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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 12 hours ago
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May 27, 2008

Kahn's legacy: More than catcalls and bananas

When I published my first book, I still thought there were certain conventions you had to follow. Like dedicating it to someone and then having a meaningful quotation precede the main text. For the latter, I searched around quite a bit to find something that would befit a book on football history and yet be as far removed as possible from the all-too-familiar quotes by players or coaches.

Eventually I decided to use a line from Algernon Charles Swinburne, a Victorian-era poet (which, of course, also made me look quite erudite!) Swinburne was pretty famous in his day, but has now been largely forgotten. Which lends a certain poignancy to the quote I chose, from 1865's tragedy 'Atalanta in Calydon': And time remembered is grief forgotten.

'Atalanta in Calydon' is about Meleager, a figure from Greek mythology. According to 'Wikisource', the Fates prophesied three things upon Meleager's birth, 'namely these; that he should have great strength of his hands, and good fortune in this life, and that he should live no longer when the brand then in the fire were consumed.'

Perhaps you'll now understand why I had to think of 'Time remembered is grief forgotten' when the season began to evolve into a months-long Oliver Kahn farewell tour that slowly but certainly overshadowed everything else.

After all, they have taken to calling him the 'Titan' in Germany, which is also a term from Greek mythology. And whenever I saw Kahn these past months, waving at crowds, smiling at countless interviewers, gracefully accepting bouquet after bouquet of flowers - and, of course, crying tears of joy with the match still in progress after Luca Toni's dramatic equaliser in Getafe, I said to myself: Time is catcalls and bananas forgotten.

Kahn's retirement resembled the last go-round of Lothar Matthäus in that an often controversial figure had miraculously managed to reinvent himself as an elder statesmen who is already being fondly remembered for precisely those things that used to make him a target. Namely his almost frightening single-mindedness, an ambition so deeply ingrained that not even seemingly endless strings of successes could ever satisfy it and his inability to relax.

When he was an active player, it was easy to admire Oliver Kahn, but it was very hard to love him. I mean, football fans want the players to take their job seriously, to work hard and loathe loafing. But most fans are also aware that there is a reason why these people are called 'players'. There has to be an element of playfulness, of simple enjoyment, to make you really embrace them.

But for Oliver Kahn, football was never a game and, as he has said on numerous occasions, he never really enjoyed himself on a football pitch. He even complained about pressure the day before his last-ever game at the Munich arena, with the Bundesliga title already in the bag. There was pressure, he said, because Bayern could still break the record for the least amount of goals conceded in a season (which they eventually did.)

When Kahn was a kid, he was fascinated by Scrooge McDuck and dreamed of bathing in coins, like his cartoon idol. However, it would be short-sighted to conclude Kahn felt drawn towards Uncle Scrooge because of his riches. It's rather that this, er, duck had the most amazing, or scary, one-track mind of all the countless Disney characters. Admittedly, it takes a very special kid to prefer Scrooge's sometimes ruthless determination to Donald's happy-go-lucky attitude or Mickey's exuberance. But not even his detractors claimed Kahn was ever an ordinary person.

His obsession with being not just the best but the perfect best always made some people feel uneasy. There is the perhaps apocryphal but telling story that Alexander Famulla, Karlsruhe's number one when Kahn was coming through the ranks, refused to share a room with his ambitious understudy - because he was afraid a pillow might be put over his face while he was asleep at night.

Yet it was only when he moved to the biggest, and most-hated, club in the country that Kahn and his doggedness became a target for opposing fans. In April of 1996, during a game at Stuttgart, Kahn came racing out of his goal, grabbed his Bayern team-mate Andreas Herzog by the shoulder and jolted him about because he had failed to track back. That moment was then replayed on television numerous times, particularly in Harald Schmidt's then-infamous late-night show.

Schmidt quipped that Kahn was always in danger of tripping over his own hands, and this 'apeman' joke led to the bananas that would rain down on Kahn at grounds other than Munich for the next ten years. And to the monkey noises that used to confuse foreigners attending Bayern away games in the Bundesliga.

The catcalls never let up because Kahn didn't. Three years later, in 1999, he grabbed Dortmund's Andreas Möller by the ear, delivered a kung-fu styled kick aimed at Stephane Chapuisat and then pretended to bite Heiko Herrlich in the neck - all in one game. In retrospect, this season - which ended with the most traumatic loss of his career, the Champions League final against United - may have brought about a change. 'I realised I had been a machine,' he later said. 'A motor always running in red-alert ravs. I felt burnt-out. I had paid a price for my obsessiveness. I began to understand that there are other things in life than just breathlessly chasing your aims.'

Paradoxically, it was precisely those 'other things' which proved his downfall in the public-sympathy department during the latter stages of his career. Because for a few months it did indeed appear as if he had metamorphosed from 'Mad Kahn' into 'Our Oli'. That was, of course, after his heroics at the 2002 World Cup, when Kahn was seen not just as the giant he had always been but suddenly also as a national icon.

But in the following year, he suddenly made the kinds of headlines you have come to expect from high-profile football players but which had seemed incompatible with the ultra-committed model pro Kahn. He left his pregnant wife for a young girl he'd met in a posh disco and the very people who used to complain he didn't seem human, now vilified him for finding details of his private life (which had been off-limits for a decade) all over the tabloids.

But all this grief is forgotten now. Kahn had 'great strength of his hands, and good fortune in this life', no one ever denied that, but as he was touring the country for the last time, a few people wondered how he would live once 'the brand in the fire were consumed'. What would he now do with a life that until recently had been dominated by football more thoroughly than the lives of probably any other players we have ever seen? And, come to think of it, what would we do?

Well, remember, probably. And time remembered is grief forgotten, so I won't recall the catcalls and the bananas, the kung-fu kicks and vampire bites. Instead I recall a Wednesday night in 2000. My choice might surprise you, because it's the April day Kahn was hit by a golfball thrown from the stands in Freiburg. Kahn's face streaming with blood - isn't that the grief we tried to forget? Perhaps, but I don't mean that. I mean what happened after the game.

Bayern's Mehmet Scholl, the anti-Kahn in most every respect, was asked to comment on the incident. Without missing a beat, he said: 'That's some goalkeeper, right? They can't even get a golfball past him!' Yes, that was some goalkeeper.

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