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.
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.