Part of the appeal of the World Cup is that the entire world, more or less, gets involved in a single game, a single competition. None of those Olympic medal counts: Are two bronzes worth more than one silver?
Also, the game is deliciously simple, especially to those of us who don’t know a center back from a forward, have difficulty distinguishing a challenge from a tackle, and have no idea when either maneuver might be considered a foul.
A third merit of the event is that we Americans have no vested interest in it. Sure, it’s exciting to see our team advance. But we know they aren’t going to win the thing.
Meanwhile, the aesthetics of the game soak in intuitively, and we begin to appreciate the flow, the passing, the disruptions, the counter-attacks. And of course, the scoring.
Germany’s semi-final game with Brazil was a scoring seminar. As it happened, all the scoring was done by the Germans.
Journalists immediately spilled a lot of ink (but not in a mean way) contrasting Brazil’s devotion to the game, and its host status, with the Brazilian team’s semi-final showing, which descended beneath “lackluster” to arrive at “dispirited” and “amateurish.” The team lost, the nation cried.
Before long, fans will be decrying the fact that in recent years, Brazil has abandoned its characteristically loose and flowing approach, o jogo bonito, for a more European approach that has obviously not produced the desired result. Pundits have argued throughout the early stages of the tourney that Brazil’s team wasn’t that good, but it would make its way to the championship by an elusive magic that never fails them on their sacred turf. (Brazil hadn’t lost at home in a Cup competition since 1975.)
What I enjoyed about the game was the sophistication of the German scoring. Although the announcers made use of such terms a “ruthless” and “machine-like,” what I noticed about the German attack was how often the players made that final, extra, pass to a teammate in front of the box, eschewing personal glory for the sake of a better scoring chance. On one cross, midway through the first half, one of the Germans feigned a shot but allowed the ball to whiz past to a teammate who drilled it home. (Or perhaps he just whiffed?)
When Chris Wondolowski blew his chance to score for the United States, late in the match against Belgium—a score that would probably have won the game and allowed the team to advance—Clint Dempsey was standing a few yards away, unmarked, facing a wide-open net. (To be fair, Belgium missed about twelve scoring chances in that game, too. And if Wondolowski had bobbled the pass, the cries of “Why didn’t you shoot?” would have been unceasing.)
The German passing seminar was made possible by the porous and tentative nature of the Brazilian defense, no doubt. But the Germans seemed to know exactly how to penetrate it, without rushing overmuch to get a shot off.
Yet the fact remains that in many circles German’s team commands admiration...but not affection. Fans get excited about Mediterranean types of small stature weaving their way through crowds of defenders (Messi, Iniesta) or midfield masterminds cooly directing the show (Pirlo, Zidane). The trouble with the Germans is that they all seem like the same person. When Miroslav Klose scored his 16th career World Cup goal, eclipsing the record previously held by Ronaldo, the celebrations were muted in Brazil, naturally enough. But is there anywhere outside Germany where soccer fans have embraced Klose in the same way they embraced Ronaldo, populary dubbed Il Phenomeno?
I really don’t know.
Then again, as you can probably tell, I don’t know much about soccer.
Yet I have been enjoying the German contribution to the current World Cup, starting with the American coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. Reading about Klinsmann’s relocation to California, I was reminded of an unread novel that was smoldering in the basement collection, Martin Walser’s Breakers. Walser’s novels (Runaway Horse, The Swan Villa, Letter to Lord Listz, etc.) are all the same, in so far as the narrator is a put-upon German male yearning for respectability but doubtful about what others may be thinking about him.
Breakers is no exception, though it’s given an extra twist by the fact that the narrator is trying to ingratiate himself into a scholarly California crowd, after receiving a four-month appointment to teach German conversation at a small Oakland college.
Just this morning, it occurred to me that what I really ought to be reading is Peter Handke’s Goalie Anxiety at Penalty Kick. I see they have two copies at the downtown Minneapolis library, and neither is checked out!