The German media were quick to put Bayern's failure to win the European Cup down to rank bad luck. Ian Plenderleith begs to differ
For many a long year German football commentary was characterised by the adage that “the good teams make their own luck”. That was the line after penalty shoot-outs against England, for example, or after winning the 1990 World Cup through a penalty awarded after a blatant dive, or winning Euro 96 through a deflected golden goal, or even after Bayern Munich’s late winner in this season’s Champions League group game against Barcelona after they had played abysmally for an hour and a half. But, as Günter Netzer famously commented after the national side’s 3-0 defeat by Croatia in France 98, “at some point luck has to run out”.
After the European Cup final against Manchester United the Germans have a fundamentally different approach to the concept of luck. The German media initially searched for a scapegoat to explain why United had scored two goals in in-jury time. It was Oliver Kahn’s fault because he pushed Samuel Kuffour out of the space from which Solskjaer scored the winner a second later. Or was it Thorsten Fink’s fault for his mishit clearance which lead to the Sheringham goal? No, it was Ottmar Hitzfeld’s fault for bringing on Fink in the first place to replace the tiring Matthäus. And why did Stefan Effenberg choose tonight to play his worst game of the season?
Ultimately, though, none of these explanations would do. As the gutter rag Bildzeitung demanded to know in its front page headline: Why Is The Football God So Cruel To Us? Franz Beckenbauer invoked the same deity, speculating in his column for the same paper that this sporting power above had been “on holiday” on the Wednesday night in question. And it was Beckenbauer on German television immediately after the game who bitterly babbled out one of his classic self-contradictory judgments by pronouncing: “Manchester United deserve to be European champions, but that was the unluckiest defeat I have ever seen.”
Even the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, which rarely hesitates to poke fun at the whole theatrical spectacle of Bayern Munich, was sympathetic to the losers and advised the team that the best way to write off the defeat was to attribute it to, guess what, bad luck. This way Bayern would not fall apart or lose faith in their undoubted playing ability. Nevertheless, it did not take long for the cracks to appear in the much-trumpeted team harmony, which only held through the season because Bayern had hardly lost a game.
Mehmet Scholl bitched that Matthäus always dropped out when the going got rough, Thomas Strunz said he could not understand why he hadn’t been picked, and the already transfer-listed club captain Thomas Helmer showed by way of obscene gestures to the Bayern board straight after the match that he thought Hitzfeld’s substitution policy stank (meaning, he should have brought me on and now we’d be Euro-pean champions).
This was more like the Bayern Munich that German fans are used to seeing and hating. After the game, the RTL television presenter Günther Jauch, who looked like he was reporting from the Kosovo front-line, told viewers that he would “do his best to pull us all through this tragedy”. Bildzeitung called the injury-time period “the worst two minutes in German football history”. But it seems they were hopelessly miscalculating the mood outside Bavaria.
At Bundesliga games the following Saturday fans waved banners thanking Man United, while even Bildzeitung had to admit that most of its correspondents pointed out with not a little Schadenfreude that Bayern had been punished for their overwhelming arrogance. Mario Basler may have scored a nice free kick, but he is more likely to be remembered for handing out victory baseball caps to the substitutes’ bench in the 89th minute.
One of the few analyses that wavered away from theories based on superstition came in the right-wing broadsheet Die Welt. While conceding that United had been “as cheeky as pickpockets”, it observed that the Germans only had themselves to blame for finding the defeat so hard to swallow. The Brits, it said, would not have been so upset at such a defeat because they were born sceptics who, in order to guard against disappointment, didn’t believe in victory until it actually happened.
The Germans, however, “tend to bank on victory, and nothing less is good enough for them”. Which means, when you score a goal from a free kick which should not have been awarded to start with, play defensively for an hour, and then don’t have the stamina to prevent two perfectly legitimate late goals, you will have to put losing the game down to cussed bad luck.
From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month