Germany vs. Ghana, a game of hearts
FORTALEZA, Brazil -- It ended, unfortunately but perhaps appropriately, with two men flat on their backs, one German, one Ghanaian. In a last desperate lunge for the winner, Thomas Muller's head found John Boye's shoulder rather than the curling ball. They each fell to the grass, and they were still there when the final whistle blew -- a double knockdown to conclude a 2-2 draw.
What an incredible, exhilarating, chest-searing game. In one of the World Cup's most difficult groups, it had meaning from the beginning. The first half showed it, the Ghanaians trying to match the Germans in their famous discipline. The match wasn't tentative so much as it was deliberate, careful if not cautious. Then the night turned, and in a tournament that has already treated us to so much high art, we watched one of the great halves of football unfold.
Whom to root for? The Germans, who had been so ruthless against Portugal in their opener, one of the game's most fearsome machines running at full power? Or the Ghanaians and their giant-size spirits, now fighting to keep their slim hopes alive? It presented an especially tough choice for American fans. For them, a Ghanaian win was the worst possible result. But some games are so good that such cool math somehow feels like an unwelcome guest.
The Germans were the first to break through in the 51st minute, and it felt as though they should. Mario Gotze headed home a long cross from the right by Muller, and the big screens inside the suddenly shaking Estadio Castelao showed the twisted face of a single German fan: He looked almost sick with relief.
That was the last respite. Ghana fought back only three minutes later when Andre Ayew scored an almost identical goal to the German one, this time on a cross from Harrison Afful. We've seen a few memorable goals like that here in Brazil -- long, swinging crosses from the right met by a player approaching from the left: Mario Balotelli's header against England; Tim Cahill's spectacular goal against the Dutch. Now there were two more of them in the span of a few frantic seconds, and rather than cancel each other out, they served as multipliers.
The game went ballistic -- "a terrible pace," Joachim Low called it after -- the first half's steadiness making way for a beautiful frenzy. The Ghanaians improbably, spectacularly went ahead in the 63rd minute, another long feed finished with perfection by Asamoah Gyan into the far side of the goal. The roaring crowd was consumed then with all manner of frantic calculus. Could the bad-luck Black Stars really beat the Germans? Would a two-win team in Group G still find themselves knocked out? Football is at its best when it provides no easy answers, and now it was leaving the bottom of the page dead blank.
This has become something of a troubling pattern for the Germans. They've scored at least four goals in their opening game in each of the past four World Cups. But they have struggled in the games that have come next. Going back to 1994, they now have only a single win, a loss and four draws in their second efforts. The Germans have many gifts, but among them has been their ability to take seemingly simple equations and make them complicated.
Here they did it once again, equalizing in the 71st minute, Miroslav Klose scoring his 15th World Cup goal, tying him with Brazil's Ronaldo for the most all time. Only in a game such as this one could a historic achievement feel like a kind of remainder, lost in the mess and the rush. For 23 more unbelievable minutes the game and Group G were split wide open. This game forced all of us to live in the present.
Low was asked what it was like for him to watch best-laid plans go loose like that: Is it fun or is it hell?
"It's both," he said. "For a manager, it is just like the spectators. ... It's sheer drama. You felt that."
We all did. That's what happened in Fortaleza on Saturday afternoon: An intellectual exercise became a more purely physical one. Logic made way for emotion, and certainty was substituted for doubt. Maybe it's not that the Germans fail to show up to their second games, but their more desperate opponents do, and nobody wins and yet everybody does when this game of heads suddenly becomes one of hearts.