Last night, I sat with an American friend on the Neckarwiese, a park along the Neckar River in Heidelberg, Germany. A beach volleyball tournament was taking place not far away, but we didn’t talk much volleyball; we talked soccer.
My friend wanted to know if I thought the Greeks could upset the Germans. Yeah, I said. Remember the Greek team in Euro 2004?
Yeah, he replied. I think they can too, but when I tried to ask some of the Germans at work if they were worried about the Greeks, they weren’t hearing it.
Apparently, some people around here weren’t even willing to entertain the idea of a Greek upset. A Greek upset was close to inconceivable, but Euro 2004 loomed large. The general feeling in Heidelberg was of nervous confidence. The Germans knew they had an excellent team, but fingers were crossed all the same.
Time has a way of slipping by when among friends, and before long I realized it was 8:15, just a half-hour before match time. My wife and I scurried home and then made for our favorite pub. We walked quickly -- with purpose -- and as we neared the pub my wife pointed out how empty the streets were. We were the only people around on what was usually a bustling avenue. It was as though we were living the opening scene from 28 Days Later, only there weren’t hordes of zombies hiding in the nearby apartment buildings but captivated German football fans.
The pub, of course, was packed. The real nerves didn’t show among the supporters there until the ref whistled for halftime and the Germans had only scored one goal. Die Mannschaft had created chances but they hadn’t put any away. It’s hard to watch a heavily favored team squander first-half chances and not feel a sense of creeping dread. The more they missed, the more I looked at the Greek team and wondered. So when the Greeks equalized, the nervousness returned to the pub’s crowd, but this time a sense that the German team wasn’t playing well enough accompanied it.
The players seemed to know it too, but the response was impressive: they simply shifted out of first gear. It was like the worst thing the Greeks could have done was score, or at least score that early. Now the Germans were awake, and as they banged in goal after goal the confidence returned to the supporters, but this time without the nerves.
Outside, after the final whistle, a black Mercedes with flapping German window flags raced down the otherwise deserted street. Fireworks boomed in the distance. It was closing in on midnight, but Germany was wide awake. Something tells me they won’t need a wakeup call for the semi-final.