The party's over
If you came to this webpage to find deep and meaningful reflections on Germany's performance against the Republic of Ireland, you may want to click the 'Back' button now. That's because I didn't see the game, neither at the ground nor on television, and I don't belong to the unfortunately sizeable number of journalists who won't let such a trifle get in the way of a match analysis.
The reason I missed Joachim Löw's first competitive game as the new national coach is that I spent the bigger part of Saturday evening in my car, being taught a lesson in patience. But at least I was able to tune in to SWR, the Swabian radio station covering the 90 minutes in Stuttgart. During the half-time break, there was a report from the Palace Square, where people had come together to watch the match on a giant screen.
Such public viewings were, as you will recall, the big story of the World Cup, lauded for peacefully combining football enthusiasm with a party atmosphere. Some two months ago, close to 70,000 people had filled the Palace Square to watch Germany play Portugal. This time around, Stuttgart's mayor Dr Susanne Eisenmann said she was expecting about 25,000 to show up for the Republic of Ireland game. In the end, the number came to 40,000. In other words, the figure was somewhere between the World Cup and what you'd reckon with for a back-to-normal match like a Euro qualifier.
Which is fitting - as it seems we're caught in a bit of limbo, unsure whether we should look back with a happy smile and try to ride the wave of euphoria for as long as possible or look ahead and stop using a once-in-a-lifetime event as the yardstick for things to come.
'We have to get off this cloud some are still floating on,' Michael Ballack said last week. 'Now it's back to hard work. The World Cup success is no use to us anymore.' Joachim Löw, on the other hand, remarked after Saturday's game that 'the team has created a high degree of identification [among the fans] during the World Cup, and we have to make use of this euphoria'.
The same neither-fish-nor-fowl, is-the-World-Cup-over-or-not attitude permeates the media coverage. '40,000 on the Palace Square - Saturday evening once more emanated World Cup atmosphere,' said a Chemnitz newspaper. And Die Welt chimed in: 'Eight weeks after the glittering farewell party, the World Cup atmosphere returned to Stuttgart.'
Yet the report from the Palace Square I listened to on my car stereo painted a far more sober picture. There were interviews with three fans, and they all said that, well, yeah, you know ... the atmosphere was, um, good - but not at all what it had been during the World Cup. They sounded disappointed - not in the match they were watching but by the lack of a party spirit. Most of the World Cup games had been less than thrilling as well, they implied, and still people went nuts. Not quite so this time around.
On Monday morning, my local paper supported this impression. They had dispatched a writer to watch the game in an Irish pub called Limerick's, obviously hoping for colourful tales of hard-drinking Irish fans bonding with German supporters in football's version of the Love Parade. But the place turned out to be less than crowded and the atmosphere rather subdued. 'It's the way it used to be before the World Cup,' the pub's owner told the paper, while a German fan grumbled that 'nobody stood up for the national anthem'.
But there's nothing to complain about. Even in the countries where people are more passionate about their national team than we used to be until this summer, not every single game results in mass hysteria, communal flag-waving and half-naked men jumping into fountains to hug complete strangers. Actually, precious few games trigger such behaviour - and that's the way it should be. Football is only very rarely about having a party and it's precisely the scarcity of those occasions that make them special. As anybody who does not follow Bayern, Barcelona or Manchester United knows all too well, football is usually about grinning and bearing it.
Take Germany's next match, on Wednesday. The ground may be called "Stadio Olimpico", but we're talking about a place here that barely holds 5,000. And about an opponent who has won only one game - ever. It really doesn't take a crystal ball to predict that Löw's team will disappoint under these circumstances, given that anything shy of seven or eight goals will be considered a letdown by the public. That despite the fact San Marino have only once conceded more than six goals at home in the past decade. (Not to mention that the Belgians still shudder at the thought of their narrow 2-1 win last year.) Playing such a side is almost guaranteed to get people who are floating on a cloud back to earth in a hurry, so Ballack should get his wish fulfilled.
Finally, a more business-like, restrained approach, from all involved, will also be needed to get through this qualifying campaign. Amidst the euphoria and World Cup hullabaloo, most people took mighty little notice of the fact Germany have been drawn into a very tricky group. By all accounts, Saturday's match has shown that the return game in Ireland could be a challenge. Also, we traditionally have problems playing Wales - especially in Cardiff, where Germany have only won once in six attempts. Then there's Slovakia, considered a dark horse by more than a few experts. And the Czechs will be no pushovers either, despite being on the decline.
That is not to say Germany have anything to fear. But it will certainly help if people stop expecting a party anytime the national team lines up. Let's just say the World Cup is over, okay?
Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.