Greater expectations for Germany
The day I first saw Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger play football was June 30, 2002. It was also the day of the World Cup final between Germany and Brazil in Yokohama, Japan.
Lahm and Schweinsteiger were in action in the semifinals of the German youth championship -- Bayern Munich met Borussia Dortmund -- a competition that often has its latter stages taking place while big tournaments are being staged elsewhere.
Dortmund had won the first leg in Munich, 3-2, and the return leg was scheduled for 10.30am on June 30, two-and-a-half hours before the World Cup final was due to kick off.
I figured there was plenty of time and took my young son to the game between Dortmund and Bayern. I must confess we watched our own players, the Borussia boys, more closely than the Bayern talents. With the benefit of hindsight, that's a pity.
Normally only very few players from title-winning youth sides really manage to become established Bundesliga players, but this Bayern team included Michael Rensing, Andreas Ottl, Christian Lell and Piotr Trochowski. Plus, of course, Lahm and Schweinsteiger.
They were so good that they erased the first-leg deficit and took the game to a penalty shootout. I looked at my watch. It was now getting worryingly late. But of course, we stayed to the end -- and saw Bayern go through to the final (which they went on to win against Stuttgart). Then we ran to the car and raced home.
We were almost there when the 1 o'clock news came on the radio. The final item was that Oliver Kahn had won the Lev Yashin Award as the best goalkeeper of the World Cup. When I heard that, I turned around to my son and said: "Well, we all know what's going to happen now, don't we?"
It happened on 67 minutes. Rivaldo struck from a distance with his lethal left foot. Although the shot didn't seem to pose a problem for Kahn because the ball came directly at him, it somehow slipped from Kahn's grasp and bounced away, giving Ronaldo an easy tap-in. It was the moment that decided a game that could have gone either way. Twelve minutes later, Ronaldo scored again, this time with a well-placed low shot that left Kahn with no chance. The game finished 2-0 and Brazil were crowned champions.
It was Germany's fourth defeat in a World Cup final, but -- unless you were one of the players -- it was probably the one that hurt the least, in part because this was the first tournament in living memory for many fans which Germany didn't enter as one of the favourites. Two years after Germany's disastrous European Championship group stage exit in Belgium and the Netherlands, nobody at home expected too much of a team that basically stood and fell with one man: midfielder Michael Ballack.
The reason why Germany still made the final despite an obvious lack of quality was not, in contrast to some other tournaments, because they overachieved or were particularly lucky. No, they simply did what the people at home could righfully expect from them. They were committed, disciplined and hard to break down. Whenever they made a mistake, Kahn was there. And whenever they needed to make something happen up front, Ballack was there.
It was enough to make the final because the 2002 World Cup was a strange affair. Defending title holders France were knocked out in the group stage, the same fate that befell Argentina, before Italy became the victims of some creative refereeing decisions as they were knocked out by South Korea. In fact, Germany didn't meet a single team that was among the top 10 in the FIFA world rankings as they progressed to the final.
Still, all the games -- save the very first against Saudi Arabia -- were tough and close. In the knockout rounds, Germany racked up three nailbiting 1-0 wins in a row to book a date with Brazil. The last one of these may have decided the World Cup final long before Rivaldo's shot sailed at Kahn.
In the semifinals, Germany played hosts South Korea in Seoul. The game was scoreless after 70 minutes, not least because Kahn had made another incredible save against Lee Chun-soo. Then, suddenly, Germany were exposed at the back. Four South Koreans were moving toward Kahn's goal, which was protected by only two defenders. Again it was the fleet-footed Lee who carried the ball. He went past Carsten Ramelow -- and then Ballack's late tackle from behind brought him down three steps from the penalty area.
It was and is the most famous professional foul in German football history. (The German expression, by the way, is "tactical foul".) Ballack was booked for the second time in the knockout rounds. Today, the World Cup rules say you can't miss the final because of accumulated yellow cards, but it was different in 2002. Ballack knew that if Germany won the game he would be suspended for the final. Four minutes later he scored the only goal of the match.
In the days, weeks and months after this semifinal, Ballack was widely lauded for having, in the vernacular of the press, sacrificed himself for the team. He himself tended to avoid the subject, probably with good reason. A professional foul is not something of which a sportsperson should be particularly proud. Watching the footage, it's still not entirely clear whether Ballack was intending a foul all along or whether he had simply run out of gas after sprinting at full speed from one box to the other and just couldn't time the tackle.
And so Germany had to play the final without their most accomplished, most dangerous and most important outfield player on account of a suspension. To make matters worse, the final would be the long-awaited first World Cup encounter between two giants of the game, as Brazil had managed to win the other semifinal against what quite a few observers considered the best team at the tournament: Turkey.
Without Ballack, Germany went into the game as the underdogs. So it didn't come as a surprise that Brazil had the better chances in the first half: Kleberson hit the crossbar and seconds before the interval, Kahn brilliantly saved Ronaldo's shot on the turn from 10 yards.
Yet the Germans played well, better than during any of the preceding games. To this day, you often hear that the only true Brazilian-style player on the pitch was Bernd Schneider, the silky-skilled Leverkusen midfielder. His team came close to taking the lead only four minutes after halftime, when Oliver Neuville's free kick from more than 30 yards out hit the right post. Three minutes later, Gilberto Silva tried to get to a loose ball, was late and instead hit Kahn's right hand with his studs.
The goalkeeper tore a tendon in his ring finger at that moment. However, Kahn never used that as an excuse to explain the mistake he made a quarter of an hour later. "It was the one and only error I made in seven games," he said. "And it was brutally punished. It's a bitter job."
But the people back home didn't consider the team losers, and Kahn was certainly not made the scapegoat. The magazine Der Spiegel reported that the "returning heroes were given a triumphal reception" when the Germany squad came home a day later. It even quoted a fan as saying: "This is better than the Euro '96 victory, because we didn't expect anything."
I have often asked myself where and how Lahm and Schweinsteiger watched the final back in 2002. By the time their own celebrations had ended and they had showered, the first half must have been almost over. Perhaps they immediately boarded their coach to go back to Munich and listened to the game on the radio.
Sometimes I imagine that they sat next to each other on that coach and that one of them said: "Did you know that this was the first time Germany and Brazil have ever played each other at a World Cup?" And I like to think that the other replied: "No, I didn't know that. But the next time it happens, I want to be on the pitch."