Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bochum around the clock...

“Hilfe, unsere Nerven!” was the headline on the front-page of today’s Bild, which must have had many early morning commuters – or late-late-late-night bedragglers – painfully nodding their hungover heads in rueful recognition.

The opening-day victory over Costa Rica ushered in the feelgood factor, the introduction to what looked like becoming an enjoyable, if merely frivolous party for the hosts.

Last night it turned serious, however. And that last-gasp goal by Oliver Neuville, more or less securing safe German passage to the second round at the expense of niggling Poland, kicked open a pressure valve.

News reports today suggest about 300 fans were arrested in post-match skirmishes, which had been feared since Poland and Germany were drawn together and self-consciously stoked up by media-manipulating hooligans’ “spokespeople”.

But coming away from the Dortmund stadium – or trying to – last night, the major mood music appeared to be, not howls of pain or threats, but joyful chants and cheering. Even from the defiant “Polska”, in place, but mainly from those decked out in the “rote, gelbe, schwarze” decorations which now seem de rigeur wherever you look.

England in 1996, France in 1998, Portugal in 2004, and now Germany in 2006 – on an international football level, there’s little more enthralling than being among a host nation crowd, inside or outside stadia, when their team is doing well in a major tournament.

Everything here in Germany, every subject, every announcement, every story, is seemingly now being streamed through the imagery of football, the atmosphere of celebration – qualifying for the next round, and the privilege of hosting this whole jamboree, combined.

There is, of course, a long way to go. But already I’ve decided: England-Germany would be the perfect final. The resurgent host nation following, up against the ever-exhilirating swathes of support behind England. Purely before you get to any added spices such as that long (mostly good-natured nowadays, surely?) rivalry, and the resonances of 40 years since ’66.

Assuming all goes well enough to see England safely through Group B, we’re in line to play the hosts in either the second round – or the final.

Germany’s exuberance last night, with car horns blaring, crowds carousing, anthems reverberating, may indeed have penetrated England’s pre-match preparations. Reports today suggest the noise was likely to have filtered through into their Nuremburg hotel.

At the classically, right-angle-contoured Dortmund stadium, standing areas temporarily removed to reduce to a mere 65,000 spectators, what in the first half played out like a scrappy, but spicy local derby, looked like settling up as a thrilling goalless draw – as the ball ricocheted back and forth off Polish bar, post and lunging central defenders. Philipp Lahm at left-back for Germany again posed as much danger powering forward as your most conventional of left-wingers, puzzling the Polish defenders with his right-foot chips for his back-to-goal strikers to spin on. Ashley Cole and Roberto Carlos, so long seen as the world’s leading left-backs – despite Cole’s injury problems, and Carlos’s recent performances not matching the ball-bending hype – may have serious competition for that unofficial title by the end of this tournament.

Oh, and inevitably today’s papers have linked Lahm with a move to Chelsea.
Another day, another day…

Dad drove me to my latest of one-stop shops last night, a hotel in Bochum – 15 miles from Dortmund, but feeling like so much more as we trundled along in car park-like conditions on the rammed Autobahn – and this at two o’clock in the morning.

Approaching 6am I was back up and out again – as were the multitudes, still. Still singing and drinking and embracing and pledging, as ever but with rising certainty: “Wir fahren, wir fahren, wir fahren nach Berlin…”

Some were starting up early for the day, many more were still running on late-late-late from the night before.

Klinsmann’s players may have taken their time to break down a stubborn, if unambitious, Polish rearguard – and the Polish-born German strikers seemed curiously reluctant to accept great goalscoring opportunities.

The defence can still look creaky, even if Per Mertesacker was much-improved and slid in for two crunching, crucial tackles in his own area. And Michael Ballack’s much-hyped return to the side seemed oddly ineffectual, perhaps distracting Torsten Frings alongside him while not suggesting too much danger going forward.

But this German side looks as potentially-progressive in attack as any of recent memory. And the swelling momentum piling up behind and around and amongst them can’t be too much of a hindrance, either.

After all, of the last 13 World Cup finals, all but one have featured either Brazil or Germany or both – such as four years ago, when Rudi Voller’s men somehow scraped their way through by dint of, er, efficiency and resolve despite obvious limitations.

Nuremberg is about to give England the ideal platform to prove the Paraguay performance was merely a stumbling start, from which things can and will only get much, much better.

If the result from Ecuador-Costa Rica, about to kick off, manages to make a German first-place in Group A much the most likely, then that dream final could…

Nah, steady on now. One careful step at a time.
Especially if your name’s Wayne Rooney.

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