By the time you read this, the semifinals will have been played, and – who knows? It’s soccer, anything can happen – Die Deutsche Mannschaft may have been eliminated. But based on the way they’ve played so far, I think it’s possible the Germans will go all the way.
It used to be the Brazilians played “the beautiful game.” They invented it and coined the term. It was instinctual rather than structured play: fast, fearless, flowing, designed to take advantage of the creative genius of its stars. South American teams in general prided themselves on a game of one-touch passing and virtuoso ball handling that contrasted with the more stolid, defensive and, some would say boring approaches of the European football powers.
But now all that seems to have reversed. A surprisingly inventive Netherlands beat an uncharacteristically pulled-back Brazil 2-1 in the quarterfinals. And Argentina, unable to solve a well-organized German midfield, fell to pieces and allowed four goals to a swift, youthful, and opportunistic German side. In the round of 16, the Germans had handed the English their fish-and-chips in a stylish 4-1 rout.
These largely unheralded Germans remind me of my summer in Deutschland in 1966 courtesy of the American Field Service. It was a World Cup summer. (Like the Olympics, they come around every four years.) England hosted across the Channel. All of Germany’s games, up to and including the final, were televised. As a 17-year-old abroad for the first time I was initiated into what a huge deal this worldwide Fußball frenzy is.
You have to picture the scene. Fati (Father) hardly moved in his chair or said a word. But he watched every second of every game in a stare. He was a tall, dour man, six-five, and nearly silent. Muti said it was because of the war. Because he was so tall, Muti said, he was drafted into the SS; he had no choice. And on the Eastern Front near the end in 1945 he was forced to run for his life, alone, virtually without stopping for three weeks through the forests of Czechoslovakia ahead of the final Russian advance.
The only times Fati spoke were when something really promising happened on-screen. “Schön,” Fati would mutter as Uwe Seeler dribbled through a crowd. “Schön!” (Nice!) as Gerd Müller earned a corner kick. “SCHÖN!” (Beautiful!) There might even have been a smile and a slight beating of the fist on the arm of the chair as wunderkind Franz Beckenbauer struck a sudden rocket left-footed from 30 meters out that froze the Uruguayan goalie and lasered into the upper corner of the net.
Schön means beautiful, or nice. (You pronounce the vowel-sound about the same as you would the double o in “foot.”) And the Germans in 1966 played what was, for them, a beautiful game. (Amazingly, their manager/coach at the time was named Helmut Schön.) It was then as it is now – and as you would expect of the German character – a disciplined, tough-minded beauty, not the hot-blooded quicksilver of Brazil. But it got them all the way to the final game, against host England, where they lost 2-1 on a controversial goal in extra time.
For some reason Muti chose that afternoon to go shopping in Heilbronn and insisted I go with her. It was a hot, airless day. There was nobody on the streets, no one in the shops. The freakish calm was infused everywhere with a monolithic buzz, the crowd roar from countless radios and televisions pouring out of open windows all around.
Now in 2010 the manager’s name is Joachim Loew – not Schön – but the team is again young and playing with a beautiful intensity. The standout star is the oldest man on the team, Miroslav Klose, who is 32 and has 14 career WC goals, one shy of the 15 notched by Brazilian great Ronaldo. But the core of the team are in their early 20s, including attacking midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller, who has four goals so far in this tournament. (The umlaut in his name means it rhymes with fueler.) Volatile Argentine coach Diego Maradona assumed Müller was a ball boy at a recent press conference.
These guys play with an un-German flair. They are overwhelming opponents with a preternatural, quick-time sense of where they all are on the field and where they will all be a split second from now. Even though there is no plan; in the infinitely variable flow there can be no plan.
Schön. Sehr Schön.
Peter Shelton’s blog is peterhshelton.wordpress.com