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Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Oops! Wrong Stereotype

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger

If you've read the comments to my post-Portugal column, you'll know that there are quite a few people over here, and also some Germany fans from abroad, who have mixed feelings about the Turkey game. Not in sporting terms, that is. Rather, they fear unpleasant scenes in the streets, no matter the outcome of the game.

Which has led a user by the nickname of DorukAkan to say this anxiety 'smacks a bit of the drama and fear-mongering common in contemporary news'. Wise words, for sure. But perhaps it deserves pointing out that what people worry about is not marauding hooligans or full-scale fights.

We are talking neither Notting Hill riots nor Ajax versus Feyenoord derbies. Rather, it's the little things.

Or maybe not so little. The other day I met somebody whose girlfriend is Polish, and he said that she suffered terrible abuse when the two of them, he in a Germany shirt and she wearing the Polish colours, went to a public screening of the match between the two sides.

Of course such idiocy is not an exclusively German phenomenon. Some Poles reacted to Lukas Podolski scoring two goals against his country of birth in a manner that makes you wonder what... Well, let's just say it was unsavoury and leave it at that.

And of course such idiocy is not a widespread phenomenon. It looks like a bunch of my workmates here at the office will watch the game together, which means there will be a few Germans, a Turk, a Dane, two Ukranians and a Russian. Oh, and an Austrian. I can assure you there will be no problems, apart from massive hangovers on Thursday.

Still, some of the stories I have heard about the little things these past weeks have reminded me why I used to have such a problem with major tournaments. I readily admit it's certainly a personal defect of mine, probably a generational thing and possibly also a question of upbringing - but I don't understand nationalism. (Roughly the same goes for patriotism, if you prefer that word.)

Four years ago, when I was covering the disaster known as Euro 2004 on this here website, I got quite a few angry e-mails, one of which read: 'What's wrong with you [expletive deleted], don't you love your country?' My reply was curt, because I couldn't figure out what that's got to do with a football tournament.

And that was four years ago. Having a look at the 2008 version of the European Championships, nationalism becomes an even more baffling concept to me, because it's so removed from what is happening on the pitches.

Consider the thrilling game between Switzerland and Turkey. The Swiss fielded no less than three players of Turkish origin (Gökhan Inler, Hakan Yakin and Eren Derdiyok), two of whom linked up to score the first goal. While the Turks played a black midfielder born in Rio (Mehmet Aurélio) and brought on a striker born in Leytonstone, East London, to a father from Antigua (Kazim).

Or let's take the match between Austria and Croatia. A goal down, Austria tried to turn things around by bringing on yet another player of Turkish origin not playing for Turkey (Ümit Korkmaz) and of course also a striker who lived in Split, Croatia, until he was 21 (Ivica Vastic).

The Croats, meanwhile, fielded guys who could and will have conversed in perfect German with their Austrian opponents because it's the language they grew up with: Robert and Niko Kovac (born in Berlin) plus Mladen Petric (who came to Switzerland as a two-year-old). On the bench, there were Ivan Rakitic (born in Rheinfelden, Switzerland) and Ivan Klasnic (born in Hamburg).

So the blurring of lines is no longer the reserve of more or less traditionally multi-cultural sides like the Dutch, the Portugese or the French, and I applaud that. But what do we do with our national stereotypes now?

Take even such a non-multi-cultural side as Russia. I have heard their style described variously as 'typically Russian' (usually used by people who remember the great Dynamo Kiev side of the 80's, which would make it Ukranian) or 'typically Dutch' because of Guus Hiddink's undeniable influence.

Or take Germany. After the Croatia game, a user commented: 'Germans have two strengths - first one: they are big, strong and prepared, and the second: they never give up.'

Is that so? I mean, yeah, sure I know this stereotype, but on the basis of the first two weeks of the tournament I'd attribute those two strengths to Sweden ('big, strong and prepared') and Turkey ('they never give up'). Well, maybe the latter is because the Turks have two German-born players in the side, Hamit Altintop and Hakan Balta.

(In journalism schools, they teach you to never use irony, but I couldn't resist.)

'Big' - perhaps, though don't tell Philipp Lahm. 'Strong' - hmm. If that means 'physical', I really can't think of a less physical Germany side than this current one. Christoph Metzelder, who used to play the clarinet in old folks' homes, and Per Mertesacker, who worked with disabled children when he did civilian service, are favoured by Joachim Löw precisely because they hardly ever commit a foul. Ten years ago, I'd never thought it possible we'd ever field two smart, intelligent and friendly full backs who rely on brains, not muscle. But now we do.

On to the wing-backs, Lahm and Arne Friedrich: are they strong, physical players? Come on, adjust your stereotype clock to the new millennium! Or what about Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose? They are certainly no compulsive weight-lifters. That leaves Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings. And while I grant you they won't flinch in a one-on-one with Gennaro Gattuso, they are certainly more cultured when getting stuck in than the people playing for Germany during my formative years. And later.

Oh, I forgot 'prepared'. Yes, Germany were prepared against Portugal. And woefully unprepared against Croatia. So as far as I'm concerned the verdict is still out on that one. I'll give you an update after Wednesday's game.

And so the long and the short of it is that the more international tournaments I see, the less I like many people's tendency to reduce everything to national clichés. And yet...

Yet I was very interested to hear what Per Mertesacker had to say when Damian Johnson from the BBC raised his voice during Monday's press conference to ask: 'In England, we often wonder why Germany are always there in the semi-finals and the finals. Why, do you feel, Germany always does so well in major tournaments?'

And poor Per was lost for words. 'I think at the last two tournaments we proved that we deserved to make the semis. Now we want to take the next step,' he mumbled, which was not at all an answer to the question.

Or maybe it was. Because what could he say? Mertesacker is 23-years-old. He was playing in Hannover's under-15 team when Germany got knocked out of the World Cup in France and when the unwritten law still said all German teams had to play with a sweeper and two muscular man-marking full-backs. In fact, young Mertesacker seriously considered giving up the game, as there didn't seem to be a future for players like him.

Put differently, Mertesacker has lived through, and been a part of, a veritable revolution in German football. And now they ask him why this is still the same old Germany. I wouldn't have had an answer, either.

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