Saturday, June 12, 2010
Accepting the clichés
Hannover is a strange place. Most Germans regard the city as unusually humdrum, but it has not only produced both the Scorpions and just the second German singer to win the Eurovision Song Contest, it has also given the world no less than two men who are members of the Football Hall of Fame. The Australian one, that is.
One of them is Les Scheinflug, who scored the Socceroos' first-ever goal in a World Cup qualifier, back in 1965, and later became their coach. The other is Andre Kruger, a fan, statistician and historian, who has been following the Australian team from afar since the 1970s.
I can share this fascinating piece of information with you because I've been surfing the internet for quite some time now, hoping to find inspiration.
See, the deal we struck with Soccernet says we have to file a preview column a few days before our respective teams start their World Cup campaigns. In my case, that means Germany's match against Australia on Sunday. But since I don't have the foggiest notion what to say in such a column, I'm searching for straws to clutch at. That's how I came across the Aussie Hall of Fame, clicked around and found the Hannover connection. (Not to mention that goalkeeper whose name was Norman Conquest.)
I don't have the slightest idea what else to tell you because seldom has a German team been so hard to preview ahead of a tournament. Even those who have been around the block struggle to find precedents.
Some, but only some aspects of the current situation are reminiscent of 2002. That was when four important players - Mehmet Scholl, Sebastian Deisler, Jens Nowotny and Christian Worns - suffered injuries that kept them out of the tournament. The squad which eventually went to Japan and South Korea was so inexperienced that it boasted a grand total of 17 previous World Cup appearances.
But there's one major difference between 2002 and 2010. Back then we all knew that the team was utter rubbish and would struggle to survive the group stage. "Never has a German team travelled to the world's most important tournament with less hope," said the noted weekly Die Zeit ahead of the first game in Asia. But now nobody knows anything and the only thing we have in spades is hope.
I mean, I have a good friend who recently sent me a postcard from his holidays in Italy specifically to let me know that he believes Germany will not reach the knock-out rounds. And I have another friend who keeps telling me he's got a hunch we will, as he puts it, "earn that fourth star" in South Africa.
This divide is not down to differences of opinion; it just reflects a general uncertainty. You can also see it when you check the results of the most recent polls. A fifth of the readers of kicker magazine think Germany will win the World Cup - while another fifth predicts the team won't even reach the quarter-finals. Just last week, Der Spiegel called the team "Low's World Cup Surprise Bag".
That there is such a high degree of uncertainty is actually quite strange, when you think about it. Because we don't really expect any surprises from the coach and the team at this World Cup.
When a fellow columnist from Brisbane asked me about the Australia game a few days ago, I felt pretty confident predicting the German line-up and tactics [before you ask, I told him Miroslav Klose would start]. And if pressed for further comment I'd even dare to look ahead (and say that Klose will not start every game).
One can do this with confidence, because Joachim Low is a reliable and prudent coach, meaning we usually know which players to expect on the field and the duties they've been given.
And one can even - to a degree, of course - predict how the team will do, because most players are as reliable and prudent as their coach, given to neither awe-inspiring individual performances nor to being abject failures.
Put differently, this German side is even more of a team than the
2002 version was, when Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack could rightfully be called star players and Miroslav Klose turned into one. By contrast, the biggest star and most consistent performer in Low's side is - team-spirit.
But am I - are we - any the wiser for knowing all this? Not one bit.
That's because we can't tell if what we have will be enough, as we just don't know where this team stands in the greater scheme of things. Heck, we don't even know if what is there will be enough to break down an Australian side that is rumoured to be defensively solid.
Oh, the man in Brisbane told me anything but "a two/three goal defeat" for the Socceroos would be "a miracle". But this German team is not like the 2002 version, which sat back and waited, knowing it needed only few chances to score. This team has to make something happen, precisely because it is not particularly effective or clinical.
Ah, there's the key words - "effective", "clinical". Of course they have to appear in any longer text dealing with Germany and a big tournament, so they do appear here. And it probably doesn't make any difference that I've just said this team is neither effective nor clinical - wherever Germany pop up during the next weeks, people will say the side has the "efficiency" and the "mentality" and the "physical strength" to do well. Oh, I almost forgot the "discipline"!
You may have noticed that I stopped panning people for bandying about these and other hackneyed clichés because, well, because I've grown sick of being proven wrong by stereotype-mongers. For two tournaments in a row, the "Germany always reach the semis" faction has had the last laugh, so now I sometimes feel an urge to just shrug my shoulders, get in line and start talking about a fourth star because, hey, we always do well, you know.
But I'm not quite ready yet. A part of me still refuses to preview a team on the basis of a supposed historical law. Which is why I don't have the foggiest notion what to say. Apart, of course, from the fact Germany will reach the quarter-finals. That's a historical law, as you know.