A lot of football fans hate international break. Especially if your team’s key player is called up for a seemingly pointless friendly in say Ukraine, while maybe one of the most important games in your domestic league is only a week away (any similarity to players living or dead is purely coincidental), you are likely to be not overly enthusiastic about the upcoming international fixture.
I personally have always looked forward to international friendlies as long as I can remember. First, this appreciation was admittedly due to the fact that as an eight-year-old I didn’t comprehend the difference between a competitive and friendly game. For me, international football was international football, no matter what shape it came in. Later when I was older and supposedly wiser, I too of course discovered that not all international fixtures live up to their reputation.
While my attachment to the Bundesliga and the HSV was already much stronger by then, I still couldn’t help but always hope for beautiful football in international friendlies. How naïve of me indeed, especially considering the Germany team of that time. Of course sometimes my hopes were fulfilled but more often than not, I was left disappointed and tried to defend my view on international friendlies before the football fans around me (“Well, at least we know now that if we play this way we won’t win?”) My never-fading belief in international friendlies also led me to the decision to convince my family to watch Germany against England in November of 2008 in Berlin. Needless to say I don’t remember much of that game except for that both teams played quite dreadfully (even Klose who I have always admired), the chilly temperatures, the fact that Germany lost and that massive defensive lapse by John Terry and Scott Carson that led to the only German goal of the night. Scott Who? Yes, I admit I had to look up his name as well but who knew JT had occasional brain freezes on the pitch before Chelsea lost to Arsenal 3-5?
It really wasn’t until a couple of months later, when I first started to focus more on the tactical elements of football and I finally somebody explained to me what a false 9 was, that my fascination with international friendlies finally seemed logical to at least myself, if not always to the people around me. From then on, I would always find something interesting even about the most excruciatingly boring friendly other than a player’s hairstyle (Let’s be honest here, we’ve all been there!). Be it how one player was handling a particularly challenging opponent or how well a team adapted tactically to a player being sent off, I was quite easily entertained. It is the sandbox factor of these fixtures that I still find appealing today. The question of “What would happen if…?” can, if not being answered fully, be at least explored to some extent. New ideas, new systems, new players, and new situations – plenty to get excited about if you ask me.
Ironically before Tuesdays’s friendly between Germany and the Netherlands, one of the more enjoyable Germany friendlies for me personally was the much criticized 3-3 draw against the Ukraine. I loved it for the reasons a lot of people hated it. The boldness of Löw’s 3-4-2-1 experiment had me at the edge of my seat. It was clearly going to be genius or failure (or just genius, if you are me). Yes, Germany conceded three times but hardly a recent Germany game has hinted at that many weaknesses but also strengths of the current Germany side. (You can read Cris Nyari’s analysis of the Ukraine vs Germany encounter here.)
So when I was on the train to the Imtech Arena this Tuesday, again with my family like the last time I had watched an international friendly, I was already confident I would see an interesting game, one way or another. Of course the prospect of seeing how this current Germany side would play against a football giant like the Netherlands had me excited as well. After I had explained to my mother again that yes, Miroslav Klose still plays football and no, Toni Kroos is not a defender, we finally found our seats and equipped with some Holsten beer, were ready for some international friendly action! As a HSV supporter, I found the choreo honouring “Uns Uwe” a.k.a Uwe Seeler before the national anthems a particularly nice gesture. Then finally the time for kick-off had come! And boy, were my expectations for the game exceeded in the next 90 minutes!
While I was still constantly watching Dennis Aogo during the first 10 minutes, trying to urge him to a good performance by willpower alone, all those common worries of a HSV fan were quickly forgotten when I was witnessing that beauty of a diagonal pass from Kroos to Klose. Klose then of course laid the ball off perfectly for Müller, who finished the move strongly by calmly placing the ball in the near post. Goal Germany! The crowd around me erupted, thankful for any opportunity to move (It was a particularly chilly November night), and celebrated the opening goal to the sounds of “Schwarz und Weiß”. On this occasion, even I was able to overcome my deep loathing for that song and celebrate that beautiful goal. My thoughts returned to more base issues for the next 10 minutes or so, since the Netherlands were seemingly convinced to test the resolve of the referee left and right. In hindsight a couple of bookings might have been appropriate but hey, water under the bridge!
The roughly 51.000 Germany fans had something to cheer for again in the 26th minute when Mesut Özil’s pinpoint cross found Klose, who never one to let a good header go to waste, placed the ball in the Dutch goal once again. Stekelenburg didn’t even have time to react, as he was moving the other way. Naturally more celebrations erupted and in true German fashion a perfectly coordinated “la ola” erupted, making its way around the stadium three times. Some Germany supporters were boo-ing the Dutch fans for not participating but hey, would you want to “la ola” (yes, that’s a verb) when your team is being…uhm, let’s put his diplomatically…outplayed in quite a dramatic fashion. No, I didn’t think so!
During half-time break I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on some fan conversations (the line for pretzel stand was mind-blowingly long) and unsurprisingly all German fans were rather giddy, while the Dutch were going for reserved optimism (“It can only get better!”). The return to the well-established 4-2-3-1 was proving to be more than just successful for Germany, while the Netherlands looked rather uninspired almost immediately after conceding the second goal. The second half began with me already having forgotten about all the tactical elements of the game. I was simply enjoying some beautiful football. And if I had thought the first two goals were beautiful, the third one was a thing so close to perfection I’m sure somewhere Pelé must have been weeping from joy. Of course, those feelings might have been slightly over the top but that was definitely what I was feeling in that moment. Müller’s pass to Özil and the ensuing one-two between Özil and Klose? Divine. The remaining time of the match was spent “la ola-ing” some more and singing the German football classic “Oh, wie ist das schön!”. All was indeed “schön” (beautiful)!
After the game, while eyeing the Dutch party flags some fans must have put up in the bus back to the train station, I was feeling truly content. I had witnessed a great game in an amazing atmosphere. The fans had gotten along splendidly (I had seen many mixed groups, hugs and friendly jabbing) and most importantly Germany had won! Yes, it was “only” a friendly and yes, the Netherlands were missing some of their key players but that didn’t bother me one bit. And how different this friendly was from the one I had watched in Berlin in 2008! Klose had played in both games, but while he was pale and completely forgettable in the England friendly, he had a monster of a game this time around. What a player indeed! It must have been then when I finally remembered that there is something even better than watching out for tactical moves and experiments in international friendlies: simply watching beautiful football and winning!
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