The 'Mannschaft' at The World Cup Ambassadors of a New Germany
Part 2: The Birth of New German Football
The match against England seemed like the birth of a new German football. Australia didn't really count, and then the German team fought its way through two tough matches against Serbia and Ghana, but then came England, an encounter always burdened with a history of blood, sweat and excitement, and Germany seemed like a fresh wind. The Germans were lucky that Lampard's goal didn't count, but they weren't interested in luck. They were relentless, attacking and scoring goals until, in the end no one, with the exception of England's sour-faced manager Fabio Capello, was talking about the goal that didn't happen, but about the Germans, who didn't seem German at all anymore.
There was something soothing and liberating about watching this team play, and it was even more soothing and liberating to see the expressions of joy on the players' faces. They embraced each other when Klose, who had been out of form all season at Bayern Munich, finally scored a goal again in the first World Cup match, and the team hugged him as if he had just recovered from a long, serious illness. Klose later said that Podolski wouldn't let him go -- and that it was a nice feeling. They all seemed like boys having a fantastic time on a school outing. Löw thanked the players he substituted, and they thanked him, an act that was not a gesture but an expression of need. Everyone trusted everyone else. The most German of feelings that this team triggered was romanticism.
In odd, touching moments, the team's management seemed intent on proving that it was still very German. National coach Joachim Löw explained stiffly how proud the players whose families came from faraway countries were to wear the German eagle on their chests. He seemed to be reading a prepared statement, just as Philipp Lahm had read FIFA's message against racism. Löw kept talking about "automatic" moves " and "hard work," and that the apparent ease with which the German team was playing didn't exactly drop into one's lap. Team manager Oliver Bierhoff explained that the way in which the players celebrated their performance also had something to do with the fact that each player was happy to be part of this German team. No one, he said, was just out to score goals for himself. Instead, they behaved as a collective and were aware that they were embodying their nation here. Fairness, openness and precision, Bierhoff said, these are some of the things Germany represents. He also said that the players, unlike players in the past, folded their things together neatly after training sessions and didn't simply throw them on the floor for the kit manager to untangle afterwards. Of course, he added, still hopelessly entangled in German virtues, it wasn't something that had been instilled in them through military discipline. And when team captain Lahm tried to think of a typically German way to characterize his team's quick passing, he came up with "goal-oriented."
Of course, traditional German football was also in evidence. Former player and coach Thomas Berthold sat in a South African television studio, his hair parted with military precision, and warned of the German defense's lack of experience. In the team headquarters, the general secretary of the German Football Federation (DFB), Wolfgang Niersbach, told me that he became suspicious when the team doctors told him how low-maintenance the German team was. Low-maintenance was all very well and good, he added, but players need elbows, too. And after the match against England, former player Lothar Matthäus told me, without being asked, how he would have defeated the Germans if he had been England's coach.
The voices of traditional German football were there, but they were mostly drowned out in all the excitement.
Miracle Match Against Argentina
After the match against Argentina, even Löw was at a loss for words to describe what he had just seen. He seemed as if he had just witnessed a miracle. He was no longer using words like hard work and training, and instead raved about the team's amazing world-class performance, about how it deserved to win the World Cup and about Schweinsteiger, who had played outstandingly. When the chancellor, who had danced and clapped in the stands, went into the locker room to congratulate the players, she was as light-hearted as the rest of us. The fun-loving South African president, Jacob Zuma, looked as if he were afraid she would jump into his lap at any moment. "Antschela," Löw said in his trademark Swabian accent, smiling with a faraway look in his eyes, everyone is happy to see you, "Antschela." There was nothing smarmy and certainly nothing political about his words. It was more like the Queen Mum attending the match -- a mascot.
Ballack also attended the Argentina match, but the comments about him sounded more distant. Of course they were happy that Michael was watching the match and cheering them on, Schweinsteiger said, but they just didn't have much time for him, he added, given that they were in the middle of a tournament. Ballack sat in the stands next to Bierhoff, like some VIP guest of the DFB top brass. He cheered whenever the German team scored a goal, but once, between Germany's third and fourth goal, a stadium camera zoomed in on his face, and he looked very serious. He left two days later. There was some medical explanation, but everyone realized how difficult it must have been for him to watch his overjoyed teammates without truly being part of it all. Even Kevin-Prince Boateng, who was once treated as a public enemy after he tackled Ballack, ruining the captain's chances of playing in the World Cup, was now a World Cup hero. The only thing Ballack had to look forward to was playing at Leverkusen next season.
By this point, none of the players who had been photographed in their underwear in Vanity Fair was still in the tournament. The four teams remaining in the World Cup were the ones that, in addition to Ghana, had played most obviously as teams. The Uruguayans didn't play as if they came from South America, the Spaniards played like Barcelona, the Netherlands played like Germany and Germany played like the Netherlands. The South African newspapers referred to the "German machine" that defeated England and then Argentina. But it didn't sound disparaging. The German machine was no longer a steam engine or a bulldozer, but more like a sewing machine or one of those devices that uniformly spits out tennis balls at high speeds.
At the height of the German team's self-confident ease, Schweinsteiger, who had been named "Man of the Match" in the match against Argentina, said that he and his teammates hoped to play Spain next. They were no longer interested in excuses, or in just muddling through. Now they wanted to defeat the favorite. When goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was asked whether he wanted to switch to Manchester United, he said: "Nah, I have a contract with Schalke." By this point, there was no longer any good reason to leave the Bundesliga. Germany had a future. A short time later, Philipp Lahm told us that he didn't want to give up the captain's armband after the World Cup. He liked being captain, he said, and he liked having the responsibility. In that moment, it sounded self-evident, not presumptuous. But a single match can change everything.
Defeated by Their Own Ideals
The Germans stood their ground for a long time, but in the end the Spanish sewing machine simply rattled along more perfectly. It was reassuring to see how the expression on Löw's face reflected both his disappointment over the German defeat and his admiration for the Spaniards' game. It is, after all, what he wants. He was defeated by his own ideals. His team still behaved like a team after the match. The veterans Schweinsteiger, Podolski, Klose and Lahm faced the press while the despondent newcomers behind them skulked silently to the bus. The new German men, Neuer, Özil, Khedira, Kroos and Boateng, looked like schoolboys. Only Thomas Müller, who had been suspended before the game against Spain, stood still for a moment.
How do you feel, someone asked.
"Like shit," Müller replied.
Shortly after midnight, I was standing with a few colleagues in a guesthouse in Durban, where we were spending the night. We could see the stadium off in the distance, and behind it the Indian Ocean. The other journalists speculated on what the next day's story would be. We talked about Khedira, who was no match for the Spaniards, about Friedrich, who lost the ball too often, about Lahm, whose passes never got where they were supposed to go, and about Özil, who lacked the confidence to shoot at key moments. Before long, Ballack was on everyone's mind once again. Someone said that the Germans also need a player who's capable of kicking somebody once in a while. I could just imagine what was going through the heads of Thomas Berthold, Lother Matthäus, General Secretary Niersbach and Michael Becker at that moment.
At the German press conference the next day, there was a lot of talk, once again, about hard work and not as much about the ease with which the Germans had played. The journalists were mostly interested in their return flight options and in the question of whether Lahm, with his comments about being the captain, hadn't gotten ahead of himself after all.
The name that was mentioned most was that of Michael Ballack. A fellow journalist said openly that it was a good thing that Lahm showed strength, but that it wasn't such a good idea to show it before the game against Spain. It seemed as if Lahm had sat down on Stalin's chair in the Politburo, a chair that was supposed to remain vacant after the dictator's death. When he gave news conferences, Lahm looked more like a school class spokesman than a German captain.
For a moment, everything that had been so romantic about the German team had evaporated. The beauty, the ease, the dance-like quality suddenly belonged to the Spaniards. It isn't easy to be a new German man, but it certainly plays well in the rest of the world.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Ambassadors of a New Germany
- Part 2: The Birth of New German Football