Category Archives: Germany

The ends and the means

On the first day of this year’s Tour de France, cycling pundits expected Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish to win. For the first time in seven years the opening stages were to be held in England, and the first stage would loop through Yorkshire from Leeds to the finishing line in Harrogate. The latter town was where Cavendish’s mother was from, said excited ITV commentators, then, as the pack of riders jostled for position in the last few kilometres, the same commentators feverishly imagined him receiving the yellow jersey from William and Kate having won the stage. Boxed in, Cavendish attempted to elbow himself some room for the final sprint and fell to the tarmac, injuring himself and ending his participation in the competition.

While Cavendish has in the past shown himself more than capable of crashing in the last few metres without any larger narrative affecting his judgement, I couldn’t help feeling that the ‘Cavendish must win’ bandwagon had contributed to the rider’s fate.

A few days later, last year’s Tour winner, Chris Froome – who had been selected as Australian media mogul-owned Brit-pride provocateurs Team Sky’s lead rider at the expense of banter-friendly winner of the 2012 Tour Bradley Wiggins – crashed for the third time in two days and abandoned the race. Sky, by now experts in establishing bulletproof narratives at the drop of a rider, assured gathered journalists that things were fine.

The night before Froome dropped out, Brazil, who many believed favourites for the World Cup despite their relentlessly poor performances, were beaten 7-1 by Germany in the semi-finals. The cutaways to crying women and children in the crowd were a real-time record of the human effects of the collapse of an implausible narrative – and brought to mind those true-life success story connoisseurs who sued Captain America-emulating dope monster Lance Armstrong for lying in his autobiography.

Why do people tie themselves in knots about narrative in sport? Sometimes I think about what sport might be like without these overarching stories of achievement and struggle. Perhaps they’re a necessary part of making professional sport – which often consists of well-matched, well-paid precision engineered athletes enthusiastically swapping shirts at half-time – more exciting. Occasionally football spills into pantomime – with your Ronaldos and your van Bommels – but generally the dullness requires a lick of paint.

Arguably the joys of this World Cup have come from the unexpected successes: the well-drilled Costa Rica, the flair of Columbia, the excellence of Algeria – even the advancement of the usually crackpot France and Holland teams. The lack of expectation surrounding all of these teams has, arguably, allowed them the freedom to flourish.

It seems typical of this World Cup that the final will be contested by Germany and Argentina, two teams whose generally unremarkable performances in the group and knockout stages – although big winners against Brazil and ten-man Portugal, Germany were heavily criticised for their cautious performances in other games – left English commentators grasping for motivation, before settling on this one: Argentina haven’t won the World Cup since ’86 while Germany haven’t since ’90. This time the big story is there is no story.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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The Tears of Brazil

If this is the greatest World Cup, it is, for a certain type of fan at least, also the cruellest.

Football is awash with sentiment, yet it simultaneously admires those who can discard it. In fact there are a collection of sayings, phrases and unspoken rules that refer to and govern football’s supposed disdain for it. Commentators will praise a team selection for an important game because the manager has left out the half-fit fan’s favourite: “It’s no time for sentiment,” they say. But while the increasing professionalism and athleticism of football means that matches are no longer just sporting contests and occasions for local pride but also events upon which millions and millions of cold hard cash rests, football also repeatedly, pleadingly, imploringly calls out for sentiment. If Roy of the Rovers was a childhood comic full of wish fulfilment and fantasy, those dreams are not lost with age. We still want our hometown boy to lead our team to the championship – witness the commendations flying Steven Gerrard’s way for staying at Liverpool all these years, and the nationwide push for the club at the end of last season, the #winitforstevie hashtag. We still want the underdog to win, and we want the ‘right’ narrative to triumph. There are those set in advance that we want subverted by a Costa Rica, a Colombia, a Chile, a Nigeria, a Mexico, an Algeria; and there are those whose establishment before the tournament only seems to give them extra persuasiveness – Brazil should win on home soil (more on this topic later).

Seeing James Rodriguez’s tears the other night against Brazil, I was prompted to think about the role of sentiment in football. I relied quite a lot on Twitter for that game, as my ITV feed repeatedly crashed, and at the end of the game it was packed with tweets and Vines of Rodriguez crying, and David Luiz first hugging him and then pointing to him and leading a standing ovation for him. The accompanying comments centred on his youthfulness, his openness of emotion, his perceived victimisation by brutish Brazilian midfielders, and the ‘what-if?’ possibility now snuffed out: this boy, this innocent, this wonderful player, ‘should have’ been allowed to go onward in the competition. He somehow deserved it. The professionals in the audience would’ve dryly remarked (as Barney Ronay did, actually, on Twitter) that Rodriguez had only been fouled six times in the match, or that teams tailor their approach to nullify the opposition, or that the pressure is so great on Brazil that it doesn’t matter how they win, just that they do. And they would be right. At least in a sense. They would have looked at the game and accurately reported certain things about it. What they would have neglected though, was the emotional and narrative element of our experience of the game. Outside of Brazil, support seemed pretty unanimously behind Colombia, and this wasn’t just because they were the underdog but because they had arrived at the quarterfinals playing wonderful, exquisite football. A narrative thus built up, one very much reliant on sentiment, on a feeling for the game in which fantasy is real, is possible. In a recent review of Eduardo Sacheri’s novel Papers in the Wind, Tim Benjamin recalled an interview in which “Sacheri related that, ‘Football is one of the few places where the poor can win — or at least that’s our illusion.’ Spectacle, prayer, illusion, faith: these are all synonyms.” While they might not be synonyms exactly, they are certainly interwoven; in football, it is hard to have one without the others. I think we can add sentiment to that list.

That Brazil v Colombia game looks slightly different now, in light of the hosts’ semi-final against Germany. Sentiment, though, is ever-present. Around the Brazil v Germany game also swirled stereotypes, ones we are familiar with to do with Brazil’s history of “flair” and Germany’s of “efficiency.” How far those narratives are or were ‘true’ is not really the point. What is is that they have been operative in various forms. It’s fairly clear to everyone now that they are no longer so. Brazil played awfully against Colombia and were viewed as playing a cynical game, physically targeting Rodriguez. Germany played wonderfully against Brazil and were somewhere between nasty and sublime. The game itself, viewed as a whole, provided the perfect example of football’s conflicted attitude to sentiment. Midway through the first half, television pictures showed us images of Brazilians crying (a young boy followed by a woman; that should be a topic of discussion on its own) at the sight of their team being destroyed. It’s no good saying, like those who don’t like or understand football, that they’re crying over nothing; no-one cries over nothing. While they were crying because their narrative had been upset, they were also crying because that is the only possible response to a spectacle of humiliation and defeat, which is what the game was. In so excessively showing us one group beating another – with all the connotations of violence that word comes with – the game displayed the complete disregard for human frailty that comes inbuilt to competition of this kind. Sentiment forgives human failure. The German team’s performance effected a total destruction of sentiment, of the possibility for sentiment, which football requires as much as the verve and skill they showed. When sentiment is destroyed, we are left with awe and admiration. We shouldn’t have been surprised, though. If the group stages were bacchanals of sentiment, the knock-out rounds have given us cool displays of professionalism. But you can’t view them separately. We love this game, and the power of that love means that the stakes become higher and higher, and because the stakes are so high professionalism is prized because it gets results, and because professionalism is prized, emotions become suspicious because they are unpredictable and risky. But they always rise to the surface: the Guardian‘s front page after Brazil’s defeat featured a picture of David Luiz, eyes red with tears. David Luiz, who spent the aftermath of Brazil’s victory over Colombia comforting a crying James Rodriguez.

Posted by Mark West

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Germany vs Algeria: the return of the counterfactual

I can’t have been the only one for whom last night’s game between Germany and Algeria ran alongside another, virtual game composed entirely of counterfactuals. Prior to the tournament, fellow SOtB-er Seb Crankshaw wrote articulately on that ‘what if where on one side exists desolation, the other delirium – the flip of a cosmic coin’ [my italics], and of how ‘football deals them out like crystal meth, and here we are, addicted.’ Germany’s narrow victory was full of such split-second cosmic ordinances, each made all the more tantalising – up until the second minute of extra time – by the increasingly unlikely nil-nil scoreline. You knew what was going to happen, even when it repeatedly failed to materialise – Germany would score and Algeria would capitulate – but the alternative, more fantastical scenario of a quarter-final showdown between coloniser and colonisee turned every surging Algeria counter-attack, every Manuel Neuer header (credit to les fennecs for forcing this German side to invent a wholly new position, which BBC have christened the sweeper keeper) into a gateway to the virtual. Over the course of the evening, somewhere in my consciousness of the game, Algeria scored many winning goals, each one more of a release than the last.

By the same token, André Schürrle’s improvised opening goal had been pre-played again and again over the course of the 90 minutes that had preceded it. Every fingertip save from Raïs M’Bolhi (one genuinely delightful by-product of the poor defenses that have characterised this tournament is the endless heroic goalkeeping displays) was somehow a counterfactual itself, and Thomas Müller’s trip during a training ground-style free-kick routine somewhere towards the end of normal time was a particularly perverse one. For an hour and half we found ourselves in a true phantasmagoria, as wave after wave of fantasy denied us access to the reality principle. Even having seen, for example, Wigan beat Manchester City with a last-minute header in 2013’s FA Cup final, the sum total of football matches viewed in a lifetime add up to a basis for induction as unshakeable as our belief in gravity. We knew what type of match this was going to be, we even knew that Germany would need until late in the game to impose their inescapable dominance, leaving plenty of time for Algerian hope spots.

Sure enough, about 30 seconds after making a start on this article, Schürrle scores. We leave the cinema and step out into the street. But then there’s the ending, that brace of late goals that turns the type of match that this is on its head: Algeria have put the ball in Neuer’s net, and fantasy is briefly restored, but it’s not enough to save the counterfactual, as if Manchester United had been three-nil down come injury time that night in Barcelona. Fantasy rages, rages against the dying of the light.

Posted by Luke Healey

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Germany and the Semantics of Position

Watching Germany v Portugal last Monday raised some interesting questions about our perceptions of positioning in football. This is not meant strictly in a tactical sense but more in the way we classify players. FIFA states that a final squad of 23 must be submitted for the tournament, with the only stipulation that it must include three goalkeepers. Beyond that, players are listed as “defenders, midfielders and attackers”. However, do we define this by their shirt numbers, their previous performances, the formation they are placed in or by the space in which they operate on the pitch?

Germany offered several good opportunities to explore these questions. Philip Lahm has been the tactical writers’ dream this year, a player who had made a career as a full-back capable of playing on the left or right before his redevelopment as a midfielder last season under Pep Guardiola. Such is Lahm’s versatility, we could label him a defender and a midfielder. He has become so competent in his new holding role that it no longer seems fair to describe as a full-back playing out of position. Thus, through time and a process of reinvention, Lahm has become Bayern Munich and Germany’s Renaissance man, whose sheer ability and intelligence have allowed him to retain his utility at the highest level. Lahm represents Leon Battista Alberti’s humanist maxim that “a man can do all things if he will.”

In the defence itself, Joachim Löw’s decision to field four centre-backs raised eyebrows. This is where the debate between past experience and future deployment comes into play. Here, Benedikt Höwedes and Jerome Boateng, who normally play as centre-backs, were placed on the left and right respectively. It seemed an odd line-up but as the game developed, Boateng showed great resilience in keeping Cristiano Ronaldo under wraps. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as he has experience playing as a right back, but the extent which it does demonstrates the significance that is easily placed on primary positions.

Boateng has been typecast to a certain extent as more of a central defender and because we associate a particular set of attributes to that position (namely height, heading, strength etc.), it seems unusual that he should be able to deputise so well in another one. Löw would disagree though, as when Mats Hummels came off injured he brought another ‘centre back’ on in Shkodran Mustafi who filled in at right back, with Boateng moving into the centre.

Even Manuel Neuer stretches our perceptions of what a goalkeeper is. He is a great example of a ‘sweeper keeper’, often seen playing well up the pitch, and is a thoroughly modern footballer. Not only is he an expert shot-stopper, his distribution allows Germany quick and calculated build-up from the back. As mentioned above, the only stipulation within World Cup squad is that three goalkeepers are named. Here we have a slight complication. Neuer is different from the rest of his XI because as a goalkeeper he is allowed to use his hands; yet simultaneously he is a key part of Germany’s outfield play, the foundation from where many attacks begin.

In 2010, North Korea famously tried to manipulate the rules by naming an extra striker as a goalkeeper. The gamble backfired with FIFA ruling that he would only be allowed to feature in goal and not outfield. These rules seem a little draconian. Rarely is the third goalkeeper called upon and it would perhaps be fairer to consider the position as simply the man wearing the gloves rather than a fixed role. There are plenty of instances of outfield players going in goal, with some (like Glenn Hoddle) doing it on multiple occasions. Additionally, lest we forget, David James was thrown on as a target man under Stuart Pearce for Manchester City in 2005, while the likes of René Higuita and José Luis Chilavert were set-piece specialists who scored at international level. The boundaries between goalkeepers and outfield players needn’t be as concrete as they are often thought of as being.

Back to Germany though, and perhaps the most telling part of this performance was Löw’s use of the ‘false nine’ system. With a three-pronged attack of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze, Germany looked threatening even when Portugal had 11 men, despite the absence of an out-and-out centre forward. As Seb Crankshaw points out in his recent piece on refereeing, football is a game and therefore, “nothing but a simplified system defined by rules”. As long as we adhere to these rules, the rest is up to the coaches and the players to interpret this system as they see fit. Whether Löw is an innovator or simply a pragmatist is open to debate, but his interpretation of the game certainly merits discussion.

What is particularly likeable about this increasingly popular Germany side is the emphasis on the whole over the individual. Indeed, it seems that they have finally transcended the era of the übermensch. At various points during Germany’s recent history, it has felt like the side has been carried by a supreme individual. Matthäus, Klinsmann, Sammer, Ballack and Klose have all assumed this role at some point and it was the ‘super’ qualities of these players that made Germany perennial challengers. Now Germany play like more of a team, emphasised by the egalitarian false nine system that does not place the focus on any one player but rather relies on a co-operative and fluid style to be most effective. This is of course in complete contrast to the Ronaldo-centric model of Portugal.

While Muller was in fact the star against Portugal, he is far less assuming than most cast in that narrative role are. His technique is an especially unique one; his beauty is in his graft, his effectiveness derived from his sheer relentlessness. He is not always pleasing on the eye but after Monday’s hat-trick he already has seven World Cup goals to his name at the age of 24. Last year, the German press dubbed him the Raumdeuter (‘space investigator’), a fantastic description of Muller’s distinctive capabilities. As the player most adept at finding and exploiting space on the pitch, he is the embodiment of this shape-shifting side. Mehmet Scholl commented after the game that he “is not a false 9, he’s a crazy 13”, a fitting tribute to Muller.

Spain’s dramatic exit has left a power vacuum in world football and Germany look like one of the strongest European contenders to fill it.  Built on the nucleus of the exciting 2010 side, these players are maturing together and should be reaching their peak at just the right time. Germany will always be there and thereabouts at International competitions, but Löw’s model of co-operative efficiency makes this World Cup an achievable target.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

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Preview 15 – Germany

There are many images that define the abjectness of the coalition government to which we have been subjected since 2010. The student demonstrations. The burned out shops of the 2011 riots. The egregious fawning over Thatcher. George fucking Osborne simpering, gurning and generally coming over as the worst person on Earth. And yet, for me, no image sums up the grimness, the vapid moral redundancy and the sneering, retrogressive Little-Englandism that characterises this sham of a ruling party quite like the photograph of David Cameron lording it over Angela Merkel during the 2012 Champions League final.

The photo – snapped as Didier Drogba insouciantly rolled in the winning penalty – shows Cameron at his most extravagantly reptilian (a term here used by way of colourful adjective, as opposed to credulity-testing David Icke literality – although with him you can never fully rule it out). Leering puffy-faced with arms outstretched in ostentatious triumph, this was Cameron at his swaggering Bullingdon worst – dripping with the sense of ingrained, unshakeable superiority drummed in from birth. Cameron’s strut was, of course, a transparent attempt to impose dominion over Merkel. Part of an interminable pan-European posturing as risibly empty as his appropriation of any other cultural strand deemed vote-winning, this was the political equivalent of hurling threats towards opposition fans from behind the safety curtain of a line of stewards.

What’s so interesting about this photograph is the manner in which it demonstrates Cameron, as so often, failing to grasp the public mood as he tried to tap into a presumed anti-German sentiment. With the exception of a small enclave in Surrey and the mythical always-support-the-English-team types whom no one apart from commentators has ever met, Bayern were the neutrals’ clear and preferred choice. For all that FC Hollywood remain one of the game’s financial behemoths, their image within the popular consciousness is redolent with the egalitarian ideal of fan ownership and (the increasingly abstract panacea of) cheap tickets. They may be indelibly linked to the corporate giants of Bavaria, but contrasted to all that Chelsea and their obscene ownership model stand for Bayern – like many German clubs – became a de facto shorthand for righteousness.

This failure to capture the shifting mood has not been restricted to our Cameron. Commentators and pundits, those perennial arbiters of ill-sense, seem pathologically obsessed with such an anachronistic stance. According to the Immutable Law of Chiles, fans must persistently refer to them as “The Germans”, the definite article contrived to emphasise apparent otherness. Likewise, Tyldesley and his ilk seem perennially stuck on the edge of spluttering incredulity at the vaguest possibility that the fortunes of a German club side would be favoured over one of the Premier League’s plucky underdogs in European competition. Despite this, the German model – indeed, the Bundesliga at large – has become eulogised to the point of obsession. Discussion about the atmosphere, or lack thereof, at any given match has to contend with the looming Banquo’s ghost of the Südtribüne. The rise of Dortmund and, to a lesser extent, Leverkusen with their unrelenting speed and aggressive physicality have taken characteristics long synonymous with the British game and improved them, creating a confounding cognitive dissonance. An idealised version of ‘our’ self-identified characteristics played out with unattainable style and panache, like a computerised avatar.

The effect has been hypnotic. As with the lionisation of the domestic German game, so too the national side – covertly and with a sense of acute shame in some quarters, one suspects. By the third week of South Africa 2010 Germany had become the subject of an endless circle knee-jerk, roundly feted as the most expansive European team since the Aranycsapat with Mesut Özil as their Sándor Kocsis. So great was the infatuation with Germany barely a Lidl was firebombed in the aftermath of the 4-1 shellacking of England. From that point on, the Nationalmannschaft became a popularly-adopted cause celebre – a refreshing antidote to the relentless tiki taka of Spain, paradoxically painted as a surrogate emblem of ‘our’ no-nonsense, up-and-at-‘em way of doing things in the face of diminutive Iberian cunning. At least until Spain knocked them out, anyway.

It is perhaps in this last regard that a truth about the status of Germany as newfound darling of the neutral can be sighted. As a youngster, the chance of them getting knocked out of anything seemed remote to the point of implausibility. Already a monolithic winning machine throughout the 70s and 80s, the ease with which the side of Matthaus, Klinsmann and Völler cut a swathe through Italia 90 hinted at a domination of the international scene that would be as unrelenting as that team itself. To suggest that they would fail to win any of the subsequent five tournaments would have been unconscionable. Yet here we are, 24 years on and German dominance has proved a mirage. Worse still, the nature of their failure in the intervening tournaments hints at an unwelcome fact that Germany have taken on the mantle from Spain of international football’s Big Game Bottlers.

To ponder the Big Game Bottler is a semantically difficult exercise, with the term implying both over- and under- achievement. For Germany, however, the difficulty is less linguistic than based on straightforward and unsmiling numerical logic. Since that triumph in Rome, the surge through qualification has become routine – a barely fathomable total of one defeat in 25 years the only blemish on an extraordinary record. Likewise, in each of the five tournaments during this period Germany have topped their group with ease – the defeat to Serbia last time out their only loss. The pattern next is nearly as well established. Belief swells within the team and amongst the fans, pundits line up to discuss the re-emergence of a football superpower, and then Germany lose to the first half-decent team they face. Bulgaria, Croatia, Brazil, Italy, Spain have all shattered the burgeoning dream, and whilst there is no shame in losing to any of those sides, the cycle of inflated expectations followed immediately by a swift bursting of the bubble has served to amplify the exits and lend each a defining quality.

Germany, thus, travel to Brazil under a cloud. A squad that reads like a who’s who of European midfield talent – Özil , Müller, Draxler, Kroos, Götze, Reus –the questions that surround them all relate to the diminution of a mental fortitude that was once fabled. Should they fail to see it through once again, expect the improbable infatuation with Germany to continue.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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The Meaning of…Toni Kroos

 

An old colleague of mine once remarked that, although Freudian psychoanalysis is supposed to bind sex and death together, in practice Freudians tend to emphasise either one or the other. In one camp, you’ve got the lusty gatherers of phallic symbols, the rigid Oedipussers; in the other, the thanatotic worriers over transience. I’ve never quite decided whether or not I properly constitute a Freudian, so I’m unsure as to what kind of Freudian I’d be or, if I am one, I am, but I think I tend to find the post-World War I Freud, the doomy, negating Freud of ‘The Uncanny’ and Beyond the Pleasure Principle slightly more engaging.

Toni Kroos plays for Bayern Munich. The city of Munich makes me think of doomy Freud via its dual iterary associations with the glum, bereft bit of modernism. It’s where von Aschenbach feels the onrushing death of desire – what Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones called ‘aphanisis’ – in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; it’s also where those disinherited, displaced aristocrats faff around drinking coffee and fretting about the end of civilisation in Eliot’s Waste Land. This, of course, will be the sketchy justification I use to claim that the German midfielder, who I remain to be convinced by as a player, has of late allowed us to understand something about how tödlich-Freud might interpret a particular aspect of fandom.

Kroos spent the second half of the season just gone being ‘hotly tipped’, as they say, for a move to sporting-colossus-turned-professional-crisis-club Manchester United. He was, and it seems necessary to ontologise the idea through the use of capital letters, The Solution to United’s Midfield Dilemma. Last week, however, we learned that Kroos, who quite a lot of Reds were already tacto-grooming, did not want to join and would most probably remain in Munich to do civilised Central European things in the Hofgarten.

This, of course, is not the first time in recent memory that United fans have built an emotional relationship with a player out of nothing but transfer speculation, the pseudohard news of sport, only for the bride not to turn up for the wedding. Last summer, the protracted (TM) non-signing of Cesc Fabregas seemed to traumatise the club. In fact, in narrative terms and even perhaps in footballing ones, Fabregas was United’s most important ‘player’ in 2013-2014. His not being there intensified into a sort of negative presence, a glob of antimatter whose voidal obnoxiousness dictated how United played, namely appallingly.

Freud argued in his 1917 essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ that the loss of someone or something loved – through their death, the end of a relationship, even the loss of a favourite pen – is responded to in two ways. Mourning involves a negotiation with the reality principle followed by the development of a new attachment – a new ‘cathexis’, in Freud-speak – which might be apprehended in more banal, pop-psychological terms as ‘moving on’. Melancholia, by contrast, is being ‘hung up’. No new cathexis occurs; instead, the lost object undergoes incorporation or ‘introjection’ in the fantasy life of the bereaved, acting as a drain inside the psyche down which libido trickles.

Having believed Fabregas was theirs for so long before the transfer became a non-event, United seemed to fall into a state of abject melancholia. The signing of Marouane Fellaini represented not a new cathexis, but the acquisition of a monumental representation of Fabregas’ loss, a Salfordian Taj Mahal. Now, United seem to be falling into a pattern, a compulsive jiiltedness which starts to look more and more like an elongated failure to properly mourn midfielders past. Perhaps, then, it’s time to roll out what may be the most niche pun in the history of joking and start talking about FCUM – Failed Cathexes United of Manchester.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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Group B: Raconteurs Reconvene

Almost exactly one hundred and ninety-six years ago, a good forty-seven non-seasons before the codification of the Laws of the Game, Percy and Mary Shelley were staying with their friend Lord Byron and physician John Polidori in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year, 1816 was, to all extents and purposes, summerless. With the dismal weather making it impossible to hike or sail, the companions took to sitting around listlessly indoors, occasionally easing their frustration by reading aloud to one another. One night, inspired by excerpts from Tales of the Dead, they decided to hold a competition to see who could write the best horror story over the next few weeks. Reconvening eventually on an appropriately dark and stormy night, Mary dazzled the men with the skeleton of Frankenstein, and Byron told a tale about a vampire which – thanks to an act of gratuitous plagiarism by Polidori – evolved throughout the nineteenth century to become Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And Shelley? Well, according to the version I’ve heard, Shelley started telling a story about a woman who had eyes where her nipples should have been, then ran screaming from the room having frightened himself too much.

You’ve probably guessed from the title that this preamble is a slightly convoluted analogy for Group B. In a tournament arguably overstuffed with the competing football narratives of various nations, the Group of Death perhaps stands out in its surfeit of modern-day sporting mythologies. Germany, as SM pointed out at the weekend, come to Ukraine seeking to convince the world that its new story – of how the ugly winners of old deserve to become the world’s second team – has currency beyond the borders of the Bundesrepublik. Amongst other motivations, Portugal are desperate to demonstrate both that there is life beyond their (slightly staggered) Golden Generation and that Cristiano Ronaldo won’t become yet another of those great players who fail to claim a major international trophy. The Dutch want to correct the image of themselves the World Cup final of 2010 imprinted on the world’s footballing imagination and, as ever, need to add another successful instalment to their long-running saga with Germany. Denmark, as in every competition they’ve reached the finals of since 1992, unsettle opponents with their none-more improbale underdog tale.

After the weekend’s opening games, there’s a real chance that tonight could see eliminations in Group B. With this in mind, I feel I can stretch my metaphor a bit further. Germany are the Mary Shelley of the party. Youngest and with the best long-term prospects, their story is all about an internal antagonism between technocracy and expressiveness, and seeks some form of synthesis to its dialectic of science and nature. This resolution seemed some way off against Portugal, as a much-fancied team laboured to produce the aggressive counter-attack expected of them. In that match, there was something Byronic in the Portuguese performance – a moody railing against history overcast somehow with imtimations of the inevitability of doom. Harold Bloom would have been proud of them but it feels right now as if their story is destined to be heard only by its first audience.

Who, then, are Portugal’s Polidori? Denmark seem the obvious candidate. When the groups were drawn, it seemed as if they’d be the ones sitting in the corner, watching and taking notes as their more talented friends battled to create the perfect Märchen. However, there’s a good chance that the Danes could take those notes and produce something with far more longevity than the Portuguese fragment or the Dutch…well. The Dutch are Shelley, aren’t they? Not for the first time, they bring some spectacular talent to the tournament, but seem to have spooked themselves somewhere along the way. Given the number of chances they made on Saturday against Denmark, their failure to score is scarcely believable, and there’s now enormous psychological pressure on them to perform against their old rivals in Kharkiv tonight. Sadly for Van Persie and co, there appears to be a good chance that they’ll be the ones running out screaming.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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Dispatch from Poznań — A More Panoramic view than Panorama

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There was no sign of any trouble in Poznan on our first night here. Far from it — the town square was packed with Poles, Irish and Croatians mingling and singing long through the night. I was told that riot police moved in on Friday night, nervous at the first sign of mixing of fans but they quickly stepped back. The Poles have been great hosts, entering into the party spirit with gusto and seizing on a great opportunity to showcase their country. Most visiting fans have most likely adopted Poland as their second team and the crucial match against Russia on Tuesday should be a cracker.

The football so far has been excellent, with the hosts and the Greeks giving great battle in the opening match. The Poles will be disappointed they didn’t make more of their first-half possession but it all could have been much worse if Przemyslaw Tyton didn’t save a penalty with his first touch of the ball. The performance of the tournament so far was the Russians, a brilliantly fluid and sophisticated display with Dzagoev and Arshavin in particular excellent. How good they are is hard to gauge, as the Czechs were quite poor but it will cause Dick Advocaat some alarm that the Russians surrendered the initiative for 15 minutes early in the second half to a reshaped Czech formation. Poland and Greece will have taken comfort from that.

The group of death has just got even deathlier. The Netherlands are now in a precarious position having to beat both Germany and Portugal to be sure of going through. They actually played quite well against Denmark although their defensive shortcomings were badly exposed on several occasions, including when Michael Krohn-Delhi cut inside Gregory van der Viel far too easily for the goal. The Dutch will also be aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a penalty at the end for handball but you have to doff your cap to the Danes, who turned in a superb defensive performance. Going forward, they were much less confident and the final ball was often found wanting. Three points on the board is more than anyone expected of them after the first game but getting out of the group will still be a huge task, as four points will quite likely not be enough.

Germany were as we have come to expect — solid in attack, much less so in defence where Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng bailing out Badstuber and Hummels more than once. The winner was courtesy of a splendid Mario Gomez header, the first time he’s ever looked the part in a tournament match. It’s a bad start for the Portuguese but they’ll probably be thankful the second game is against the Danes and not the Dutch, even if Denmark did defeat them 2-1 in qualifying in Copenhagen last October.

Today is Ireland’s big day and the green army are feeling confident. I don’t expect to see a very expansive game even though Slaven Bilić is threatening an attacking approach to get points in the bag first off. It could well be the tournament’s first scoreless draw but I am keeping my fingers crossed for an Irish win by the narrowest of margins. The other match could be the one that gives an insight into Spain’s chances of completing that elusive three tournaments in a row. I don’t think they’ll beat Italy and they may even be on the back foot by eight o’clock local time tonight.

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Football as Drama – Mad Men and Euro 2012

With the great Alan Latchley’s inspirational Dare to Fail philosophy ringing in my ears, I spent part of this week considering the similarities between top-level international football and television dramas. We are constantly being told that we are living through the latter’s golden age, and, if the quality of today’s opening games is anything to go by, the former is also in pretty fine fettle. In order to progress my deliberations, I began to imagine the main contenders for Euro 2012 as characters in one of the shows that illustrates television’s current cultural hegemony, AMC’s Mad Men. The show is feted for many things, including its style, the quality and diversity of its characters, and its general ability to arouse in the viewer an empathy for people they might possibly dislike (or even despise) in real life. In many ways, these are qualities we seek from an international football tournament. To bravely, and stupidly, contradict Latchley, football is nothing unless it is about something, and what it is about is ensemble drama.

Watching Russia last night, I was reminded of Roger Sterling, the WASP-ish co-founder of Sterling Cooper, the company where the bulk of the action in the show takes place. Sterling, like the Russia of recent vintage, is characterised by a sense of swashbuckling adventure that borders on self-destruction. Russia were brilliant last night, but it’s hard to imagine any other Euro 2012 contender continuing to play in such an attacking manner while two goals to the good.  They were lucky that their Czech opponents could not convert potential opportunities into goals, just as Roger is so fortuitous to have been born with such wealth and affable charm. Also, based on the bizarre – and occasionally hilarious – posts on his website, it’s not hard to imagine Andrey Arshavin enjoying an LSD trip with his wife.

For many, the star of Mad Men is Peggy Olson, whose rise through the ranks of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce reflected the changing nature of American society in the early sixties. Her transformation is not unlike that of Joachim Low’s Germany. Despite sustained success at the highest level, (West) Germany were always respected rather than loved. Like Peggy, they initially got by on their organisational skills and sheer determination. In recent times, however (arguably since their successful hosting of the 2006 World Cup), the functional nature of their national team began to give way, as a new generation of technically brilliant young players emerged. Mesut Ozil’s eminent displays at the heart of the German team mirror Peggy’s development into a uniquely imaginative, more rounded contributor to the firm’s creative output. Like Germany, she now thrives on ingenuity as well as mental strength.

Pete Campbell, on the other hand, sees a different route to the top of the advertising world. While he is not lacking in creativity or technique, he prefers to rely on craft, guile and an almost ruthless will to win. In this, he resembles Italy. Euro 2008 is now remembered for the technical brilliance of the ultimate victors, Spain. However, if their semi-final penalty shoot-out had gone differently, we might have found ourselves speaking of champions who seemed almost as content to prevent others having fun as to have it themselves. Five minutes watching Campbell in action, and the similarities are impossible to escape.

Don Draper Wiki.jpg

‘We are playin’ Four, Four, F**kin’ Two!’

And what of Don Draper? One of modern television’s behemoths, the magnitude of his creative genius is often overwhelming. His character overpowers even the most self-assured of his colleagues and opponents. So he’s Spain, obviously. However, Don has a past littered with mistakes and personal disappointments, which often come back to haunt him at the worst possible junctures. Only six years ago, Spain started their World Cup campaign so brightly and brilliantly that a friend from Granada refused to listen to any counsel that did not foresee ultimate victory. Alas, their efforts were sabotaged by flaws that were all too recognisable. Will they continue to dominate the international scene, or will the mistakes of their past come back to haunt them?

There are many other parallels. Dutch football has had more than its fair share of creative yet outspoken individuals who have clashed, often publicly, with their colleagues. Stan Rizzo has a lot of that about him.  Harry Crane must see himself in Ireland’s performances under Trapattoni; uninspired, lacking in imagination or genuine quality, but cute and organised enough to make a little go a long way. The decline of Portugal and Czech Republic, great teams from the past often more likely to embarrass themselves as they are to regain the love of the neutral with their swashbuckling performances, calls to mind the lowest point in Freddy Rumsen’s professional career.

However, beyond the teams and characters, there is another important connection to be made. Mad Men is known for the slick exteriors and  stylish presentation. It is so fashionable that Don Draper’s silhouetted pose during the opening credits has inspired a pop-culture movement. However, the show is not great because of its style. It is great in spite of it. Beneath all the sharp suits, sexy skirts and uber-cool offices and apartments are the real strengths of the show; the great characters, the brilliant dialogue, and the constant surprises. On the surface, football has become so slick, so packaged and so bloated. Its commercialisation is not without its unpleasant aspects. However, no matter how many seats are sacrificed for bigger pitchside hoardings selling us stuff we don’t even really want, the hidden depths will never go away. Ultimately, football will continue to be all about people doing things you never expected them to do.

Posted by Flann MacGowan

End of the Tiki-Taka Weltanschauung: Why it’s Germany’s to Lose

Never, it is said about this time every couple of years, write off the Germans.

Of course, nobody ever does. The unflinching muscularity of the three-times world champions has been burned into the English subconscious with such intensity that any insistence that we can overcome our old bogey team now comes with all the strength of conviction of an Owen Hargreaves promotional video. Indeed, were anybody to dare to Write Off The Germans again, they could be pointed in the direction of the 2010 World Cup, when a squad light on recognised stars were shrugged off as unlikely challengers for the top honours. So when a new generation of young, driven, creative players emerged in the group stages, exhibiting the purposeful, direct style of play for which English supporters yearn, it laid to rest any risk that anyone would Write Off The Germans again.

This year, nobody’s taking the chance. Germany are second favourites, with bookies offering odds as low as 4/1 for them to come out on top, longer only than Spain’s 15/4. There has been an accepted wisdom within European football in recent times that everybody is already playing for second place. Tiki-taka will overcome all challengers, such wisdom insists. Spain’s triumph will not – can not – be contested. In South Africa, that may have been true. No team was truly equipped to match the reigning European champions in midfield, as was excrutiatingly evident in Holland’s cack-handed attempts to stifle the Spaniards with brute force in the final.

The elegant perfectionism of Barcelona-style one-touch football has been exposed this season, though. Barca were found wanting a plan B against the blue wall of Chelsea defenders in Europe, and they were undone by, well, by Jose Mourinho in La Liga. If Spain falter too, this may well be the year that the gentle creep of tiki-taka across the face of football is stopped in its tracks.

When Madrid finally delivered the killer blow, in a horrible week for the Catalonians in April, they did so with Sami Khedira playing just in front of their defence. The 25-year-old is one of a number of younger players who stepped into the limelight in South Africa – securing himself a big money move to Madrid in the process – and who is now older and wiser for two years playing at a higher level. A classy, sitting midfielder of the type all teams should crave, the ex-Stuttgart man is at once ruthless, clean and simple as a defensive player, while simultaneously excellent at starting attacks with his energy, forward momentum and canny passing. Don’t expect him to get on the end of many crosses into the six-yard box, but notice that he’s always there in the corner of your screen, always available, always dropping off into space at the perfect moment to either start the next attack, or stifle the opponent’s.

In their final qualifier, a 3-1 victory over Belgium, Khedira was deployed as the midfield anchor in a 4-1-4-1 formation, allowing an attacking quartet of Thomas Müller, Tony Kroos, Mesut Özil and the lesser known Andre Schürrle to buzz around Mario Gomez. It is a telling display of Germany’s riches going into this tournament that such a formidable line-up – keep an eye on Schürrle to emerge at this tournament, just as Özil did at the last – didn’t include Bastian Schweinsteiger or Mario Götze. Neither did it contain either Miroslav Klose – the second-top World Cup goalscorer of all time, lest we forget – or Arsenal’s new-boy Lukas Podolski. The highlights of that match are worth watching – unless you want to cling on to the hope that England can possibly win Euro 2012.


Just look at Germany’s brutal second goal, scored on the counter-attack at breakneck speed. At 1 minute 39 you’ll notice Eden Hazard taking a corner. Yet at 1.54, just 15 seconds later, Schürrle is wheeling away as his exquisitely executed chip rolls into the net at the other end of the pitch. This video has not been altered in any way, everything you see here is real, no animals were harmed in the making of this film, etc. It’s a phenomenal piece of counter-attacking football. You may need to watch it twice, though, lest you are still reeling after watching Özil’s thunderbolt for the opening strike. Gomez also shows his attacking form to complete the scoring, and demonstrate why he was among the top scorers in Europe this season. Try not to think too hard about England’s own labouring performance against the same team last week.

There is quite a difference between beating Belgium and ousting Spain from the top spot in World football, of course, and even getting the opportunity to try comes at the end of a long road. In Portugal, the Netherlands, and Denmark, Germany could not have asked for many tougher group stage opponents. But if we work on the broad assumption, for now, that both top their groups, Germany and Spain couldn’t then meet until the final. Now let’s imagine that they do just that, coming head-to-head in that climactic game, the two favourites matching expectations and steamrollering through the tournament to set up a rerun of the last final. Not for this year the humbling of 2008, when Spain’s 1-0 win was flattering only for their defeated opponents, as the promise of a generation finally flourished after decades of underachievement. This time, Germany are ready.

The big issue in stopping Spain lies in quelling the flow of the midfield. Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas and Silva need little introduction. Yet they are qualities that, on the whole, Khedira has encountered before. He was on the side that effectively sealed the Spanish league title at the Nou Camp in April, getting on the scoresheet and helping keep a lid on Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi from his usual position in front of the back four. Looking back at the goals Germany have conceded this year, a disproportionate number came from crosses into the box which the defence struggled to clear, rather than by breaking down the defence. Khedira is reinventing the Makalele role with attacking bite. Spain may just need a plan B.

Of course, Spain still have their own fragility to worry about. While Fernando Llorente is attracting admiring glances from a number of clubs after a fine season, the absence through injury of David Villa deprives Spain of their top scorer from qualifying. Fernando Torres’ continuing struggles at Chelsea have led to discontent, a lack of confidence, and even a spell of absence from the national team, and there’s no guarantee that he would even be the man to step into Villa’s shoes. At the other end, the team’s mainstay defender Carlos Puyol is also missing from the squad, leading to speculation that Sergio Ramos could step into an unfamiliar centre half position to fill the gap in defence. Waiting for him in the centre would, most likely, be the erratic Barcelona defender Gerard Pique. With so much emphasis on the full backs to attack, how would Spain cope with the attacking fluidity of Germany’s front five?

It is more incumbent than ever on Spain’s midfield to provide the quality that justifies their top billing, to keep possession to protect the defence, while working their own openings for want of an established international striker. But after the undoing of Barcelona this season, the spell has been broken; the virus has been planted in the mothership – Send out the message: We know how to beat them. So, take it as read that nobody will be Writing Off The Germans this summer. Instead, it’s probably best to get on board with their fluid attacking style now – forget where you are for a moment, and you’ll probably enjoy it. It would be a brave man who bets against them taking home the trophy.

Posted by Thom Kennedy

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