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Monday, June 30, 2008
Putting the myth back to bed

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger

I hope this doesn't always become apparent, but normally I labour quite a bit when writing these columns. Coming up with something worthwhile to say (yeah, yeah - keep that quip to yourself) and then saying it in what is not my native language is not always as easy as, well, as it is today.

Because the best team of the tournament has won it. And it has done so in a final that was thankfully one-sided. I say 'thankfully', because Spain's fine performance and Germany's helplessness spare us all those ifs and buts and lingering resentments which are normally part and parcel of knock-out games.

Even the three potentially controversial moments were only that, potentially controversial. Silva's bashful head-butt against Podolski was replayed just once after the game and not made an issue out of by any player or official. (Lehmann's grumbling shouldn't count. He's been complaining about the refs ever since the Croatia match.) Capdevila's hand ball a few minutes after the restart is deemed 'worthy of a penalty' in today's issue of kicker magazine - but only to explain why the referee's grade was docked a notch. During the game, neither the match commentator nor the pundits felt that it was a hand ball at all.

The third potentially controversial moment came nine minutes from time, when Lehmann handled the ball outside of the penalty area. The commentator said the keeper was lucky not be red-carded, but he did it with the tired voice of a man who'd become resigned to the fact it didn't really matter anymore how many German players there were on the pitch.

By that time, and probably a lot earlier, the only people who still deemed it possible the Germans could come back were probably non-Germans, were all those football fans who've internalised the silly mantra that Germany will always find a way to win.

Monday's edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung from Munich says: 'The final in Vienna has produced two winners, and that's gratifying in every respect.'

The first winner is, of course, the Spanish team. And the second one, argues the paper, is - the game of football. 'Something as profane as justice is a fleeting companion in football's everyday life,' the comment continues, 'and ahead of the final, romantics had dreaded the admirable working tournament animals from Germany and feared for the most cultured team. Their wish has been granted now.'

I guess one of those 'romantics' is my Soccernet colleague Phil Ball. When I wished him the best of luck for the game, he wrote back saying he didn't doubt Germany would win. He didn't add 'as always', but that's what he meant.

Now, Phil, if you're reading this: my son will come of age next month. Which, under German law, means he turns 18. In his life-time, Germany have won one title. As many as Denmark and Greece, fewer than France. In his life-time, Germany have lost three finals, one semi-final and two quarter-finals. And they have been knocked out in the group stages twice.

Yes, this is still a pretty good record. In fact, it's a record some other big footballing nations (you know who you are) will envy. But it is most certainly not a record that justifies the irrational fear of the Germany side which is still widespread.

On the day of the final, the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a piece that was headed 'The Myth Is Alive'. It cleverly pointed out that the people in the German camp, first and foremost national coach Joachim Löw, were suddenly using terms we had outlawed as outdated. Terms such as 'winning mentality' and 'tournament team'.

The paper called that a 'paradox', saying: 'Initially, Germany never again wanted to be a tournament team, as this term (...) is synonymous with ugly, unattractive and lame victories won by teutonic ruffians.'

What this piece was saying between the lines is quite simply this: Löw, and along with him most German observers in the know, had realised over the past three weeks that this team was not the one we have seen over the last two years and that it probably wouldn't be able to play the kind of football it would take to beat Spain. And so the final recourse was bringing up the myth of the invincible Germans, hoping Spain would go into the match with enough fear to at least level the playing field.

And guess what, they did. During the first ten minutes Germany looked capable of giving the opposition a game, but that was primarily because the Spanish were visibly nervous. It wasn't until Metzelder almost deflected Iniesta's cross into his own net that the psychological make-up changed. And once that happened, once we didn't even have this mental edge anymore, the game was for all practical purposes lost.

Which is why I say it's a good thing we lost so deservedly. It forces us to find out not why we lost this one match but why the team didn't play as well as it should have done over the course of the whole tournament. And that's exactly what Löw said in his post-match interview, when he announced he'd have to analyse where our qualities have gone - being active, being offensive, playing with courage.

Because make no mistake: these are our qualities, or have been those past years. Not resilience or winning mentality or sheer physical strength or whatever may be part of the old myth.

In my son's lifetime, Germany have become a normal football team. Sometimes we're there or thereabouts, sometimes not. Sometimes we play well, sometimes not. And when we deserve to lose, we often do. Not always, that's true. Sometimes we do win against the odds or the run of play. But this is what football is like everywhere, not just between Berlin and Munich.

P.S.: While Löw will try to find out why the team hasn't delivered what it is capable of delivering (not to mention why our set pieces are so woeful), I shall take a break and try to get my mind off football.

Until the next season comes along, I'd like to thank you all for your interest, your support and the comments you have left, most of which were nice and often inspiring. See you!


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