A long time ago, Paul Simon recorded a song called “Old Friends”. It begins, not with music, but talking, old men and women talking. It starts quietly, barely audibly; suddenly this old man says quite forcefully, “I’m in pain; I’m in pain strongly!” What I remember most was just how much I heard it in his voice; this old man was in pain, but not from any injury.
As a huge fan of the Bundesliga (Bayern Munich) and the German National team, I must confess after watching the Champion’s league final against Chelsea and the Euro2012 Semi-final against Italy, I am in pain; I am in pain strongly!
The Champion’s league final was the first sporting contest I have watched or participated in that I can honestly say that one team lost it more than the other team won. It was devastating for Schweinsteiger, Gomez, Muller, Kroos, Badstuber, Boateng, all members of the National team. Bayern Munich, who were in contention for three different championships ended up with none. The Munich players, having staked so much on the Champions league final at home, turned to the Euro2012 tournament for redemption. Unfortunately, the Euro2012 semi-final was not lost by Germany. Italy won; they won handily.
Two years ago, Munich failed in the Champions League final. Two years ago, Germany was ushered out of the World Cup by Spain. Four years ago, Germany was… you get the picture. Why is this happening with such regularity?
I could parade out statistics, critical moments, specific breakdowns and yadda, yadda, yadda. I could talk about the fact that Germany have three European titles. I could say that they are still comparatively young. I have a great deal of rationalizing balm to sooth my disappointment. But I must confess to a growing sense that there is an eerie undertow in the German footballing psyche.
I’ve noticed it from time to time for the past fifteen years or so. I have pretended it’s not there; I have drunk enough to forget it was there. I just can’t pretend any longer, and I have run out of beer. Something is there, hovering around the bench like a toxic fog.
It’s not obvious within the Bundesliga itself, because, obviously, that is a German league. All the teams are German teams. No, the eerie undertow appears in tournaments and competitions that include some form of national identity or allegiance, such as the World Cup, European Championships, and yes, Champions League.
Bayern Munich played Chelsea in the Champion’s league final. They are club teams made up of players from around the world, but it was still Bundesliga v. English Premiere League, Germans v. English. The announcers even called the sides “the Germans” and “the English”.
When people characterize a German team, especially the national side, they have historically used words like “machine”, “arrogant”, “confident”. This, I believe, was historically accurate given teh way the national team played in the 80s and 90s, but presently woefully inaccurate; I believe the eerie undertow permeating the German footballing psyche is the antithesis of confidence: insecurity.
The players use the appropriate confident clichés in pre-match interviews, but when they step out on that pitch, they are not believers; they are waiting to believe.
The German side possesses but does not impose; they are skilled but not ruthlessly dominating; they break, they do not bend. I have seen Germany score three goals in thirteen minutes, but I have never seen them impose themselves like an Italy or a Spain, even though they have as much talent, if not more, than any side on Earth.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not hoping that one day Mario Gomez will score a goal and rip off his shirt and pose for us like the ridiculous Balotelli (Dude, you didn’t thwart an invasion, you kicked a ball into a net; get dressed)
But I do wish to watch a German team impose its will, not just its style, on the game. I wish to watch a German team believe in each other, play for each other with passion and unity for ninety minutes. Before I die, I want to watch Italy, Spain or England slowly wilt because they know that they cannot break Die Mannschaft belief, regardless of the score.
Right now, whenever a German team takes the field against another nation’s team, they must first climb a wall of disbelief. They are so talented that they can get through the group stages of any tournament even with the headwind produced by their own heads. They win, even though they step on the field 0-1 at the kickoff.
As the opponents become tougher, they are unable to play through the disbelief. If they cannot overcome it early enough, they slowly run out of ideas and the better teams capitalize. This was never more evident than in the semi-final against Italy.
I know that the collection of players Germany can put on the field is better than Italy’s. But it only matters when, under direct confrontation, they perform to that level. That starts in the mind. That starts with belief.
Right now, that belief eludes them.
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