As an 8 year old watching a football match live, late at night, with eyes drooping off to sleep every other minute, one can be excused to being short on one’s memory. With this disclaimer, I can state that the 1982 semi-final match stays in my head for just three things – Battiston lying immobile on the pitch, Bossis holding his head in anguish after missing the last penalty and Platini walking dejected after playing a super game. Notice I remember only the French side of the game. I became a fan of Les Bleus. The losers. (Later, via Sportstar, I read that Platini had moved to Juventus. So now, after East Bengal, my next favourite club on the list was Juventus.) Nothing about the Germans. On Youtube, the pixelated clips do not trigger any cues either. One simply did not bother to remember anything about the Germans. When Italy won, it was just right, one felt. How can a country which plays boring, easily forgettable football win a World Cup?
In the next World Cup, West Germany once again played France in the semi-final. And they won again, this time with goals in regulation time. I remember the ball spilling out of Bates’ hands into the goal. Lucky (for the Germans). Sloppy (for the French). Germany went through. In the final, me and the rest of world were clearly on the side of Maradona and his Argentinian compatriots. Argentina were 2-0 up and it seemed just right. The more delightful and beautiful football playing team was going to win.
2-2. The Germans came back. Shades of 1982. The boring team was making a match of it. Finally, yet another moment of brilliance from Diego – a clever pass to Valdano to put in the winning goal.
The initial perception of German football remained the same for me. Boring. And when I read essays and articles by many people on German football, I am happy to say I am not the only one. However, over the years, there is another thing that one has built up over the years for Germany – respect. These guys may not be aesthetically interesting to watch but these guys are good – a workman ethic, precision thinking and reliable – just like their cars and music systems and agricultural equipment and boilers and other items of domestic and industrial use. This respect came from watching some of their matches from history – the 1954 campaign that ended with a final played in rain completely dampening Hungary’s free flowing play and allowing the Germans to work the ball to their advantage; the 1966 final where, for all practical purposes, Germany had the game. It took a bit of luck and some miscommunication amongst the referees to get them a goal; the 1970 campaign, first the comeback win over England with that unbelievable header goal by Uwe Seeler and then the slugfest against Italy with Bechenbauer playing with his hand on a sling; and finally the 1974 team with Berti Vogts assigned the task of marking Johann Cruyff, the best player in the world at that time – and Vogts did his job so well. After the initial scampering that led to the penalty almost as a next move to the kick off whistle, Cruyff was completely bottled up. Today, with the rich television coverage available, one can imagine the same when one watches El-Sharawy mark Dani Alves (in the AC Milan – Barca first leg PQF game) or Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez hold the midfield to deny any space to Messi.
There was respect for the German team but it was still boring. Oliver Kahn was a great goalkeeper and one should always be a little partial to great goalkeepers. But that team was still not attractive enough.
Then came the transformation – a slow one but when it came, it was simply un-German. Europe in the last twenty years has become the New World for people in Asia and Africa. Refugees, political and economic, white collar and blue collar, perforce or by choice, have been slowly and slowly changing the demographics of the continent. The 1982 French team had Tigana from Mali and Tresor from Guadeloupe. But the 1998 World Cup of France was a geography lesson, especially a lesson on the French colonies. From France, racial integration moved north to Belgium, Netherlands, even Sweden with players like Martin Dahlin and Norway with John Carew.
Nobody would have expected the Germans to be like that.
Turkish, Tunisian, Spanish, Polish, Ghanaian. These are some of the nationalities of the regular players in the current German football team. These are all people born and grown in Germany. They are Germans. But when they play football, it is not the traditional German style. It is the more flamboyant style that you would associate with other countries around the world. There is an aesthetic value that they seem to have put to their game. Schweinsteiger combining with Ozil and Khedira in the middle and setting up goal scoring services to Muller, Reus and Klose has become a thing to watch.
But one can’t just blame racial integration and the natural flamboyant mental models of these players. They must also have the ability to put it to practice and deliver results. This is where the Bundesliga comes. The number of German players playing around Europe has always been low. At any given point of time, the number of key players, especially those who are first choice picks for the national teams, who play outside Germany be counted on at the most two hands. It means that the core nucleus of the team – the Lahms, the Neuers, the Mullers, the Gotzes, etc. – are all shaping and honing their skills at home.
Sometimes, this form of home schooling can be self-limiting. You get stuck with a few hackneyed ideas with no one able to disrupt the status quo. The same coaches, the same players, the same strategies and tactics, the same …. – leading to a serious state of stagnation.
The events of the last two weeks show that the Bundesliga is not in any state of stagnation. As Wembley prepares for 90,000+ Germans who are going to party there on the 25th of May, one can safely say that this is a league of true class. It’s not just 18 teams who are filling up shopping baskets with players picked up from random footballer supermarkets. These are 18 clubs with a history, a set of values, an ethic for reliability and a willingness to move with the times as the society around the clubs change. Even bottom of the table Gruether Furth, who got promoted to the Bundesliga top draw for the first time in its history, has Nigerians, Koreans, Senegalese, Turkish, Tunisian and Croatian players in its squad.
I think both the legs of both the semi-final matches are unforgettable, not just for the goals but for the clever and beautiful style of play that overshadowed the Spanish prima donnas. Alaba’s measured aerial ball to Robben to moves in, taps the ball to his left foot and fires it past Victor Valdez. This is worth remembering. Weidenfeller charging out picking up the ball right off the forehead of Ronaldo even as the star was in position to head the ball into goal. This is worth remembering as well