I still remember vividly the first time football made me cry.
It was during the wee hours of a stifling hot July night twenty years ago when a game played in the other side of a world I had never seen, bought unrequited tears to the eyes of an 8-year-old boy in Bangladesh.
Germany were playing Bulgaria in New Jersey and the bright sunshine reflected in the TV screen was the perfect contrast to the rumbling thunderclouds that had gathered as a vivid dream faded in the space of five minutes. Hristo Stoichkov, a man whose left foot could probably juggle a bar of wet soap, had provided the original shock with a stunning freekick, but it was a clunky midfielder with a balding plate but some unique front strayons whose acrobatic header was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So as soon as Yordan Letchkov scored his almost impossible header, running in from behind the right back, even an 8-year old knew that there was no coming back.
And so the tears came. They were unrelenting but crucially they also sealed that most foolish of bonds – one that every sports fan shares with his sport team; a bond which, during your formative years, is often the barometer of your mood despite the fact that the results of said sports team are not something that you have any control over. And let me tell you this – Fever Pitch was wrong; it does not do the soul any good to invest in something that it has no control over. It was also a lonely pursuit, especially if you were a Germany fan in the early 90s in Bangladesh, when the first generation of the young country were still obsessed by the pursuits of Brazil ‘70 and ‘82 and the younger ones in awe of Diego Maradona and Argentina of ‘86 and ‘90.
There was some early promise though. Germany won Euro 96 in English soil and even a 10-year old understood the significance of that achievement. The mercurial talents of Matthias Sammer were overshadowed only by the towering center forward Oliver Bierhoff, for whom heading seemed an art-form. And who could ever forget the famous Andreas Möller peacock strut after stuffing the English in penalties in their own soil? Tribalism was still a dominant characteristic for yours truly and celebrations were equally joyous.
But there were more dark clouds ahead.
An ageing side entered France 98 in the hopes of a last hurrah. Instead they exited in ignominy at the Stade Gerland when the red mist descended quite unfairly on the highly rated Christian Wörns. Germany had started the quarterfinal against rising upstarts Croatia quite well but found themselves on the backfoot when Wörns was ejected for a late tackle on Davor Suker, despite there being a covering defender. This was followed by two low finishes across Andreas Kopke, the first from Robert Jarni and the second from Goran Vlaovic before Suker closed proceedings with a typical late finish. Germany finished the game with Jurgen Klisnmann, Bierhoff, Ulf Kirsten and Olaf Marschall all playing up in attack in a desperate hope for redemption. It was not to be as Croatia pulled off what the papers called ‘the biggest shock since Uruguay beat Brazil at the Maracana in 1950.’ In Bangladesh, a boy on the cusp of his teenage years was secretly happy that the summer holidays would prevent him from having to receive a drastic lowdown from his other team supporting friends.
Those were the beginning of the dark days, when Erich Ribbek was manager and Germany looked frantically to foreign family trees to identify if the likes of Paolo Roberto Rink, a journeyman forward then with Bayer Leverkusen, or worse still Sean Dundee. It was also the days when a 4-0 humiliation by a Brazil side led by an irresistible shaggy haired superstar going by the name of Ronaldinho Gaucho, was topped only by a dismal group stage exit in Euro 2000 where a Portugal side resting their best players still found enough space in the German ranks to hand Sergio Conceciao a hattrick. A young midfielder from the former East Germany was substituted at half-time in that game, but Michael Ballack would soon enough write himself into German football folklore.
But before that, there was Munich and Michael Owen and a scarcely believable score line that would reverberate around the football world. 5-1 and the nadir of being a German football fan was all but reached. For a fiercely loyal sixteen year old, it could hardly have been worse.
Fortunes changed slightly for the better in 2002, when Ballack and an inspired Oliver Kahn, led a middling team into the World Cup final. Ballack’s trip on Lee-Chun Soo and subsequent suspension the low water mark on a World Cup where finishing second felt like a win. I certainly had not expected results to go this way, and it offered a pleasant respite from the continued pain of the previous six years.
But the dark clouds still remained. Euro 2004 was an unmitigated disaster despite a stunning Ballack goal and the introduction of two youngsters; Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger were flashy, upstarts looking to offer some new resolve to a Germany team crying out for it.
But that would still take a while to materialize. With a home World Cup beckoning, Jurgen Klinsmann’s positivity was the only thing keeping moods up even as I sat through miserly mid-terms in college. But fear of embarrassment was immense as a 4-1 defeat to Italy early in 2006 gave rise to the very real concern that Germany might just be the first hosts to exit the World Cup in the first round. So one can imagine the pent-up relief and frustration felt when a diminutive left-back with a broken arm who would one day go on to be Germany captain, cut in from the left and smashed an unstoppable goal past Costa Rica.
Lahm’s goal opened what was later known as the ‘Summer Fairytale’, a story of unfancied young team who won the hearts of an adoring public and made supporting your national team cool again. In reality Klinsmann’s side never had enough quality to win the World Cup, but his changes, positivity and inspiration made sure that Germany won many admirers, at home and beyond.
Klinsmann left when every smart man should – while on top, and his place was filled by Joachim Löw, a man who was long recognized as the brains behind the Klinsmann setup. Löw’s superior tactical ability was almost immediately apparent, with Germany slowly evolving from their old style to playing a quick, interchanging style of football. The early signs were apparent in a 2-1 away victory against the Czech Republic in a game where Germany played a futuristic brand of football. Their form would taper off, because how much good football can you possibly play with Kevin Kuranyi, but Germany would make an unlikely but sturdy run to the final of Euro 2008. A 1-0 loss against a Spain side that would soon rule the world was a just result, but since German captain Michael Ballack also lost the Champions League and Premier League that season, he along with the rest of the German team became tagged with the moniker of nearly men. Hell, as the Germans would soon realize, was often finishing second, or third. In Bangladesh, a young journalist tried to come to grips with the fact that football can be beyond your team and found himself much happier. An international win was not forthcoming as it seemed, so why beat yourself up about it? Journalists have to be neutral most of all. And after all foolish young decisions are not something you ever need to stick by – I definitely did not eat condensed milk out of the can anymore, so why stick by your football team?
Alas, if only it were so simple.
The winds of change were blowing through Germany though. Löw, often castigated for being too set in his ways, decided to bring in a waif-thin young player who was dominating the Bundesliga. Mesut Özil’s unbearable lightness of being was sprinkling it’s stardust across Germany and Europe and his introduction in a by-now throwback German side proved to be the magic formula.
The Germans entered World Cup 2010 in a very familiar air of pessimism, particularly after Ballack busted ankle ended his World Cup dream and left him stuck on 98 caps for Germany. But Germany still exited the World Cup a side fully reformed, playing some breathtaking attacking football that put four goals past England, Argentina and Australia. In Bangladesh, a new generation of fans finally started embracing the colors of the Die Nationalmannschaft. Now punctuated amongst the yellow and blue you would often spot the red or the white of Germany. A wizened 25-year-old could afford to crack a few smiles.
A super qualification campaign made winning Euro 2012 a necessity. It wasn’t, as familiar foes Italy put paid to a dream and made sure that the moniker of chokers was firmly entrenched. The generation of Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Podolski were branded as lacking character, even by men who themselves passed up chances to take penalties in World Cup finals.
Two years later on a beautiful night in Rio de Janeiro, under the wingspan of Christ the Redeemer, German captain Phillipp Lahm raised the World Cup trophy into the sky. The Germans had just done what no other European team had ever managed before – win a World Cup in South America. Years of prejudice and questions about their temperament were finally laid to rest as a generation of exceptional players finally won for themselves what their talent probably deserved – the title of World Champions.
In Bangladesh a man on the cusp of turning 29 sat at home in the wee hours of the morning and took it all in. There should have been tears to complete the cycle, but his eyes were dry and his gaze unwavering. He did a swift calculation, he had waited almost 85% of his entire life to crown his moment but when it came there was no relief, no sense of achievement, no overpowering war cry. Instead there was acceptance and some unwarranted happiness for the fact that he somehow shared an achievement that he had played no part in. It has been epic, it has been long, but some things are better because of how much time it took you to achieve.
“You are all world champions,” said Löw to a packed Berlin fan mile on his return home. Sitting in my cubicle at work some four and a half thousand miles away, I could finally nod my head and crack a smile.
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