I spent a good portion of Thursday night on German public transportation. I took the train out to Ludwigshafen to meet my wife and her colleagues before the Germany versus Italy semifinal, and I took
the train back after the game. Such was the difference in atmosphere aboard the two trains that one could have missed the match entirely, not spoken to anybody in the meantime, then boarded the night train and immediately comprehended what had taken place.
The outbound train left Heidelberg at 5:15 p.m. local time. The commuters on board at this hour normally wear a familiar tired-yet-relieved look having just finished work, but this train wasn’t full of the work-weary; it was full of confident German soccer supporters who happened to have just gotten off work. Some of the men on board had already changed out of their dress shirts and into Die Mannschaft’s white and black strip. They still had their slacks and nice shoes on, however, and the two types of dress (formal, work-related; casual, football-related) created that strange incongruence we all know from seeing similarly dressed diplomats in the VIP boxes in stadiums around the world. Where the executives in luxury seats seem uncomfortable in trying to exist as both soccer fans and serious public figures, the guys aboard the commuter train just looked excited.
Obviously the atmosphere on the return train was different. All the enthusiasm from the early evening had dried up. Many of the passengers looked like they’d been drinking all evening; they were headed home to dry up too.
I watched the match at a bar called Hemingway’s. (I’ve lived in Germany only one month and this is the second bar I’ve been to named after Big Papa. Are the Germans obsessed?) Tobacco leaves hung from the ceiling and the place peddled Mexican food to its patrons. And while the atmosphere and food were both strange, the bar did have a big screen set up for the game. As it neared 8:45 in the evening, the place filled up with drinkers. Nearly all of them wore the Germany strip and many of them had painted their faces. There was even a guy with a drum.
The German team started brightly. There weren’t great protests when Andrea Pirlo cleared the ball off the line. In fact, the drum beat continued steadily until Mario Balotelli’s 20th-minute strike, a goal that hushed the bar. Hands were on faces and the stunned audience watched through its fingers as the replays showed Antonio Cassano wriggle past Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng and hit that perfect little cross
for Balotelli to bury.
If defending was a little lax on the first goal, it was downright pathetic on the second. As soon as the ball was played over the top—before Balotelli even controlled it—a woman in the audience
screamed “LAHM!” The tone and emotion in her cry were perfect in that moment. Any one of us could have screamed the same thing, because what the hell was he doing back there?
And that was basically the game, right? It never felt to me like Germany was going to pull it back, except for the last five minutes when the late penalty made me wonder.
So what went wrong? There’s a feeling around here that overconfidence was an issue. But there were other issues too: The German defense had been suspect at times throughout the tournament and the German starting lineup wasn’t optimal. There seemed consensus among the folks I watched with that Mesut Ozil should have played through the middle instead of out wide, where it’s harder for him to pull the strings as he did in Germany’s preceding games. The Italians played a great game, but the Germans could have—should have—done better.
The big worry is that these players might have a confidence issue going forward. After all, they’ve shown well in the knockout stages of several recent tournaments, but they haven’t won anything. It’s tempting to label them “nearly men,” a team that succeeds only to a point but can’t finish. But this shouldn’t worry supporters too much. The German team was the youngest at Euro 2012 and will learn from its mistakes rather than internalize and suffer repeated failure. Furthermore, the Bundesliga’s reformed academy system, only just entering its second decade, is producing top players with the haste and consistency of a Mercedes plant churning out luxury cars. Whoever emerges from this talent pool over the next two to four years won’t carry any of the psychological baggage some in this group might.
Sure, the Germans are disappointed—many are downright devastated—but, as the stereotype goes, they’re a practical people. The team will learn from its mistakes and look toward the future. It should have done better Thursday night, but the future is bright.