MUNICH -- "Maybe the American boys are better than we think?" Asked at a dinner party here last week in a prosperous house in a prosperous suburb of the most prosperous city in the most prosperous state of the most prosperous economy in Europe. The smile is thin, genial, dismissive. Polite. No one in Germany is worried about the Americans.
That was before Portugal.
Somehow the story of America's 2014 World Cup is also the story of Germany's 2014 World Cup. Is America's German coach better than Germany's German coach? Can America's German players beat Germany's German players? And after last Sunday night, will America and Germany now collude to move through to the round of 16?
Say again, bitte? Mein Deutsche ist sehr schlecht.
So entangled are the fates of these two squads that before Munich even woke to its kaffee und nuss schnecke and news Monday morning of the thrilling U.S. tie with Portugal, Jurgen Klinsmann was in the jungle 5,500 miles away parrying questions about an upcoming fix. Would Joachim Low's team of Germans help Klinsmann's band of hyphenate-Americans survive the group of death?
Conveniently for those tracking the story, the German word for "collusion" is "kollusion." Or "absprache" -- "arrangement." But why would Klinsmann bother to pick up the phone and call Low? Why would Low email Klinsmann? There's almost no upside to going in the tank. On top of which, the players know the scenarios and permutations that get them through to the round of 16 as well as the coaches do. They can park the bus on their own initiative. Or not.
So, except as a historical aside ("The Disgrace at Gijon!") or another four minutes of airtime or 15 more column inches, the collusion angle has zero traction here. Still, it's perhaps the most interesting measure of the strange intimacy between U.S. ambitions and German obsessions, between the new world and the old. Between Jurgen and Jogi.
Go back a week and Germany is a blur. Green. The whole country feels green, swollen fat from a wet spring, the fields and the furrows thick with hay and wheat and the hops strung 10 feet high and the poppies red and black from the tracks all the way to the trees. In the forests, the streams run out of the mountains green and cold and bank full and above them the German sky is blue and the sun is as yellow as butter. You want to gather it all in your arms. Instead you strobe in and out of the shadows, 150 miles an hour on the weekend train from Munich to Berlin, shot like an arrow into the World Cup.
Germany is about to play Portugal and every newspaper on the train, every magazine, every advertisement on every wall and down the rail of every tablet, every candy wrapper and ringtone is a reference to Brazil, to the coach, to the products, to the players, to the World Cup. Die Mannschaft! Die Weltmeisterschaft! Every horizontal surface in Germany is papered with it. Every can or bottle of Coca-Cola sold in Germany has a different player's name on it. Every can. Every bottle. Such foolishness! Even the poppies shake their heads as you hurry past.
So Jogi Low is everywhere, as big a star here as any player. He's in the commercials and the print ads and on the front pages of every tabloid and broadsheet at every newsstand every day. He is dark and serious and stylish, and his haircut, a vintage Dorothy Hamill wedge, is instantly recognizable. He is the brooding antagonist to Klinsmann, the cheerful blond expat in his sideline khakis. Klinsmann, like U.S. soccer itself, can mostly be found here on Page drei, below the fold. Nobody in Germany is worried about the Americans.
The Germans made short work of Portugal that night, 4-0 in a rout, and even the desultory roar along the fan mile at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate could be heard in every corner of the Tiergarten. German expectations this year are high.
Low is from Schonau-im-Schwarzwald, a small postcard in the Black Forest. A couple of hotels and restaurants. Pretty, but other Germans will tell you with raised eyebrows that the hills and hollows of the Schwarzwald are weird places indeed, filled with characters. Lots of regionalism here. Lots of local color. A middling career player, Low was a middling career coach until his friend Klinsmann picked him as an assistant for the national team 10 years ago. His first finish as the head coach in the World Cup was a third place in 2010. As Klinsmann's assistant, he finished third in 2006 as well. He is well thought of by nearly everyone, but sadly, what he might be most known for, at least among those willing to admit it, is picking his nose avidly on camera.
Klinsmann preceded Low as the coach of the German national team, but was himself famous as a player in the Bundesliga and a great star of the West German squad that won the 1990 World Cup. By now, you've read everything there is to read about him, the chipper fatalist, the baker's boy from the Stuttgart suburbs who caused a minor scandal among optimists when he made the level-headed point that America cannot win the World Cup this year. Klinsmann's balance of purpose and realism and ambition and hope is refreshing in a global competition often defined by opportunism, politics, money and cynicism.
But in trying to puzzle him out, sports writers too often default to those baker's apprentice stories, and to the German devotion to tradition and craft. Tradition can be a great thing. But it can be a straitjacket, too, especially here, and younger, freer spirits often light out before they suffocate. Klinsmann seems one of these.
Jogi Low remains a well-dressed, well-organized mystery to Americans, but it might be worth noting that the coach of the best professional team in Germany, Bayern Munchen, which contributed half a dozen players to this year's Mannschaft, is a Spaniard, Pep Guardiola.
In any case, biography is not destiny.
As is always true of dispatches like this, well-meaning people ask "What is the mood in Germany?" Exuberant? Subdued? Happy? Sad? Worried? Confident? Beware any writer trying to sell you a "national mood." There is no such thing, despite the stories you've read for the past week. There are 82 million people here, in 82 million moods. Most would agree on one thing. Their soccer team -- ihre fußball Mannschaft -- is pretty good.
German headlines have been everywhere. Martin Kaymer won the U.S. Open; Michael Schumacher was released from intensive care; a spelunker was rescued from the deepest cave in Germany; a hapless student was pulled from one of the shallowest. Like anywhere else, this can seem like a very strange place.
Tactically, Jurgen and Jogi work from the same playbook. Both teams play two styles as circumstances and personnel warrant: attacking offense or counterattacking defense. Strategically and historically, Low has the stronger, deeper XI. That his leading scorer, Marco Reus, went down with an injury before the tournament even began seems not to have slowed down die Mannschaft . Even in that awkward draw against Ghana they were never in danger. When you can sub on Miroslav Klose -- co-record holder for most goals scored in World Cup history -- it makes your job easier. The Americans? Still streaky. Inconsistent. Young. When they're right, they're as good as anyone they'll face.
The USA moving through? With its upbeat California-German coach? Crazy. As unlikely as a 185 mph station wagon. But I'm told the national mood is good.
US-Boys mit guten Chancen aufs Achtelfinale ("U.S. boys with good chances on knockout stages") read the Stern headline here a few minutes ago.
It's hard to say how good the U.S. men are. How far they might go. But a tournament is a tournament and you play whoever's in front of you, however weak or strong or banged up they are. Or you are. Anything might happen.
At 2 a.m. Central European time on Monday, just after the U.S. tied Portugal, the postgame interviews began on German television. The first guest, still pouring sweat, was American midfielder Jermaine Jones. When asked about his second-half "wonder goal," he smiled and spoke for several minutes. In perfect German.
Maybe the American boys are better than we think.