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Jul 7, 2006

Getting the finals fatigue

I guess I'm almost glad the World Cup will be over soon. It's become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to report or comment on things in anything resembling a coherent fashion. Not that this has ever been a strength of mine, but the way things have been going the last ten days or so is approaching madness even by my standards.

If you can take some more name dropping, few things illustrate this better than the strange encounter I had last Monday. At around noon, somebody from Yahoo! called me at the office, saying they were doing some kind of weblog and would I be available for an interview. It's not that I'm a celeb, you understand. These guys had simply run out of ideas about what to cover and who to talk to. Whenever that's the case, columnists and reporters begin to interview each other. It's the surest sign desperation is just around the corner.

Anyway, I gave them directions to my place and told them I'd be there by around 6.30pm. But I was late and arrived at around the same time they did. So there was a very brief introduction - "Hi, I'm Ken!" and "Hi, I'm Lee!" - and then I hastily gobbled down my dinner with them looking at nothing in particular. That may have been rude of me, but I was hungry. And I didn't know then what I know now.

Some ten minutes later Ken got the tape rolling and Lee asked me some questions, which gave me a chance to blather away. That's another thing I have learned in the past months: if there's a mic or a camera or a combination of the two, just talk and don't worry about what you're saying. Remember that people have to fill hours of airtime, rain forests worth of newspapers, gigabytes of webspace during the World Cup - and give the people enough material. Volume counts, not content. (That rule also applies to the written word, as you are witnessing right here, right now.)

Later, while we were waiting for a taxi to pick up Ken and Lee, I asked about their weblog, whereupon Ken gave me a postcard. I had a brief look at it, mumbled something about how popular weblogs have become, then the cab arrived and my guests left. It was only five minutes later that I suddenly got the feeling I had missed a bell ringing. I took another look at the postcard. It advertised "Lee Sharpe's World Cup Weblog".

Well, not that I would have asked him for an autograph or whatever, but it seems pretty bizarre that we now have a sizeable collection of photos depicting World Cup guests - from Brett, Sujay, Mark and Ann to Uri, Shaul, Ger and Ger's gang -, but none of a former England international sitting on our patio, only because we were too drained to pay proper attention.

And that was Monday. Tuesday was even worse.

The whole day, including the game, went by in a blur and had a surreal feeling to it, due in part to the heat that fried your brain and the humidity that made your shirt soaking wet. I remember standing at an open-air bar and drinking a beer. When I turned my head, there was Bert van Marwijk, the Dortmund coach, standing next to me. I briefly considered asking him for his opinion on Lee Sharpe, then I decided to switch from beer to water before I was unable to really follow the semi-final.

As it turned out, I might as well have carried on drinking. That's because most of what I remember from the game, and the impressions I won while it lasted, seems to be ungrounded in reality.

In the days that followed I received quite a few e-mails from people who enthused it was a great, even fantastic match. I have seen postings on message boards saying it was the best game of the World Cup, and I can send you a link to a thread containing the claim Germany haven't played that well in two decades.

The match I have seen was at best okay-ish during the regular 90 minutes, very entertaining during extra time and won by the much better side. The last bit seems to be halfway accurate, because everyone I spoke to afterwards agreed that Italy deserved to win, even the German fans with tears in their eyes. They didn't say that Italy were 'much better', though, only a tiny bit.

Hmm. I felt Italy had the better man in almost every position. I also felt they had the fitter man, which probably furthered Lippi's decision that he could live very well without a penalty shoot-out. Because once he started piling up the pressure, the tired German legs could no longer close the gaps and the tired German minds started losing concentration. Which also reinforced my impression that the same thing would have happened in the quarter final - if Argentina's coach Pekerman had been able to bring on new personnel during extra time.

But, like I said, I guess I'm wrong. Maybe you can indeed see some things much better on television. Maybe it's been just too much football, too many matches, too many names for me during the past weeks. Or maybe it was just one of those games that are too tense for you to bear.

For instance, I also felt that the atmosphere was a far cry from the previous Germany games, simply because - as is often the case during really big matches - the crowd becomes as focused as the players. Yet when I caught a rerun of the match yesterday night on TV, the noise level sounded impressive.

Also, me viewing things in an obviously distorted way didn't end with the game. I stumbled to the central station at about 1.30am and was quite shocked to see thousands, yes: thousands, of people either sitting or even lying on roads that had by no means been closed for traffic or being shepherded through the entrances to the station by frontier guards using truncheons and yelling unfriendly commands in hoarse voices. My train was hoplessly overcrowded, late and devoid of oxygen. By the time I got home I was glad there were only five days left to go. How stupid of me.

Of course the frontier guards had been as tired and as drenched in sweat as me, probably more so. And they had done the best they could to deal with the problem of how to get 200,000 people from out of town back home in just a few hours' time. And of course this stunningly huge mass of travelling fans and World Cup visitors, bolstered by almost as many locals, had also been tired and sweaty, not to mention disappointed and in many cases drunk. And yet there was no trouble to speak of.

In other words: instead of moaning and bitching, I should have stopped for a second, taken the time to think things through - and then decided that, by and large, it had all been a wonderful, unexpected achievement the country can be proud of. Which is as good a line as any to end the World Cup on.


  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.