|Fraternizing with the enemy: Gavin (middle) watched the US-Germany match with Ben and Simone at the FanFest in Rio de Janeiro.|
Because I currently call Stuttgart, Germany home, I knew the USA-Germany match would be an interesting one for me at this World Cup. Moving to Germany in 2012 was one of the best things that happened to me, in part since it gave me the chance to leave eastern North Carolina—where I wasn't really happy—to start fresh. It would probably be an understatement to say that I have embraced the German culture and atmosphere. My Facebook page is full of updates in German and pictures of me in Lederhosen, and I have made wonderful friends there who have introduced me to so many new things. After summer festivals, late-night parties in the clubs and the streets, soccer matches, and two Christmases in small-town Bavaria, Germany has truly become my second home and I am thankful for that.
However, ... make no mistake: the USA will always be my home, my country, and my #1 soccer team. When meeting new people here in Brazil, I tell them "I'm from Baltimore, but currently live in Germany." When they say, "Oooh, who are you cheering for in the USA-Germany match?", the expression on my face says loud and clear: "Are you serious? It's USA all the way."
Since the World Cup draw six months ago, I had my eyes on this match, and told everyone who would listen not to sleep on the USA, that we would threaten all of the teams in the group, Germany included. My German friends all laughed, usually replying with: "Enjoy your three games in Brazil." But after the first two sets of Group G matches—which saw the USA come within seconds of qualifying and Germany nearly upset by Ghana—the German mood has definitely changed. Jason, an American friend back in Stuttgart, told me that despite their high expectations for their national team the Germans were only "cautiously optimistic" about the USA match.
The Germans may like to understate their chances, but they know and expect that Die Mannschaft will be a contender in every major tournament. However, after a Klinsmann-led German team surpassed all expectations in the 2006 World Cup and lost a heartbreaking semi-final to Italy, they have failed to meet expectations in major tournaments, losing to Spain in the 2008 European Championships and 2010 World Cup final, then to nemesis Italy in the 2012 European Championship.
This year Germany have the prefect blend of experience (with captain Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Miroslav Klose, who co-holds the record for most career World Cup goals) and youth (playmaking midfielders Mario Götze and Mesut Özil, striker Thomas Müller, and holding midfielder Sami Khedira) plus a top-level coach in Jogi Loew. Nothing would please the Germans more than bringing home the "vierten stern" (fourth star) in recognition of their fourth World Cup win. First things first though, they would have to get out of Group G, which meant getting past the United States.
* * *
I was excited to watch with my good friend Ben, a German I had met shortly after moving to Stuttgart and who had also made the trek to Brazil. Ben and I had found a shared love for soccer while regularly watching Champions League games with a group of friends. He is a diehard Germany and Bayern Munich fan, so we constantly needle each other about our respective national and club teams. (When I sent him a taunting text message months earlier, after the US qualified for the World Cup before Germany did, he replied: "It must be nice having to play Costa Rica and Jamaica".) He is also not a fan of Jurgen Klinsmann—who now coaches the US national team—largely because of his ill-fated stint at Bayern Munich. Ben continuously reminds me that Klinsmann "is not a coach, does not know anything about tactics, and is just a cheerleader". I've found that this view is not uncommon among Germans, who credited Jogi Loew with Germany's impressive 2006 run.
Going in, I knew it would be fun watching this match with Ben, and warned his girlfriend, Simone, that she might need to pull us apart during the match!
* * *
Since we were in Rio, rather than Recife where the match was taking place, we decided to meet and watch the match at the FIFA FanFest. I arrived to find Ben and Simone waiting for me with drinks in hand; it was good to again see some familiar faces after traveling solo for most of my trip.
I had not yet been to one of the FanFests, but right off the bat I could sense the atmosphere inside was lighter than at the stadiums. People were dancing to early 90's rap music, rather than focusing on getting as fired up as possible prior to the match. The location, right on the legendary Copacabana Beach, was perfect.
Right away, I asked Ben what his prediction was for the match. He responded without hesistation: "Germany will win, but USA will go through." He and Simone had followed Germany through their first two matches and, despite the tense 2-2 draw with Ghana, he was still confident that Germany would top the group. As we continued to banter and swap stories from our travels, the number of American and German fans increased, and soon we found ourselves situated between a large pocket of each. The screen above cut to Recife, and the national anthems began. While I knew the German Deutschlandlied, I would not be singing it today: Germany was the enemy.
Then, like the players on-screen, my German friends and I shook hands and settled in for a decisive match.
* * *
The German team looked testy from the start, and lost no time asserting themselves, spraying passes across the field and swarming the US penalty area. After just ten minutes, Germany already had multiple chances on goal and were dominating possession. While I expected them to have the bulk of possession, it still looked like an extremely conservative start (Klinsmannn and other players would comment after the match that we "showed Germany too much respect"). But the US team looked well organized and disciplined—which we would have to be to avoid mistakes, given the rainy conditions in Recife.
German darling Schweinsteiger slid effortless passes to his teammates, orchestrating beautiful attacks. The US team responded, naturally, by kicking the shit out of him, to the ire of Ben and the other Germans next to me. "It's just love taps," I responded. As the half progressed, the US team began to see a little bit more of the ball, and even came agonizingly close to scoring. While Ben was familiar with some of our big-name players, including some who play in Germany's Bundesliga, I explained that Klinsmann had also given home-grown talent a shot in this World Cup—another reason why many American fans have embraced him. "I see why Klinsmann likes it in the USA," Ben taunted. "He can stay home in California, travel to MLS games, and not have to listen to the Germans making fun of him."
Inside the FanFest, there were pockets of USA fans singing and chanting, but it didn't reach the maniacal levels that I had seen inside the stadiums. In fact, we were getting outnumbered by the Germans: "Auf Geht's Deutschland, schiest ein toooooorrrrr". ("Let's go Germany, score a goal".) As a few "U-S-A" chants started ringing out, I tried to rally more to the cause, but to my disappointment it wasn't happening. While I was happy to be in Rio, my heart was in Recife, wishing I was there getting soaked in the stands.
Meanwhile in Brasilia, Portugal took an early 1-0 lead over Ghana, to cheers from the USA fans here. Everything was falling into place: a Portugal victory, as long as it wasn't by too many goals, would help the USA's chances of advancing to the next round.
After some chances from both sides, the half came to a scoreless end in Recife. Germany had enjoyed the bulk of possession and scoring opportunities, and we owed a great deal to newly installed center back Omar Gonzalez and keeper Tim Howard. I was largely pleased with our performance. Yes, we were on the back foot, but we had defended well. "You guys are playing well", Ben said, before also noting that a German goal was coming soon.
He wasn't wrong. Ten minutes into the second half, Tim Howard made an extraordinary save off of a corner kick, and the ball rebounded to Thomas Müller, who sent a perfect strike into the back of the net from 20 yards. Tor für Deutschland. The air went out of our sails after that strike curled in, and my misery was doubled when Ben checked his phone and said, "It's 1-1 in the other match." This was not good; I knew we were on the edge of going home, and I spent the second half of the match in a torn state, cheering my heart out for the USA while nervously asking Ben for score updates from Brasilia. We Americans in the crowd were trading news from the other match and discussing the scoring permutations that would allow us to advance. Meanwhile, the game's intensity increased, with coach Loew demanding more from his Germany players as the USA snapped into tackles and continued to press for an equaliser.
"Gol em Brasilia," blasted over the loudspeaker. The FanFest went silent, everyone aware that this was a pivotal moment that would decide who would advance and who would go home. The name "Cristiano Ronaldo" was greeted with a massive cheer from the Americans present. With ten minutes left, it was 2-1 for Portugal and 1-0 for Germany in Recife: the USA might just squeak by. Klinsmann responded by sending on sub DeAndre Yedlin to chase the goal that could clinch our spot in the knockout rounds.
We almost got it. Alejandro Bedoya hammered a fierce shot that was blocked by a sliding Phillpp Lahm. From the resulting corner, Clint Dempsey sent a header inches over the crossbar. I fell agonizingly on my knees in the sand after both attempts, knowing what a goal would do for us. The final whistle blew shortly afterward. We had been defeated, but the match wasn't over yet in Brasilia. "Relax, you'll be fine, it's in stoppage time," Ben told me. I reminded him about the UCL Final of 1999 where his Bayern Munich team lost by two goals in stoppage time to Manchester United. (He wasn't too happy about that reference.)
Finally, Ben showed me his phone: "Congratulations, you're through." I jumped up and hugged him, amid roars of celebration from the USA fans in attendance. It wasn't pretty, and I had known it wasn't going to be, but damnit we were in the knockout rounds. After the match, all the US fans I encountered while cruising along the Copacabana said the same. Soccer in the US had made great strides with the team's successful escape from this tournament's Group of Death, and we were celebrating it as if we had won. As my friend Jason back in Germany later said, this match was "a referendum for an entire nation's soccer program."
Now onto the knockout rounds, where anything can happen!