The Show Must Go On: Die Nationalmannschaft’s adventure in Poland and Ukraine

On Friday, 2nd of December 2011, in the Ukrainian Palace of Arts in Kiev, former Dutch international Marco Van Basten, smiling a smirk befitting of his demonic stature, sent the Nationalmannschaft to Hell and Ukraine, to compete in Group B along with Portugal, Denmark, and his home nation of The Netherlands. The reaction to this from all quarters worth mentioning, including a number of my fellow writers on this fair publication, was that this was the best possible outcome that Germany could have achieved. I, on the other hand, with the memory of the Brazil side of 2006 firmly implanted in my mind, take a more cautious approach and a more realistic view of our chances for the tournament.

Yes, Germany are, for once, the favourites. We are the new Brazil, magnificent practitioners of orgasmic football. Where earlier in the decade we had Carsten Jancker, we now have Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez. Where Bernd Schneider once roamed, now there is Mario Götze, seen by many as the greatest young player in the modern game. Where we had Oliver Kahn, we now have Manuel Neuer. In the dugouts, where the reviled and victorious pantomime villain Rudi Voeller and his luscious perm would stalk, we now have Joachim Löw, a man once proclaimed by the distinctly English magazine When Saturday Comes as “The thinking man’s manager”. This opinion, which was in mid-2010 something of a minority stance, exploded onto the main stage of footballing thought sometime in the environs of right after Germany’s excellent performance in the 2010 World Cup. As a result, Germany are now seen as the favourites to triumph at the upcoming European Championships in my ancestral land of Ukraine. It will be interesting to see how Die Nationalmannschaft, usually known as a tournament team, will be able to cope with the pressure of being favourites, and also, in the likely case of failure, where some of our newer “supporters”‘ and their inflated sense of entitlement will rush off to (I’m sticking my bets on Spain for that one). Luckily, we can see how this will unfold, thanks to a rare and arcane artefact that I am in the possession of, a wyrd device known as a crystal ball.

Germany’s chances in Ukraine are dealt a hammer blow right from the off by their status as favourites, mostly by the unwritten rule that favourites, particularly those that win international friendlies beforehand with flair, panache, verve, and talented young attacking midfield players, tend to vastly underperform. Yet nonetheless, circumstances don’t make the Mannschaft — in fact, if you want to put it that way, a lot of things didn’t make the Mannschaft. Due to the customary pre-tournament injury crisis, national team mainstays such Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer, captain Phillip Lahm, and Miroslav Klose all were sidelined due to injury, forcing Loew to make some controversial call-ups out of desperation, most notably Ilkay Gündogan. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, we’re going to go out in the group stages.

This feeling of despair and misery was compounded when Joachim Loew released his 23 man squad for the tournament, a copy of which my crystal ball was more than anxious to present. As it can do little harm, I shall share it with you all here;

Squad List

Goalkeepers: Ron-Robert Zieler (Hannover), Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Gladbach), Hans-Jörg Butt (Bayern)* Defence: Andreas Beck (Leverkusen), Christian Träsch (Wolfsburg), Serdar Tasci (Stuttgart) Benedikt Höwedes (Schalke), Holger Badstuber (Bayern), Jerome Boateng (Bayern) Marcell Schmelzer (Dortmund), Dennis Aogo (Hamburg) Midfield: Ilkay Gundogan (Bayern), Simon Rolfes (Arsenal London**), Sven Bender (Bayern**), Moritz Leitner (Dortmund), Marco Reus (Bayern**), Thomas Müller (Bayern), Toni Kroos (Bayern) Piotr Trochowski (Sevilla), Lukas Podolski (Liverpool**), Andre Schürrle (Leverkusen) Forwards: Nils Petersen (Bayern), Mario Gomez (Bayern), Pierre Lassogga (Stuttgart**)

*It was a really, really bad injury crisis

**January transfer

Preparations were further damaged by the announcement that Joachim Löw would resign after the tournament and be replaced by Felix Magath, causing 14 of the players to immediately apply for a Spanish passport, provoking that age old crisis of what nationality means. Controversy was only added in the form of a scandal broken by the popular tabloid Bild, who leaked a story that the DFB had been run for the past seven years by Wolfgang Stark, prompting the resignation of many high ranking DFB officials. Germany, that fans’ paradise of good football, beer, standing sections, and fan owned clubs is suddenly in disgrace, with the world laughing at it, leaving bitter and twisted English writers such as yours truly to have a smirk on the inside and enjoy the solitude and the ignominy whilst all the while writing seething and satirical editorials denouncing the world’s hypocrisy and rejection. We have to make a living somehow.

*     *     *

There is a saying usually propagated by poorly written Theatrical (Note to aspiring journalists; that word must always be capitalized in bold.) novels that “The show must go on!”, no matter what mass outbreaks of scurvy, deaths of leading actors, or bizarre love triangles occur. And the Euro 2012, like any theatrical production worth its salt, did go on, with Germany, after having gone through so much, due to play their first game against Portugal in L’viv. Even this was mired by chaos and controversy, as their team bus had driven through vast acres of Polish and Ukrainian countryside on the journey from their base in Eastern Poland without even once being shot at by a probably racist Polish/Ukrainian anti-Western slave hunting godless communist dog-strangler, the kind that the tabloids both liberal and conservative warned you about. It was around resistance to this disgusting, cowardly attack on the lies propagated by self righteous populist rags that encourages hatred of your neighbours and rampant nationalist that this group, a true Team, would mobilize, drawing strength and inspiration from the suffering of the world’s people, cruelly denied their right to believe whatever nonsense they like and not have to face up to the consequences the next morning.

*     *     *

Despite the laughter of the world and the beckoning glare of this terrible tragedy, our boys in white and black would put in an amazing performance against the Portuguese, first going 2-0 up through a spectacular solo goal from Nils Petersen and a nicely worked finish from Andre Schürrle, before being pegged back by a magnificent piece of individual Cristiano Ronaldo brilliance to make the score 2-1. Germany were not to be troubled, however, and doubled their lead a few minutes later through an excellent volley by Thomas Mueller, himself a controversial inclusion after a terrible run of form in the league prompted many to brand him past his sell-by date. Portugal, not to be outdone, would make a belated reply ten minutes from the end, with a goal from the imaginatively named Danny once again giving the nationalelf something to worry about, though without much reason, as the game finishes with a Serdar Tasci headed goal to, for the third and final time, double Germany’s lead. Despite excitement and optimism from some quarters, the rest of the nation holds onto it’s air of pessimism, with recently appointed DFB president Silvia Neid booking the team flights back home the morning after this glorious victory.

And there was a time when it looked like those flights would be necessary. Just four days after the Portugal game, Germany would lose 1-0 to a Robin Van Persie penalty. What with the added blow of a strong showing from Denmark, the nation would be in complete uproar, with every columnist across the globe contributing their thoughts on this catastrophe. Germany were, for the next four days, entirely written off as a failure, yet things were not over yet, as there would be more than a few twists and turns before the end…

We would triumph! It was a nervy game for all of the 90 minutes, sealed only in the 56th by an amazing counterattack finished off in sublime style by Bayern’s Toni Kroos, but what does that matter, for Germany had booked their passage to the quarterfinals, and the fun was only about to begin, as, for the next round, our boys in white drew against a traditional enemy (Yes, another one of those), the Czech Republic, led by their in-form superstar, Galatasaray’s 30 year old striker Milan Baros. Surely though, their luck would end here, and an early return to Germany would be in short order for the nationalmannschaft. Read on…

I’ll break it to you straight up, it’s the only way. Germany won. A succulent, tasty, and kind case of wham bam thank you Nils once again seals victory for the jammy Germans in Gdansk, taking the Mannschaft onwards to the semifinals and Warsaw with a scintillating performance. It is this game, a resounding 2-0 victory, that gives a nation belief that it can go on to lay hands on the Henri Delaunay trophy on the 1st of July, 2012. They can’t, but that isn’t the point. The point is that, just like in 2010, and four years before that, and four years before that, Germany is caught up in an optimistic mood of self belief and patriotism, and just like 2010, and 2006, and 2002, the excellent form of Die Nationalmannschft provides a brief respite from the maddening trials of modern life, economic crises, and being ruled by Angela Merkel (who is nowhere near as delightful and vivacious in real life as her parody account on twitter makes it seem), much the same as it has done all the other times. Nothing really changes, it’s still the same, but as long as football exists, things can never be that bad.

It would be a glorious week, those six days between the Czech game and the semifinal against Spain, full of that strange and heady blend of excitement, fear, foreboding, and nervousness lightly sprinkled with a quiet optimism. Despite a heavy billing and an impeccable recent history, this match is a vast disappointment, a mediocre and cagy affair settled in the 83rd minute by a tap in off of a dodgy corner both won and scored by Barcelona captain Carles Puyol, a indescribably cheeky backheel that settles the contest in favour of Germany, as it was, of course, an own goal.

With this defining victory, Germany book their place in the beautiful city of Kiev, to play against fellow group B rivals Denmark in a repeat of the 19let’s not even mention that year final. Unfortunately, these comparison prove accurate in a sense as frightening as Viy, as Denmark go on to win this game, coming from 1-0 down at half time thanks to a goal by Andre Schürrle to clinch the Henri Delaunay courtesy of a brace from Liverpool bound midfielder Christian Eriksen, proving for once and for all that this new Germany, despite playing beautiful, moralistic, sexual football, is not cut out to be a winner, rather to play the role of the gallant loser. Funny old world, eh?

As a few final thoughts, an epilogue of sorts, I will wrap up a few loose ends. First of all, Joachim Löw would indeed exit, and return to Stuttgart, who, under his guidance, won the treble in his first season and would, in an alternate reality, have become the first German team to do the quadruple, but alas, after a disappointing start to the season that saw the Swabian club in 9th after two games, Löw was fired and replaced by Lothar Matthäus. Löw’s replacement in the Nationalmannschaft, Felix Magath, would have incredible success with the team, instilling strength, discipline, and cynicism into the likes of Mario Götze, Marco Reus, and Bastian Schweinsteiger to name a few, winning the world cup in 2014 on the back of a series of results written in binary code, shattering foul records along the way. Denmark would not qualify for the upcoming World Cup after a string of miserable reverses inflicted upon them after the departure of coach Morten Olsen after a horrendous 5-0 friendly defeat against Germany a few months later, coincidentally Löw’s last game as coach. It was incredibly anti-climactic, but then again, that’s life. You couldn’t make it up.

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