Germany's Big Bang theory
My local paper describes Oliver Neuville's last-gasp winner against Poland on Wednesday as the 'Big Bang'. We'll have to see if all the implications this term carries will come true, but I don't think it is hyperbole.
The atmosphere before the game had been tense, during large parts of the 90 minutes it resembled ecstatic hysteria, and when Miroslav Klose and Michael Ballack both hit the crossbar in the final minute it turned into an existentialist desperation Sartre would have been fascinated by.
Thus the goal, when it finally came, offered the kind of redemption only a low-scoring game like football has in store. The collective orgiastic scream must have made the window panes rattle in, say, Duisburg, where Italy have set up their camp.
But it wasn't just the fact that Germany won which threw people into rapture. It was also the fact that the manner in which the side - in the literal sense of the term - earned themselves the three points was a far cry from the narrow World Cup victories Germans of my age have grown up with. There were two teams on the pitch yesterday night, only one of them played for a win, and paradoxically it was the side that could have lived with a draw.
At the beginning of either half, the Germans were a bit cautious, as if waiting to see what the Polish game plan was. Then, when it slowly dawned on them that the opposition was, bizarrely, uninterested in making something happen, they moved forward. That it was never on the agenda to settle for a draw was made clear by Juergen Klinsmann long before Poland were reduced to ten men, by bringing on winger David Odonkor for defender Arne Friedrich with barely an hour gone.
So the win was well-deserved, and it was also impressive. Germany's stats for the tournament must now stand by ten good scoring chances, eight corners and well over sixty per cent of ball possession per game. Of all the teams we have seen so far, Germany is also the one that has delivered the most unforgiving high-tempo, route-one football.
So much so that the Dutch coach Arie Haan first lauds Klinsmann's courage in Thursday's issue of kicker magazine, then adds: 'If the team wants to make it far, it has to be calmer in critical moments and shouldn't, as happened against Poland, play at the opposition's tempo.' Can't tell you what that second bit is about, as the team that set the pace certainly wasn't Poland. Maybe Haan left at half-time to avoid the rush to the parking lots.
Yet, if you allow a grumpy old man to raise his trembling voice against the deafening we're-going-to-Berlin chants (for the final, they mean, not just for Tuesday's meeting with Ecuador), we still don't know where we stand. Poland were more committed, less comatose than in their opening game, but they still left me under whelmed, even baffled.
When was their goalkeeper first cautioned because of time-wasting, after an hour? What was that all about? Either Poland were hoping Costa Rica would beat Ecuador, or they were convinced Ecuador would beat Germany - or they had resigned themselves to the fact they were crap and tried to get the hell out of this country with their hide halfway intact.
That's 'hide', of course, not 'pride'. You could read it on the Polish fans' faces that they were deeply disappointed, embarrassed even, and probably trying to remember where they had seen a lamppost they could hang their coach from.
So Klinsmann's slightly amended approach, with a deep-lying Ballack who only rarely followed his long passes to the wings with his customary run into the box, wasn't really tested. Or maybe it was and stood the test, maybe that's why the Poles couldn't be more adventurous?
We will only know when we play a team with a quicker, steelier and more imaginative midfield than Costa Rica and Poland fielded. That will happen in the knock-out rounds, and the best thing about Neuville's last-gasp goal is that we now have been given 90 minutes of respite to prepare for that.
If going through had hinged on the Ecuador game, Klinsmann would have been forced to do some serious thinking over the next days, particularly about Arne Friedrich at right-back, but also about Lukas Podolski. I wouldn't worry too much about Bastian Schweinsteiger's dip in form, as he's probably just had one of those days where you can't get past anyone. But Friedrich and Podolski are in no good shape, which is why Klinsmann could use the coming match to give the latter a rest and the former another run-in in order to get his confidence back.
Another stock we can take from Wednesday night is that justice seems to be making its World Cup comeback, with positive approaches being rewarded. A good case in point may be the varying fortunes of Trinidad & Tobago and Poland.
When Leo Beenhakker's Caribbean kickers lost their left-back due to a red card, the coach took off a midfielder and brought on a forward (!), on the theory that the best form of defence is keeping the opposition busy in their own half. Nine out of ten coaches will tell you that this is good, sound, brave thinking, but only one out of ten will have the guts to actually try it.
Beenhakker was that tenth coach - and he got what he wanted. Poland's Pawel Janas, however, substituted an offensive midfielder for a defensive midfielder (and a trained centre-back to boot) within two minutes of the sending-off. The result was that the Poles spent the rest of the game in or near their own penalty box - and got what they deserved.
Which could be another reason why the winning goal triggered the crowd's Big Bang-styled celebration that could have led you to believe Germany had just won the World Cup.
And while we're on the topic of winning the World Cup, I still don't think we will make the semis. But I'm much less certain of it than I was a week ago.
Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.