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Friday, July 2, 2010
A date with fate

Uli Hesse

Four years ago, I was sitting in the stands at Gelsenkirchen, wondering why that kid who was supposed to be so great, Lionel Messi, wasn't playing. Then I saw Maxi Rodriguez win the ball by poking it to Gabriel Heinze. I saw Heinze pass the ball to Javier Mascherano. I saw Mascherano square it to Juan Roman Riquelme. Then I saw another 22 passes and finally Esteban Cambiasso's finish to make it Argentina 2-0 Serbia & Montenegro. Argentina-Germany preview Forty minutes and a couple of goals later, I even got to see Messi in person for the first time. He was brought on for Maxi, immediately set up Argentina's fourth and later scored the sixth and final goal of the afternoon himself. In the stand opposite us, Argentina's living, breathing good-luck charm Diego Maradona jumped up and down and waved his scarf. As we walked to our car after the final whistle, I remarked that the World Cup was over after all of seven days. A side which could afford to put people like Messi, Carlos Tevez or Pablo Aimar on the bench and still play football like that would surely win the tournament more or less in passing. Of course, I wasn't entirely serious. (Hey, I'm German. I know that wonderful football and winning a trophy are if not exactly mutually exclusive then at least often incompatible.) But I did think there was no way Germany could squeeze past these guys in the quarter-final tie that now looked likely. As it turned out, I was wrong. Two weeks later, Maradona wasn't given enough tickets for his sizeable entourage and what he perceived as a lack of respect incensed him so much that he decided to stay in his hotel room and sulk. Sulk while his beloved Argentina played Germany in Berlin, conceded a late equaliser and finally lost on penalties. Maradona wasn't the only famous Argentinian conspicuous by his absence on that day. In my post-match column I said: "I guess going out of the World Cup with people like Messi and Saviola sitting on the bench must feel like losing the pot of gold on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with two jokers still unused." In brief, Argentina's exit four years ago looked, felt and seemed like unfinished business to me. And now, as if somebody had scripted this, the two sides meet again in the quarter-finals. Again they do so after having played their most impressive game in many a moon (in the case of Germany) and having beaten Mexico (in the case of Argentina). Again they do so as the two most entertaining and attacking sides of the tournament so far - though both still needed a preposterous refereeing decision in the second round to get here. Those of you who believe in fate will surely realise that all of this was inevitable, preordained so that Argentina would get a second shot - now with Maradona and with Messi. And you will understand why I chose the following words for my tournament preview, published here the day the World Cup started: "I have a hunch it's payback time. Not despite all those Maradona jokes, but because of them." Hm. Well, it doesn't look too good for Germany then, does it? I mean, I have been known to make a wrong prediction on occasion, but that's nothing you and I should rely on. But wait, maybe there's a way out. Some two weeks ago, after the Serbia game, a reader by the name of "placedetine" accused me, in so many words, of hedging my bets, adding that this was the mark of a pro. It was a backhanded compliment, I suspect, but writers can't be choosers. So I'll try and construe my words in a different way now, and for that I need Thomas Muller. Muller, one of this tournament's most consistent and impressive players, made his Germany debut in March - against Argentina. After the game, Muller, along with Toni Kroos, was chosen to represent the squad at the press conference. He dutifully sat down to the right of the interpreter. Whereupon Maradona, to the interpreter's left, told an AFA official to get Muller out of the room pronto. Following a brief but fruitless discussion between this officer and a visibly confused Harald Stenger, Germany's head of media relations, Maradona got up and marched off. A few minutes later, after Muller, Stenger and the interpreter had left in bewilderment, Maradona returned, sat down and explained the strange incident to the baffled journalists with the now legendary words: "I didn't know that he is a player!" He then went on to say that normally only the national coaches attend these events immediately after a game. While this was a not unreasonable explanation for his behaviour, the incident was widely regarded as embarrassing and symptomatic. The question, however, was: symptomatic of what? Some people saw it as proof of Maradona's incompetence as a coach, since he failed to recognise a player who'd just seen action against his team for 67 minutes. Others felt it epitomised how nondescript and little-known on the international stage Germany's players were. In any case, what if the star of Saturday's game wouldn't be Messi but Muller? Not a global celebrity but a 20-year-old with the most mundane of all German names, who ended the television interview after the England game by politely asking if he could "say hello to my two grannies and my grandpa"? And what if Maradona would then have to sit down at the post-match press conference and think back to a day in March on which he could have shown a little more respect? Well, that would certainly constitute "payback time". Alas, I'm not yet quite ready to accept this second scenario as entirely possible. Even though this young German team has been a source of great pleasure for us over these past weeks, I still - or should this be "again"? - can't see them squeezing past Argentina. Maybe it's because I've been taught that wonderful football and winning a trophy are if not exactly mutually exclusive then at least often incompatible. Or maybe I just lack faith.

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