Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger explains why Rudi Völler's battlers were different from their predecessors, and how they made him care about the national side again
Sometime around a quarter to three on Friday, June 21, I caught myself slowly and silently rocking back and forth. Even my son, a nervous chatterbox less than two hours earlier, was very quiet. He is only 12, and at that age it’s not only normal to support your national team but perhaps even, well, healthy. So I kept my mouth shut because there was nothing positive to say and I didn’t want to foster a cynical image by saying something negative. All the more so since there were plenty of other people already doing that.
Marcel Reif, widely regarded as the country’s best TV commentator, was covering Germany against the US. Or rather, he stopped covering it after half-time and just randomly inserted ironic half-sentences such as “Outlandish pass from Ziege” or “Not deserving of any comment”. Then he reminded us that this match was supposed to feature (“contrary to all evidence”) two of the eight best teams in the world, before asking for the final whistle “on humanitarian grounds”.
When it was over, I watched Franz Beckenbauer saying that if you put all players except for Oliver Kahn into a sack and beat it with a stick, you couldn’t avoid hitting the right person. On the table was Sport Bild magazine, the headline screaming that Rudi Völler was promising “two good halves” against the US instead of just one, as had been the case until then. I wondered which half against Paraguay was supposed to be the good one.
It seemed like 1978 all over again (when I was 12), or 1982 (which drove me away from the national team completely) or 1986 (the most common analogy in the papers) – Germany going a long way just by hanging in there and grinding out results through doggedness and luck. I felt as though someone was cheating here, betraying if not the spirit of the game then at the very least my son, who surely deserved something better.
Predictably, the foreign press tore Germany apart. But what seems to have come as a surprise to the people close to the squad was that many in Germany followed suit. The big topic that weekend was not the semi-final with South Korea but the criticism from home. “Do we have to say we’re sorry for being successful?” grumbled Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder, president of the German FA. Michael Ballack pointed out that his club side Leverkusen had been showered with praise all season while failing to win anything and that it was nice to have it the other way round for a change. But did I gloat, as the men who had stumbled into the semi-finals stood accused of winning football matches without playing football? No. And that was because a few hours after Beckenbauer’s rant I caught an interview with Rudi Völler.
“We’re not Brazil,” he said in a tired voice. “I’d have liked us to play better football, but at the moment that’s the best we can do.” It wasn’t the words that touched me, but the image of Völler, who suddenly looked as old as Cesare Maldini. With some effort, it seemed, he talked about the semi-final: “We have been out here in Asia for four weeks now and it hasn’t always been easy. But now that we’ve made it this far, we want to stay and get through the final week somehow.” In short, Völler looked like a man in dire need of a holiday.
Then came the players: Sebastian Kehl and Christoph Metzelder, two members of Germany’s defence that day. One is 22, the other 21, neither has more than a dozen caps. They are both articulate, unpretentious people, as is their partner, the veteran Thomas Linke. As they fielded questions, obviously physically and mentally exhausted, it struck me how long a World Cup really is. Two months ago, Germans had shuddered at the thought of playing Linke, Carsten Ramelow and Metzelder at the back instead of Christian Wörns, Jens Nowotny and Marko Rehmer. Now we were almost down to the third choice – in the quarter-finals, no less.
And as the rest of the squad appeared, it struck me that there was no Matthäus, no Effenberg, not even a Basler. Oliver Neuville and Miroslav Klose barely speak above a whisper. Ramelow and Dietmar Hamann are always being told they should shout more, but say it’s not in their nature. Bernd Schneider’s idea of a scandal is getting booked. On Marco Bode’s website, you can play chess against him. Ballack, once typecast as an underachieving flair player lacking guts, hadn’t played since April without painkillers, yet you never heard him say anything but: “I’m fine, thank you.”
The only exception was Oliver Kahn, who had said all along (loudly) that he was going to Asia to win the title. But he also said: “One reason why so many favourites have dropped out has to do with arrogance. And we’re not arrogant. People claim we’ve had easy opponents, but there are no easy opponents for us.”
And that wasn’t a cliche. The outside world just saw white shirts and black shorts, a World Cup superpower struggling against minnows like Paraguay. But the squad felt they were playing opponents who were pretty much their equal, no matter what history may say – and anyway, they couldn’t be held responsible for Spain or Italy’s failure to progress. If Germany had gone by any other name, would we have labelled them plucky instead of negative? Most of my compatriots came to think so. The street parties and car parades were unprecedented – and very un-German in their jolly exuberance. From the Under-10 team in Cologne that sported Ziege-like Mohawks, to the adults wearing Kahn masks while watching the final in public squares or huge indoor arenas, the nation went bonkers.
Who could resist? As Ballack slotted the winner against South Korea, I said “Yes!”. It’s been a long time since I got so involved when Germany were playing. And it got worse. Five days later I found myself breaking half a dozen traffic rules dashing home for the final, even though there was plenty of time.
And when Kahn slumped to the ground at the final whistle, I felt that even though Germany had lost, something had been won too. When Kahn plays his next club game, the fans should find it very hard to shower him with bananas and make monkey noises, as they have done for years. He was first off the plane the next day, lifting his bandaged hand in a shy gesture. He even smiled at the sight of the flags and the sound of the cheers.
It could be symbolic, you know. Maybe Germans have finally decided to support their team, no matter what. My son has always held that this is the normal, un-neurotic way. I guess I’ll have to think about that.
From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month