Stuttgart: Nicer than Berlin
For those of us fortunate enough to be present for Tuesday night's sensational World Cup semi-final between Italy and Germany, the sights and sounds of what was a remarkable occasion will live long in the memory.
With that in mind, fans of the Nationalmannschaft could not see the crash coming and when the 2-0 defeat was confirmed, it sparked rivers of tears and images of faces etched in sheer disbelief. However, to their immense credit, most German supporters took the loss with dignity, cheering each and everyone of their players as they left the field and belting out a word-perfect rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. They don't call the Dortmund stadium Germany's answer to Anfield for nothing.
On leaving the ground, the vanquished fans did their best to keep their spirits up. A group placed a German flag on the ground and knelt down to perform a 'we are not worthy' act of mock worship.
Some sang: 'Stuttgart's nicer than Berlin' (Stuttgart is the venue for the third and fourth place play-off), while others attempted to look on the bright side: 'We went further than Brazil, England and Holland,' screamed one resolutely upbeat fan.
It mattered little that Germany created few chances against Italy, with those they did carve out wasted by Bernd Schneider and Lukas Podolski, as this was a time for pride and not regrets. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his merry men had won the hearts of the nation with their always positive high-tempo attacking football.
'We have regained respect in the football world,' opined German 1990 World Cup winner Olaf Thon. 'At the last European Championships we flopped. Now we're back and happy that the wheel has turned. Italy were a touch more technical than us but we were always in with a shout. It was a tight game, one which boiled down to Italy taking their chances while we didn't.'
'We gave it all we could both in the competition as a whole and against Italy,' said former German keeper Toni Schumacher. 'It's disappointing to lose a semi but we will come out of this stronger. It's a young side and can only improve.'
A few months ago, public opinion was sharply divided on Klinsmann's ability as a top level coach, yet he has a new army of admirers. Now everyone is waiting with baited breath to see if he will stay on beyond this summer.
'I think what people like about Klinsmann is his willingness to look at the deep-seated problems of the German game: the slow pace of play in the Bundesliga, player fitness and youth development,' says journalist Dieter Matz of the Hamburger Abendblatt.
'Klinsmann has attacked these things head on. Not one of his predecessors, Vogts, Ribbeck or Voller dared touch them.'
Amazing Italy. Their domestic game is rocked to its very core by a wide-spread match-fixing scandal and still the Azzurri manage to deliver the goods, reaching their sixth World Cup Final in their history.
'These are not good times for our game but the boys in the national team are certainly doing their bit to restore our image,' declared ex-Italy striker Gigi Riva, now the deputy head of the Italian delegation.
'I knew the players would not be distracted by all the negative headlines about their clubs and their uncertain futures. They are ultimate professionals. They are only concerned with this World Cup and going as far as they can. They have been outstanding.'
|“||We have the most united squad for many years. Lippi has succeeded in making them all feel important. ”|
|— Paolo Rossi|
Paolo Rossi, the man whose goals propelled Italy to World Cup glory in 1982, singles out coach Marcello Lippi for special praise.
'Tactically Lippi was rewarded for his adventurous approach against the Italians. Late in the game all his substitutions were attacking ones and that eventually swung it. Lippi is like Bearzot in 1982. He is very protective of his players, soaking up the press criticism and keeping the pressure off the team. We have the most united squad for many years. Lippi has succeeded in making them all feel important.'
Claudio Gentile, the former Azzurri defender turned boss of the Italian Under 21s, also stresses the 'all for one, one for all' mentality of his compatriots: 'The players have definitely come together because of the problems of their clubs,' he told me. 'We're made like that. We like to strive against adversity. That's how we function. Using every means you can to pick yourself up when you are on the floor.
'I have a lot of time for France. They will be really tough opponents in the Final. They have a lot in common with the Italian team which won the World Cup in 1982. They started badly, almost didn't qualify for the knock-out stages, but then began to play superbly. They've also rediscovered Zidane who we all though was finished. It should be a great Final. It's sad to see Brazil and Argentina out, yet it proves European football is the best.'
Legendary French playmaker Michel Platini, who spent five glorious years in Serie A with Juventus from 1982 to 1987, now has his dream final: Les Bleus, for whom he starred and coached versus the land where he emerged as a true world star. 'It's going to be an intriguing match-up. Both teams have got stronger as the tournament has gone on. Their timing has been spot on.
'I'll always have great respect for the Italians as competitors. Their intensity and attention to tactical detail is remarkable. I'm sure they will look to the Final of Euro 2000 for extra motivation. France turned that game upside down with a late equaliser and Golden Goal winner in extra time, so the Italians will remember that.
'Of course France can win. Zidane can be the difference. It's no coincidence he's playing so well now that he's announced his retirement. He is no longer carrying the expectations on his shoulders and right now, the world is at his feet.'
'The Italians have always had this culture where winning is everything. This French side is the same. It's going to be close, but I think France just have the edge.'
As this thrilling tournament draws towards a close, it seems an appropriate moment to hand out a few plaudits and, by and large, the 25,000 volunteers working in the World Cup stadia and media centres deserve nothing but praise. Multilingual, helpful and charming, they have for the most part been wonderful ambassadors for their country.
But there's always one or two exceptions to the rule. Like the young girl who took it upon herself at the Munich semi-final to make sure no one in the press box had a bottle of water on their desk, insisting that its contents were poured into a plastic glass.
Heaven forbid what this member of the 'Evian Police' thought we were going to do with the bottles. Throw them at Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps?
Equally officious was the steward who insisted on taking off the tops of a colleagues' pens during an over-zealous bag search. What was he looking for? Too many James Bond films, methinks.
Finally, perhaps relegated West Brom should consider giving a trial to celebrity fan, the BBC presenter Adrian Chiles.
Late in the France-Portugal game, he headed the ball back onto the park after Portuguese keeper Ricardo miscued a clearance into the stands. The Baggies could have done with some of that aerial ability last season!