|Gavin personally hoisted the (replica) World Cup trophy amid the celebrations in downtown Stuttgart.|
After almost two days of travel, I arrived back in Stuttgart safe and sound.
It took a few days to recover from my jetlag and reacquaint myself with the German language and wildly unpredictable weather, but after three weeks on the road in Brazil I was happy to be back in my house. Best of all, I didn’t miss any World Cup matches because I traveled on the rest days, and arrived in time to watch Germany in the quarterfinals. I now threw my support behind my second home, hoping that one of my teams could maybe take home the winner's trophy.
* * *
Ten days and two wildly different victories later, I find myself watching Germany take on Argentina in the World Cup final. How did we get here, you ask? We almost didn't. Andrew’s adopted home team, the Desert Foxes of Algeria, nearly pulled off the upset of the tournament in the Round of 16
by throwing everything they had at the Germans. Only an incredible performance from keeper-turned-sweeper Manuel Neuer allowed Germany to pull of a 2-1 extra time win—earning the team plenty of criticism in the press, and dampening their fans' expectations. In the quarterfinals, Germany beat France 1-0 with a more solid performance, controlling the game from start to finish and advancing to play Brazil in the semi-final. The host team had recently scraped by Chile, then Colombia, in tight matches that saw them lose star Neymar Jr. to injury and captain Thiago Silva to yellow cards. The Germans maintained a cautious optimism.
Brazil's dream of winning the World Cup at home was extinguished in a span of 18 unbelievable minutes. Aided by some slapstick Brazilian defending, Thomas Muller scored the first goal. Then Miroslav Klose set the all-time World Cup scoring record for the second. While most my friends and I celebrated the early lead, my German friend Jasmin impored us to stay calm; there was plenty of time left, and Brazil was still a good team playing at home. But within two minutes, Toni Kroos put Brazil to the sword, twice exploiting yet more comical defending to put Germany up 4-0. We were still celebrating when Sami Khedira marked a fifth blow. The TV showed Brazilian fans in utter despair, with some in the stadium sobbing uncontrollably.
The Brazilians' spirits crushed and the game effectively over with an hour left to play, we turned to social media and found plenty of stunned and hilarious responses, like American football references ("Brazil should go for two. The Germans will never see it coming!") and pictures of Chancellor Angela Merkel as Christ the Redeemer.
The Germans were still not finished scoring though; André Schürrle bagged two more goals, after which I began to truly feel sorry for Brazil. Although they marked a single consolation goal, their humiliation was complete. At the final whistle, the Brazilian players cried as their fans booed them off the pitch. But in Stuttgart—like all across Germany—the party had begun. Hordes of people partied in the streets into the wee hours of the morning, reveling in this shocking victory.
There was one more match to play in this World Cup, and Die Mannschaft would be there.
* * *
German fans are unique in their cautious optimism. It’s a very pragmatic approach, and a contrast to how we Americans support our team, always believing that we will win no matter who the opponent (hence the chant). Even as their team entered the World Cup final against Argentina as the favorites, the Germans I spoke to reminded me that they have reached the final matches of many competitions in the last decade, but emerged with nothing to show for it. I pointed out that their perennial enemies Spain and Italy had long since been eliminated, and that even with superstar Leo Messi, Argentina looked far from impressive. Unconvinced, my German friends stuck with their usual mantra: "We have a good team, but they are a strong opponent. Tonight will be a tough match."
Walking through Stuttgart a few hours before kick-off, the atmosphere was electric. German flags were flying and there was a definite buzz in the air. Nothing else mattered today—absolutely nothing. My friend Ben (of USA v. Germany fame) had reserved spots at a local open-air bar called Meisters. It was good to be around all my friends, some of whom I had not seen since returning from Brazil. After throwing back a few Becks, I belted out the Deutschlanlied (to the delight of my German friends) and was ready for the World Cup final.
As I had expected, the match started out as a tight and cagey affair. No team wanted to take too many risks in a game of this magnitude. Resting on an impressive defense, Argentina found some great early chances. Thirty-five minutes in, our hearts sank when it looked as if Gonzalo Higuaín had scored, but Germany was rescued by the linesman's offeside flag. The German team was wobbling, but gradually came back into the game, bouncing a shot off the post just before halftime.
As the second half began, I noticed my friends around me and the Germans in the stadium were being extraordinarily quiet. Intensely engrossed in the match, yes, but I heard no cheers or songs. I and some American and British friends were perplexed; if our country was in a World Cup final, we would be screaming and shouting like maniacs. We asked the Germans, one of whom explained: “You don’t understand how nervous we are right now. To be so close and to lose now would be heartbreaking.” It made sense: you don’t often get a chance at winning a World Cup. Plus, Germany had been the tournament's "bridesmaid" for the last 12 years, so they were apprehensive. They were chasing the World Cup, but for them it was definitely a business trip.
But as the game dragged on, we all grew tired of the silence and began to cheer for Germany, our section of the bar leading some increasingly boisterous German chants. The game picked up, with chances coming for both teams. In the 88th minute, we stood and applauded as German legend Miroslav Klose left his final World Cup match, making way for Mario Götze. Soon after, the whistle blew, and we were headed for verlangerung—extra time.
During the break, I surveyed my German friends for their impressions of the match. To me, this one seemed to have "penalties" written all over it. But the German consensus was clear: victory in extra time was preferable. The emotions and randomness of a penalty shootout would be too much to take. But as the first 15-minute period passed, both teams began to look exhausted, and penalties began to look inevitable. All around me, the cigarettes came out. Then in the 113th minute, André Schürrle burst down the left side and floated a perfect ball inside to Mario Götze, who controlled it with his chest, volleyed with his left foot and...
The world had been lifted from the Germans' shoulders. Amid hugs all around, the noise in the bar finally picked up, with many songs and chants. The final seven minutes felt like seven years, but finally the whistle sounded.
Deutschland ist Weltmeister.
* * *
The post-match scenes on the Theodor-Heuss Strasse were incredible. As we walked from Stuttgart West into the city, the scene grew crazier; people hung from cars, waving flags and honking horns. Downtown, they climbed street signs, chanted and sang, rang noisemakers, and shot fireworks and flares, illuminating the celebration. Our massive group of friends got separated, but with everyone in the city streets celebrating, we kept finding more people we knew.
I finally made it home around 4AM, and four hours later was at my desk working—well, pretending to, at least. But it took more time for the gravity of the experience to really strike me. I have been a part of some great sports celebrations, but nothing will ever compare to this. For Germans, it was the first World Cup win as a unified nation—truly an occasion that everyone could enjoy. For me, I had been lucky to fly to Brazil and experience the World Cup live, then returned to the country that ended up winning the tournament. Amid the joy of our German friends, even us non-Germans in attendance felt like a part of this momentous occasion.
In my mind, the best team won the tournament: a fitting ending to this superb World Cup.
|Jubilant crowds celebrate the victory in downtown Stuttgart.|