historical and political implications of bringing together the most successful of East Germany's national teams were hard to ignore. After all, the 1974 World Cup was held in West Germany at the height of the Cold War with both Germanys ending up in the same group. On June 22, the two teams met before 62,000 fans in a sold-out stadium in Hamburg -- and East Germany won 1-0.
"The victory was important," said Bransch on Thursday, recalling his team's surprising win. "It wasn't so important that it was West Germany."
What he meant to say was that it was the most important victory in the history of East German sport. Hundreds of East German state security policemen -- known as "Stasi" -- traveled to the match with orders to cheer on their team with the polite chant "7-8-9-10-Great!" Both teams had already qualified for the knock-out stages, but it was the first -- and last -- time the two German nations met on the football pitch. And in the 79th minute, Jürgen Sparwasser got behind the West German defense and scored the decisive goal. Since then, the shot has been known simply as "The Sparwasser Goal," and it transformed Sparwasser into an East German hero. It hardly mattered that West Germany went on to win the cup that year; the East Germans had defeated their capitalist cousins.
"It was important because it was the World Cup and because it was Germany against Germany," says Jürgen Croy, the then-East German goalkeeper who was on the sidelines Thursday for the 60-minute Leipzig game because of an injury. "Of course it was glorified by the politicians, but that happens everywhere. All countries try to take political advantage of sports success."
The match was important in West Germany too. While West Germany's first World Cup triumph in 1954 was a symbol for the rebirth of a nation torn apart by a war it started (and celebrated just as euphorically in the Soviet Zone as in the Allied zones), and it's 1990 victory was that of a reunified Germany, the 1974 victory was purely a West German one. Surely there were many in the East who supported the West Germans as well. But the Sparwasser goal made it clear: There were two Germanys no matter what the West German constitution said about an eventual reunification.
Such was the historical backdrop for Thursday's match, which pitted the 1974 old-timers against a selection of veterans from Leipzig's 1 FC Lok, once an East German powerhouse. And watching the action on the field, it was at times a bit difficult to believe that the gray-haired gentlemen playing slow-motion soccer had almost all been stars in their youth. Plus, with World Cup football being played elsewhere, few were in the mood for an old-timers' match in run-down Bruno Plache Stadium on the edge of the city. With only a couple hundred in the stands, the match -- which ended 5-1 for the national team -- felt like a last hurrah for East German sports at a time when all of Germany is finally focused on true German unity.
Indeed, should Germany manage to add this year's World Cup to its collection of football championships, it would be an even better bookend to the country's rocky 20th century than the reunification victory of 1990. It would perhaps come to be seen as the victory symbolizing the time when Germany finally learned to become Germany again.
The players caught the mood too. "I really like the atmosphere in Germany at the moment," said Bransch. "I've never seen it before and one really has the feeling that all of Germany, the whole country, is together in its support of the German national team. The flags are everywhere and it's wonderful to see."
Still, there is always a bit of nostalgia involved when watching the national team of a country that doesn't exist anymore. After all, when it comes to soccer, Germany these days only recognizes its West German athletic history. All the World Cup commentators are from West German national teams past with the East German stars just happy to have received tickets to a couple of World Cup matches from the German Football Association.
"I support our current national team," said Klaus Schneider, who was in the stands decked out in a DDR T-shirt. "But I grew up in East Germany. It still brings tears to my eyes when I see these guys play."