It is hard to believe that the Euros are finally all over. Ten qualifying matches. Months of anticipation and buildup. Then, just over three weeks of football, extracting every last emotion and shredding every last nerve. Especially if you were following the German national team, for which semi-final exits have become something of a fashion. Why I put myself through this on a regular basis, Gerd only knows.
For me, Germany’s Euro 2012 campaign in Poland and the Ukraine would feel a lot like South Africa 2010: not the greatest form going into the tournament, but a gathering sense of momentum and belief as the competition went along – only for the team to inexplicably collapse in a heap when it came to the biggest test. Just as we were all thinking that this could be the time for the Nationalmannschaft’s first major international title since Euro 1996, it all came to a sudden and sorry end.
This sense of momentum was what perhaps deceived us all into thinking that the the tournament was ours for the taking: having gone unbeaten with a perfect group phase record for the first time in a European Championship finals and a more that satisfactory quarter-final display, nobody for one moment expected to see things end with such a whimper one match before the final showcase.
Immediately prior to the tournament there had not been much to speak of. A bizarre 5-3 defeat in Switzerland – albeit with a weak and experimental lineup – would be followed by a workmanlike two-goal victory over an obdurate Israel in Leipzig, putting the pressure on both the team and the coach. Some small pockets of the German press remained pessimistic, but we all looked back to the perfect ten from ten record in qualifying. After all, friendlies had always been for fine-tuning, and nothing else.
There would be no easy pickings in Germany’s group: immediately prior to the tournament the Nationalmannschaft were ranked 3rd, the Netherlands 4th, Denmark 9th and Portugal 10th. It was the first time ever that four teams in the FIFA top ten had been drawn together in any European Championship first phase group; the term is frequently thrown about, but this truly was the Group of Death.
Germany’s opener against Portugal would provide the first test, with the Iberians coming into the competition in arguably poor form following a goalless home draw with Macedonia followed by a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Turkey – a side that had been well beaten home and away by Germany in qualifying. But as always, pre-tournament form would have nothing to do with what happened when the serious stuff began; and so it proved in what was a tight enocounter in the western Ukrainian city of L’viv.
The Portuguese mission was clearly to play for the draw and possibly snatch a point – a plan that had been executed perfectly during the sides’ first Euro finals meeting back in 1984 when they played out a rather tedious goalless draw in the eastern French city of Strasbourg. Although Pepe hit the underside of the German crossbar just before half-time and the Germans occasionally threatened to break the deadlock, it all looked set for the story of 1984 to repeat itself.
Then, just as he was set to be replaced, the much-criticised Mario Gómez finally broke his major tournament duck. With Miroslav Klose ready and waiting on the touchline, the tall FC Bayern München striker was able able to get on the end of a Sami Khedira cross that had taken a small but helpful deflection. Football can be a game of extremely fine margins, and this was one of them: in a flash, Gómez was able to produce a glorious leap and send a firm and well-timed header into the corner of the Portuguese net.
The ghosts of Euro 2008 and that awful miss against Austria had finally been exorcised: in his ninth match in major tournament finals, Gómez had finally scrawled his name on the scoresheet. His celebration was one of relief, a feeling that was matched by the millions of Germany supporters sitting in the stands, on the streets all over Germany, and the sad cases sitting at home typing up minute-by-minute match reports.
Having been shaken out of their defensive stupor, Paulo Bento’s Portuguese side suddenly burst into life, and their assault on the German goal was nothing short of relentless. Chances come and went for A Seleção, and right at the death substitute Silvestre Varela found himself in space in the German penalty area, with the goal at his mercy. I meanwhile found myself staring at the screen, waiting for the inevitable.
Varela surely couldn’t miss, but there he was: Der Titan, Manuel Neuer. The FC Bayern ‘keeper was sepp Meier, Olli Kahn and Andy Köpke all rolled into one as he stood firm and put himself in the way of the shot. Food was on the floor, drink spattered all over the table – but the slender German lead remained intact.
The final whistle blew: we were on our way.
Four days later the team made the journey across the length of the Ukraine, gathering in the remote eastern city of Khar’kiv to take on their old rivals from the Netherlands. With the Oranje having lost their opening encounter against Denmark, the onus was on them to chase the game and ensure their tournament survival; for Germany, a win would put them one short step away from the knockout phase.
The first half started, and almost immediately the Dutch had a chance: mercifully, it fell to the profligate Robin van Persie, who had in the space of a few weeks been transformed from a silk van Persie into a sow’s ear. Another dreadful miss to follow his hatful of fluffed opportunities against the Danes.
Then the men in Schwarz und Weiß visibly stepped up a gear. A touch from Thomas Müller, an incisive through-ball from Bastian Schweinsteiger, and then – wonder of wonders – a glorious first touch and an almost balletic pirouette from Gómez, who in one swift move turned through one-hundred and eighty degrees and swept the ball past Maarten van Stekelenburg and into the back of the Dutch net.
For all of us who had been pained by the striker’s poor control during most of the Bundesliga season and the painful latter stages of the Champions’ League – yes, I am an FC Bayern supporter – it was nothing short a revelation. It appeared that Gómez actually had a decent first touch after all, and had been hiding it from us for all this time.
Having taken the lead, Germany never looked back. Before long Gómez had taken his tournament account to three and doubled the Mannschaft’s lead, picking up another Schweinsteiger pass before sending the ball across Stekelenburg from an almost impossible angle from out on the right. It was almost too good to be true: half-time, two goals up, two almost impossibly fantastic finishes from the man popularly known as Super Mario – well, alongside Croatia’s Mandžukić and a certain Signore Balotelli.
The second half was less spectacular, as a host of missed opportunities and an out of the blue van Persie strike brought back the score to 2-1. No matter. The final minutes were easily played out, and Germany had secured their first European Championship win in thirty-two years against the Oranje, the first coming way back at Euro 1980 when I was a mere nine years old. To win a game at a major tournament is always a wonderful thing; to beat the Dutch at a major tournament is something simple words cannot describe.
To see the Dutch players argue among themselves as they traipsed miserably off the pitch was something to behold: one could say that it was what the term Schadenfreude was invented for. The Oranje had been truly squeezed, juiced and pulped.
Joachim Löw’s side were left needing just a point from their final group phase match-up in L’viv against Denmark, but the way the points had been distributed meant that any sort of defeat – coupled with a Portuguese win against the Dutch – would have sent them spinning out of the tournament. With the Danes also still retaining an interest in the tournament, this was far from the relaxed goal-fest many people might have hoped for.
With Lars Bender in at right-back in for the suspended Jérôme Boateng and Lukas Podolski being allowed to win his one-hundredth cap in spite of a long run of dismal performances, this match had fate written all over it. Almost inevitably, Germany would take the lead through the 1. FC Köln winger, who finally managed to get a shot on target courtesy of an accidental Gómez assist. It was Podolski’s first international goal in nine matches – and a rare right-footed strike to boot.
The corner curse that had afflicted Bayern in the Champions League final made an unwelcome appearance as Denmark equalised, and a nervy period that saw Holger Badstuber get away with a sneaky tug at Nicklas Bendtner’s shirt in the penalty area was finally ended by young Bender’s calm and collected finish. The relief was palpable, but Germany were now three from three and into the quarter-finals where they would face Greece.
Germany had played Greece nine times; eight of these had been competitive encounters. The pre-match buildup was peppered with painfully obvious references to Greece’s financial situation, but there would be no generous bailout from the Germans when the two teams took to the field. Joachim Löw named an attacking lineup, and the players we wanted to see were all there: Marco Reus, André Schürrle and above all striker Miroslav Klose.
After a highly predictable defensive display from the Greeks which quickly turned the Gdańsk Arena into something resembling a scene from the siege of Troy, the wooden horse was finally rolled into the blue bastion courtesy of the diminutive German skipper Philipp Lahm. Finding unexpected space and time outside the Greek box just over five minutes from half-time, the little fullback drove the ball past the ‘keeper to break the deadlock – sending Jogi Löw into a wild arm-waving routine that made him look like a crazy whirling dervish.
Half-time came and went with the Germans holding the upper hand, but ten minutes into the second period the Greeks were level through Giorgios Samaras – no relation to election winner Antonis. From nowhere, the German defence had been outflanked and the Greeks were back in the match – while I was on my armchair hundreds of miles away fulminating.
Though not for long.
The sheer temerity of the Greeks seemed to make the Germans sharpen their shooting skills, and the fluffed opportunities of the first half were soon forgotten in an avalanche of goals. First a Khedira volley slammed into the back of the net, followed by a typical Klose header facilitated by a wondering goalkeeper, and finally a thumping volley from the energetic Reus. In a stroke – OK, thirteen minutes – it was 4-1, and not even the softest of soft penalties presented to the Greeks right at the death could take any of the gloss off the Mannschaft’s performance.
The victory in Gdańsk had swept Germany into the last four, and extended a string of competitive victories that stretched back to the third-place playoff in 2010 – fifteen games, a new world record. Questions over possible defensive frailties were put aside: nine goals had been scored in four games, confidence was on the up, the coach had a bank of talented youngsters to mix and match.
What could possibly go wrong, even against old foes and perennial bogey team Italy?
It was form against history in Warsaw, with the young and unbeaten German side pitted against an Italian outfit that had been slowly crawling back to its feet after its group-phase disaster in the World Cup. The Mannschaft had not beaten the Azzurri in seven competitive meetings, but this was merely history. Surely, this was the moment when the azure blue monkey was to be finally thrown off the collective German back.
But history would play that nasty trick again, just as it had done in Dortmund in 2006.
The announcement of the starting lineup immediately elicited rumblings on the many German online blogs and Twitter feeds. Toni Kroos was in the side but in an unfamiliar position on the right, Mario Gómez was back in – hmm – and Lukas Podolski was reinstalled out on the left – gulp. It just looked wrong. Gómez was all alone out in front, but what would be his source of supply? We all knew that Mesut Özil suffered without a striker that could link up with him, so we could rule that one out. We also knew that Gómez was a striker who thrived on being supplied from the flanks. Yet here we had Kroos – clearly not a winger – and Podolski, who apart from his goal against Denmark had been poor.
We balked, rubbed our eyes and scratched our heads in confusion, but we hoped. The coach had got it right, surely? When the two teams walked out, we would all give the Maharishi Jogi the benefit of the doubt. Kroos would mark the peerless Andrea Pirlo out of the game, a re-energised Podolski would reinvent himself once more as a supply line out on the left, and the fleet-footed Gómez would score a hat-trick to drive the dominant Deutschen into the final.
The game would begin brightly enough, with Mats Hummels almost kneeing the ball into the net and the lordly Pirlo looking remotely human as he appeared to shuffle the ball off the line with his arm. Pressure, pressure, pressure… But no result.
Then, an Italian break down the left. Boateng, up to that point playing far more forward than before, was caught out of position. Hummels, for so long the new-found rock at the back, found himself being turned inside out by Antonio Cassano. And then Holger Badstuber standing as still as a tailor’s dummy as the mobile Mario Balotelli sneaked up behind him to meet the ball with his mohicaned head.
In a blur Manuel Neuer was beaten. Helpless, all he could do was hold out his arm as the ball crashed into the back of the net to put the Azzurri ahead. It was the first time the Mannschaft had been behind in a competitive match since their 2010 World Cup semi-final against Spain.
Just like that, the coach’s tactics started to unravel. Unable to find any shape, the Germans resembled a black and white blancmange as they desperately tried to recover from the blow. After the knee in the shins came the punch in the solar plexus. Defending a German corner one moment, the Italians sent the ball smartly up the field the next. A clearance, a sweet long diagonal ball from Riccardo Montolivo that caught left Philipp ambling like a stranded lamb, and that man Balotelli was there again the blast the ball into the net and tear another chunk from my rapidly beating heart.
Half-time couldn’t come quickly enough, and when the teams came out after the break the coach had essentially admitted his tactical error. On were Reus and Klose, soon to be followed by Thomas Müller as all caution was thrown to the wind along with the proverbial kitchen sink. The chances came, but the finishing was nowhere to be seen. It was just not going happen.
A well-executed penalty from Mesut Özil in injury time provided the tantalising hope of a miracle, and even ‘keeper Neuer threw himself forward. The final denouément would see the Mannschaft win a free-kick out on the right just inside their own half, but rather than lumping it forward into the Italian box, Bastian Schweinsteiger summed up his poor tournament by rolling the ball forward.
It was the perfect moment for the referee to blow his whistle and end the torture.
As the Italians celebrated and the vanquished Germans melted away, the feeling of shock started to set in. This was a game we all expected to win. The momentum had been surely taking us to Kiev. We were unbeatable, unstoppable, Unhaltbar. In a blur, it was all over. Silence and tears in the dressing room. The German tabloids ripping into the coach for his tactical blunder.
As I went to bed I took this ongoing nightmare with me. The vice of history gripping yet tighter as the Italians extended their record. I found it incomprehensible: we just cannot beat these guys, and nobody knows why. It’s just the way it is: Germany never beats Italy when it really matters.
Nevertheless, I had a recurring vision of Schweini lofting the ball high into to the box, and Neuer charging to beat his counterpart Gigi Buffon at the far post. Taking the scores to 2-2, extra-time, and a late winner from Thomas Müller.
Then I woke up. Denial is a horrible thing.
For several months I had thought about what I would be doing on the morning of Monday, July 2nd 2012. I had planned to take the day off. I had imagined myself in a semi-catatonic stupor, fuelled by Franziskaner Hefeweizen, Miroslav Klose and Mesut Özil.
Instead I found myself driving into work, stone-cold sober.
Grazie, Mario Balotelli. You ruined my summer.