Saturday, June 10, 2006

"Son of a gun, we'll have big fun in the Bayern..."

“So far, I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room.” So scowls Wilfrid Brambell, as Paul McCartney’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night, and while a moan could not be further from my lips, or indeed fingertips, there could be a similar feeling at parts of this World Cup.

Only with extra, extravagant stadia, high-scoring football entertainment, and all-surrounding fans’ fervour, of course.

Ah yes. The next month or so may take me to most, maybe all, of Germany’s major cities without actually seeing much of them apart from the stadia, the media centres, the football pitch and the saying-farewell train-window peers through bleary eyes.
But if the tournament itself kicks on as it should from yesterday’s kick-off, then who cares?

The highest-scoring opening match in World Cup Finals history may not have been the most beautiful, but it was good to see the hosts get off to a decent start – at least two of Germany’s goals were of the highest quality, Philipp Lahm showing how a right-footed left-back can surprise and torment in a special way, Torsten Frings putting the icing on the cake with an unstoppable late, long-range swerver – while also suggesting, through two horrific defensive lapses, that the old German reputation for ruthless efficiency at the back may no longer be such a worry for future opponents. Per Mertesacker had a nightmare – surely even Robert Huth can’t be worse than this flat-footed lumberer? Hmm, maybe…

Interesting to see Jens Lehmann rooted to his spot as Costa Rica’s Paulo Wanchope advanced unopposed both times – you’d almost imagine something had happened recently to make him wary of rushing out of goal in characteristic style…
Despite having arrived at our Munich hotel after 4am, the intention was to get to the Munich Arena as early as possible, expecting lengthy queues for the boring practicalities such as media accreditation, broadband access, hiring a German mobile… In fact, contrary to my dad’s experience when checking in a few days earlier, it was a breeze for me – although the first hordes surrounding the accreditation centre were disorienting. Thankfully, they turned out to be queuing to pick up tickets – with signs advising no returns were on offer. No chance. Even Costa Ricans appeared to have turned out in force, early on even seeming to outnumber the German shirts on display. Not for long, however…

The new Munich arena – sponsors’ names are disallowed, officially, during Fifa tournaments – is a wonder on a crest, looking like a spaceship or a giant bubble from the outside, a three-tiered soaring amphitheatre from inside. The old Olympic Stadium, where Sven’s England famously triumphed 5-1 five years ago, is no longer used for top-class football – its athletics track unpopular for forcing fans a fair distance from the field.

Having settled myself surprisingly early – for both such an event, and my own knack for panicking – there were several hours to kill in the media centre, before the scheduled opening of the opening ceremony at the odd time of 4.23pm. The prospect of Bavarian bell-ringers, thigh-slappers and Seeed (sic), supposedly the “phattest” beats band on the German music circuit, was not precisely what had attracted 66,000 people to converge on the same place together just now, but the chance to see a World Cup opening ceremony in all its odd “glory” does not come around too often either, so…

In fact, some of it was rather spectacular, and certainly colourful, and it was a nice move to bring on many previous World Cup winners – including the old England boys, plus an impressive collection of Brazilian codgers, and familiar faces such as Ricky Villa. Plus, of course, the inevitable Pele – and, I suppose, inevitable Claudia Schiffer – marching onto the pitch the chunky solid gold bauble we all want: the World Cup itself.

Perhaps most stunning, however, was the effect achieved by placing strategically-coloured flags upon each seat, so when brandished they managed a swirling pattern around the whole stadium – including the German flag depicted in one stand, Costa Rican colours in their section. A similar colour coup was mustered for the 1992 European Cup final at Wembley, when sheets on seats were so arranged, that both the Barcelona and Sampdoria ends were each able to conjure giant badges to eye-catching, spine-tingling effect.

Opening games are often dour and cautious, so the early flurry of goals here was a pleasant surprise – and the “Ticos’” reluctance to give up until Frings’s clincher helped, albeit with even more assistance from what inspired the Bildung Zeit’s headline this morning: “This defence is a nightmare!”

Bastian Schweinsteiger on the German left-wing – or “Schweiny” as a particularly plangent fan sitting behind me so tenderly, repeatedly hailed him – was perhaps player of the first half, the highlight his perfectly-timed link-up with the clever, persistent stand-in captain Bernd Schneider on the right flank. Schneider tussled his way past a defender by the right corner flag, with all expecting a hefty cross only for him to weigh the ball back to where, unspotted by many, Schweinsteiger ghosted from nowhere, pushed the ball past the nearest defender with one deft touch then speared it goalwards for Klose to jab easily in. He could hardly miss for his second goal, either, though Costa Rican ‘keeper Porras was unfortunate on the rebound after an acrobatic save from Klose’s first header.

The final whistle brought a rendition of “Stand up for the Champions” over the loudspeakers – a little premature and presumptuous, perhaps, considering it was merely a firsr-game win over unfancied Latin American outsiders, but still… “Wir fahren, wir fahren, wir fahren zu Berlin” appears to have become the favoured, basic chant of Germany’s optimists – in France eight years ago, especially as the hosts edged towards the final, the ubiquitous holler was: “Allez les bleus, allez les bleus.”

The Germans were certainly in good – well, loud – voice throughout, even if their fondness for Three Lions as an adoptive national anthem is rather bemusing.
The 1998 version by Frank Skinner and David Baddiel was briefly played before the match, while a slightly-amended version was performed by German “pop stars” on a bemusing TV programme we caught after returning to the hotel last night. They kept the first verse intact, so the “tears for heroes dressed in grey, no plans for finals day” came across less as lachrymose self-pity, but bare-faced gloating… The new chorus, however, runs: “Heroes in the shirt, everybody gleaming, no more years of hurt, no more need for dreaming…”

A message to the land of Beethoven, Wagner and, er, Kraftwerk: Get your own tune!

Diamond Lights by Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle, or Gazza’s Fog On The Tyne may be famous (or infamous) English attempts at fusing football and pop music, but Germany certainly appears to have the upper – or lower – hand.

Or maybe it’s just that football and pop music really shouldn’t mix – in any language.

A show called Kultnacht revisited official German World Cup anthems through the ages – including excruciating turns by a tuneless Berti Vogts, in a top-hat-and-tails Astaire-esque duet from 1976 (even more embarrassing than his spell in charge of Scotland), and a Village People-aping song for USA 94 – in which, among the besuited German squad dutifully mumbling along behind the obligatory cop, cowboy, Red Indian and the rest, the most enthusiastic swayer was a certain Jurgen Klinsmann. Surely even the fake Sheikh couldn’t have been a more cruel humiliation for a national coach…

Still, at least Jurgen’s old enemy Lothar Matthaeus shared in the shame, with footage of him performing a very reluctant rap, also ahead of that American adventure. Did he learn nothing from John Barnes four years earlier?

Klinsmann was in typically, tiptoeing-between-chirpy-and-chippy mood in yesterday’s post-match Press conference, hailing his players in that strange blend of German sharpness and transatlantic corporate jargon – save for when he brusquely dismissed an English reporter’s attempt to have him criticising the new, extra-light Adidas footballs. “No, I don’t have any concerns,” he retorted with a contemptuous flash of his hands, before lightening and laughing: “Put the ball in the goal – that’s all I care about.” The German FA’s lucrative sponsorship deal with adidas perhaps weighed heavier than the balls themselves – more so for Klinsmann, perhaps, than recently for Lehmann who was more outspoken (Nike-sponsored Lehmann, of Nike-sponsored Arsenal, of course!)

After the ceremony’s oddly-tasting starter, and the fast food main course of the German game, the Ecuador-Poland evening match was an agreeably tangy dessert which went down nice and light – though it must have left the Poles furious at a night when nothing went their way, and what they would have expected to be a breeze became a disastrous 2-0 defeat.

I wonder what Gordon Strachan made of it. His Celtic striker Zurawski was so effectively marshalled out of the game I had to check and recheck the line-ups to whether he was meant to be on the pitch or not.

At the other end, ex-Southampton striker Agustin Delgado – more AWOL than on-fire for Strachan on the South Coast despite his £3.5million price-tag – set up Ecuador’s first for Tenorio and, with obvious relish, tucked away the second. You really shouldn’t underestimate a team which can claim victories over both Argentina and Brazil during qualifying – albeit at rather a lofty altitude, of course.

Strachan's claims for Zurawski?
“He’s not going to be a good player. He’s going to be a great player”.
His thoughts on Delgado, when asked about the player at Southampton?
"I've got more important things to think about. I've got a yoghurt to finish by today, the expiry date is today. That can be my priority rather than Agustin Delgado."

His time at Saints turned sour, but Delgado could now find himself up against English opposition for a change, in the second round. We do, of course, also have the tasty prospect of a clash with the hosts – either in the second round or the semi-finals. But we’re getting predictably ahead of ourselves already…

Ah yes, England. Today should be rather intriguing – both on the pitch and off. Other than the host nation, no country ever sends more supporters to a tournament than England – and not simply for our games, but avidly lapping up the entertainment, atmosphere and sheer experience of even the most unprepossessing tussle of minnows. Sadly, my friend Dazza, after all his giant flag planning and PR, has been denied entry for the 6,000sqft flag at Frankfurt’s Kommerzbank Arena – sorry, Waldstadion – no, sorry, that’s no longer valid since the rebuilding, so we’ll have to stick with the prosaic World Cup Stadium, Frankfurt. Anyway, a safety officer at the stadium broke the news to the FA yesterday – and flags draped over balconies also face being forced down, though I’d like to see the brave steward taking it upon him/herself to drag them all down…

England’s record in opening games is not great – the last they won was in France 1998, a 2-0 triumph over Tunisia I previously described here – but we really, really should prove too artful and strong for the decent-ish Paraguayans today, even Rooney-less… shouldn’t we?

A Japanese reporter sitting next to me in yesterday’s Klinsmann Press conference was very eager to engage me in detailed dissections of England’s tactics, feverishly scrawling diagrams of each Plan B, C, D and threatening to go all the way to Z, before being sidetracked by a reverie about the dangers of “lovely player” Cardozo, his ability to trap a ball with head or chest when defenders would be expecting a foot, and how he would cause terrible worries running diagonally at vulnerable right-back Gary Neville.

He did indeed sound frighteningly good, even for a 35-year-old.

Good job, then, the sadly-injured Cardozo had already returned home to Paraguay. Phew.

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