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World Cup extraordinary for Germany

Posted: Tuesday July 02, 2002 3:05 PM

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  • By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America

    How did such a modest German squad reach the 2002 World Cup final? Why was the reaction in Germany so much more enthusiastic than during Germany's previous big-tournament successes? To help answer these questions, Soccer America called Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger, the author of Tor, The Story of German Soccer. *

    SOCCER AMERICA: What has it been like in Germany during this World Cup?

    ULRICH HESSE-LICHTENBERGER: The most impressive thing about this World Cup from a German point of view may have been how good the Germans felt about their team.

    That's not the same as feeling good about the team's football, though.

    Germans have a troubled relationship toward displays of patriotism, not just their own. We are not a patriotic nation. Patriotism is an evil word to Germans. And in the past you sometimes got the feeling they followed their team beating (almost) all comers at World Cups, but couldn't really enjoy it.

    Whenever the issued is addressed in the media, you have Germans saying, "Why can't I root for my team the way Brazilians or Italians root for their teams? Why can't I wave the flag and not feel bad?"

    SA: So this time around, "World Cup fever" took hold?

    UHL: To give you an example, if you drove from Germany to Holland during a big tournament, such as the World Cup or the European Championship, you would see a few flags in Germany. Once you were in Holland, you see the Dutch flags everywhere and almost everyone would have "Hup, Hup, Holland" banners in their yards. Street upon street would be decked out in orange.

    On the German side of the border, you could drive through whole cities without realizing a major tournament was underway.

    During this tournament, the Germans started to celebrate the way you would see people celebrate in Turkish and Italian neighborhoods. For the first time since I can remember, you have car parades and flag-waving in big cities after Germany's games.

    We live in a small town [Witten, near Dortmund]. There are a few houses with German flags. This is not usual.

    SA: How did the media respond?

    UHL: The radio stations were so surprised that it took them a good two weeks to expand their coverage, having been swamped with calls from listeners demanding more football.

    Public service television had to buy additional rights to live games from Kirch media.

    Also, the games were on at odd hours, which drove people to watch the games in large groups. It was common for people to go to work in the morning, then leave the office to go downtown to watch the game.

    SA: So people's reactions were more likely to be public ...

    UHL: The police reported that the street parties and car parades following the matches "were of South European exuberance," adding they had expected scenes like that after Turkey's matches, not after Germany's.

    "Exuberance" was what it was. Some 20 million Germans watched their team play Paraguay-at 8:30 in the morning.

    SA: And flag-waving became acceptable ...

    UHL: A Berlin factory produced 10,000 German flags per day-and couldn't meet the demand. Even the best-stocked sports stores had sold out of Germany [replica jerseys] in the week before the final.

    In Cologne, there was a U-10 youth team with half of the kids sporting Christian Ziege-like Mohawk haircuts. In Hamburg, schools closed for the semifinals.

    A banker said that the World Cup would cost the national economy 14 billion Euros-because adults stayed away from work to watch football.

    SA: How to explain the reaction?

    UHL: One of the reasons for this was, of course, that Germans regarded their team as underdogs for the first time in living memory.

    The day after the final, a Mercedes Benz ad ran that was built around a (fictitious) newspaper clipping from after the 1-5 loss at the hands of England [in qualifying last September], saying "Can this team survive even the group stage?"

    And below that: "Yeeeees!"

    We would have been outsiders even if we had our first team, which we did not. We have only three creative midfielders-Michael Ballack, Sebastian Deisler and Mehmet Scholl. Deisler and Scholl didn't go because of injuries, and Ballack played in this World Cup with an injury, similar to the David Beckham situation.

    And the criticism of the team also made people sympathize with it.

    SA: In what way?

    UHL: After the win over the USA, the press came down very hard on the team. And not only the foreign press. The foreign press is always hostile-or, as [goalkeeper] Oliver Kahn says, "envious."

    But there was also severe criticism at home, mainly from the professional media. People like Guenter Netzer and Franz Beckenbauer criticized their playing style-or lack thereof. Beckenbauer said, "Apart from Kahn, you could put all the players in a bag and beat it with a stick and whoever got hit would deserve it."

    The TV game commentator was very harsh, criticizing the quality of the match and Germany for sitting on the lead and not moving forward, things like that.

    SA: So how did that gain sympathy for the players.

    UHL: The players weren't angry. They were a bit hurt, but still understanding. That came across very well.

    For me, I was very disappointed in the match. Then I listened to all the interviews and postgame press conferences, and it suddenly hit you that: Maybe people look at the team and think this is Germany, and expect how Germany should be. Whereas for the team-the team is not burdened by history. They look at what they have, which isn't very much.

    Germany came to this World Cup with its second-choice backline, and when they played the USA, they were down to their third-choice defense.

    Quite a lot of people in the media eventually felt ashamed at their own criticism.

    SA: So how do you explain Germany getting to the final? A team that gets to the final has to be pretty good?

    UHL: Well, they were pretty good. They didn't play great soccer, but they were good at simple things. They have the best goalkeeper [Oliver Kahn] in the world. He kept the team in matches at crucial moments.

    They avoided falling from behind. If they fell behind in any games, besides the first one against Saudi Arabia, they would have lost, because they have problems coming forward. If they had fallen behind against the USA, they probably would have lost.

    SA: Some people say they had a lucky draw?

    UHL: That's what the players have been told. They say that a team [South Korea] that puts out Portugal, Italy and Spain is not an easy opponent.

    One thing this team isn't is arrogant. They had no reason to be arrogant. They knew that no matter who they played, that team could beat them. That may have helped them succeed where other teams didn't.

    SA: Just how popular is [Coach] Rudi Voeller now? UHL: As a player, Rudi Voeller was one man who was never booed anywhere. He was immensely popular, and that popularity remains. After Germany lost, 5-1, to England in September, fans still showed up at stadiums with giant letters spelling out R-U-D-I.

    If Germany had lost its first three games and been eliminated, Voeller would have come home and resigned. And the people would have begged him to stay on.

    SA: I suppose you didn't imagine Germany getting to the final when your book was published shortly before the World Cup.

    UHL: Not at all. I got an e-mail from my publisher, who wrote, "Good for the book, bad for soccer."

    SA: Is it bad for German soccer?

    UHL: Just a few months ago, we were debating about the lack of young talent in Germany, and if the success at this World Cup ends the debate, it will have been bad.

    After the debacle of Euro 2000, it should have been obvious that Germany could not rely on its so-called proverbial virtues, such as diligence. We need to adapt to the modern game. Change the youth system. Change the structure of youth football. Finishing runner-up at the World Cup should not hide the necessity for this type of reform.

    * Tor, an English-language book published by When Saturday Comes Books, is available at www.sportsbooksdirect.co.uk/, www.amazon.co.uk and www.wsc.co.uk/shop/index.html.

    Mike Woitalla is executive editor at Soccer America magazine.

     
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