This is more like it!

July 1, 2006
By Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger
(Archive)

Ah, I guess you just can't win them all, can you?

GettyImages / BongartsMichael Ballack soldiered on through injury to help his team survive 120 minutes.

After four games of quite, er, un-German football the team reverted to form yesterday and relied on what we have to come call proverbial German virtues against Argentina, primarily grit and team spirit.

Quite a few players were visibly nervous - even Michael Ballack chalked up a uncharacteristically high percentage of balls given away and passes gone astray.

Yet Ballack is also a prime example of how the side accepted they didn't have their best day and decided to just stick together and hang in there. He was barely able to run during extra time, having received a kick in the calf that had already given him some trouble two weeks ago, yet it was he who headed Argentina's free kick in the 120th and final minute of play to safety.

Seeing Per Mertesacker give Ballack a pat on the shoulder while both were trying to get out of the penalty area after that clearance was even more touching than Oliver Kahn's act of fraternisation with Jens Lehmann before the shoot-out. 'He had one eye on Lehmann and one on the cameras to see if they would capture this,' a German comedian deadpanned during a late-night chat show.

Which may explain why there was a point during the break before it went to penalties when a strange thought entered my mind. Wouldn't it be just perfect for this tournament, marked until this match by everyone except Germany playing like Germany, if Klinmann's new-look-and-new-style side would exit the World Cup on homesoil by losing a penalty shoot-out? Wouldn't that have made our moral victory complete by shattering the last stereotype?

But no. It was not only the fifth straight such exercise Germany won at a big tournament - against a team that until yesterday had suffered no real shoot-out trauma, it was also the fourth on the trot in which every single one of the German takers found the target. I think some clichés die harder than others.

The match probably turned on 70 minutes when Argentina were forced to substitute their goalkeeper. Oh, it's not as if Abbondanzieri had been outstanding so far or that the new man Franco is less good at saving penalties. I wouldn't know about that as I'm not really familiar with any of these two shot-stoppers.

The problem for Argentina was that José Pekerman made two more changes in the next eight minutes. Taking Hernan Crespo off was long overdue, so you can't argue about this move, especially since his replacement is stronger in the air and was needed for German set pieces.

With hindsight, you may debate Pekerman's decision to get Riquelme off the pitch - or at least bringing on Cambiasso and not, say, Aimar. But by and large these were decent coaching decisions.

If, and that's the point, if Pekerman would have still had one substitution up his sleeve. He tried to run the clock down and sit on the narrow lead, which may have been timid but still understandable. Yet he also had to take into account the possibility Germany would somehow find an equaliser and react accordingly. And that he couldn't do.

Germany forced their luck
Jose Pekerman

Germany were running on empty in the second period of extra time, and you could see that this had been part of Pekerman's plan for those additional thirty minutes: let the Germans run themselves ragged during the first half, then knock them out during the final fifteen minutes.

One reason it didn't work out was that Argentina didn't have enough men on the pitch who could play the precise long balls that would have overtaxed the tired German legs or clever through balls to take advantage of the gaps opening up everywhere.

I guess going out of the World Cup with people like Messi and Saviola sitting on the bench must feel like losing the pot of gold at 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?' with two jokers still unused.

Maybe that's the reason Pekerman announced at the press conference he would step down from his post, or maybe it was because how badly his players behaved themselves after the match had ended. I don't know, but I guess either explanation is flimsy. Losing Abbondanzieri was bad luck, the shoot-out was bad luck.

'Germany forced their luck,' as Pekerman correctly said. He should have stayed on, unless there's something going on behind the scenes I have no information about.

As far as Germany are concerned, I'd guess that yesterday's game must, perhaps paradoxically, raise hopes to go all the way.

GettyImages / BongartsJose Pekerman slopes off from coaching Argentina after defeat in Berlin.

If you can hold your own against Argentina even though only one single payer has a stellar day, in this case Torsten Frings, things are looking good.

Particularly since Arne Friedrich has somehow finally gotten out of his slump: he was nutmegged three times, twice by Tevez, during the first half-hour but never hung his head. Once the sixty-minute mark had come and gone, Friedrich was in command of his wing and the initially highly impressive Tevez as good as out of the match.

The great thing about the semi on Tuesday is that it seems as open as the Argentina game. Germany will play in Dortmund, where they have never lost an international, but they are playing Italy, a team they have never beaten at a tournament.

Also, while Germans currently tend to think their side is this World Cup's team of destiny, I'm pretty sure Italians feel the same way about the Squadra Azzurra, what with the bribe scandal at home and now the Gianluca Pessotto drama.

'Now everything should be possible for us,' a national coach said yesterday evening. It was Marcello Lippi, but it could also have been Jurgen Klinsmann.

This tournament may not be vastly entertaining through the performances on the pitch, but it is certainly gripping because of its profusion of really big, really emotionally-charged clashes.


  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

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