Tuesday, June 06, 2006

#6: Die Nationalelf


Where? The bulk of Northern Europe.

How big? Very big for Europe. About the size of Montana. Population is the largest in Europe proper (I don't count Russia), about three times the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook... A high immigration rate, but a net population loss is counterintuitive. The oldest population of any of the large European nations and one that isn't giving birth to many children. Germany's unemployment rate is way high - twice as high as the US rate.

Geopolitical significance? Germany has the fifth largest economy in the world and the largest in Europe. But it's also one of the slowest growing in the world. But that's all current stuff. Germany has shaped the world's history over the last century like no other country.

Fun? Beer is good. Did YOU KNOW! That Becks is the #1 German beer in America, but only the #10 beer in Germany? Did YOU KNOW! That Budweiser is the official beer of the World Cup and has an exclusive contract to sell beer inside World Cup stadia and therearound for some 500 yards... BUT Budweiser isn't even a beer according to Germany's beer laws. The reason? Beer can only be made from malt, hops and water to comply with German law. Budweiser uses rice. One Bavarian politician isn't happy, calling Budweiser "the worst beer in the world." Thems some beer crazed people.


It has been a long time since a major footballing nation that was hosting didn't advance to the semifinals, so I'm taking a bit of a risk with this pick.

The German National Eleven's history is a little odd due to the nation's history. For the first three cups, there was one German team, and they participated twice, making the semifinals once. After WWII, Germany was divided and fielded two teams until 1994. East Germany was a poor team, only qualifying once (though making the second round). West Germany, on the other hand, was one of the world's great teams. Three times champion of the World, finalists three more times, and semifinalists twice more. Of the 10 Cups West Germany competed in, they made the semifinals 8 times. Amazing. After Germany reunified, the talent and skill remained. In the last three cups, Germany has made the quarterfinals twice and were runners up to Brazil in 2002.

Germany qualified automatically as hosts for this World Cup, so they've been playing friendlies for the last two years. Not playing a meaningful game in two years hasn't hurt other hosts, and I doubt it'll hurt Germany here.

The roster is filled with professionals based in Germany, which is one of the world's best leagues. Only two players play elsewhere - both in England. It is a younger team than the last few cup sides, and one that is a little hard to figure out. The attack should be pretty experienced though. Miroslav Klose will hope to match his goal tally from 2002. A good question will be whether they go with veteran Neuville or the young gunner, Podolski. The midfield normally would've been a huge strength, since Frings, Schweinsteiger, Schneider and Ballack are as tough as any group in the Cup. But Ballack is where it all happens - and his injury has to be a huge scare.

But not as much a scare as the player to watch - Jens Lehmann. I'm not sold that Germany will keep Oliver Kahn on the bench the whole time. Lehmann hasn't played badly for Arsenal - actually he's played pretty great, generally - but I still worry that he'll make an error at precisely the wrong time, like the Champions' League final. Remember, just 18 months ago, Lehmann was getting benched in favor of Almunia. I'm just not sure it's the right call when they have Kahn right there. Kahn was probably the most important player on any team at Korea/Japan. If Kahn never sees the field (which I doubt will happen), I think it'll be a mistake.

As hosts, Germany scored one of the easiest groups. None of the other teams has the talent to really challenge Germany for top slot. In fact, none of the other teams really deserves to advance. But one will, while USA/Czech Rep/Italy won't.

Germany opens the tournament Friday against Costa Rica. It'll be a huge spectacle, but expect the Germans to stay focused. Klose scores in the first half, and Podolski doubles the lead in the second half. Ballack is substituted for early, after the first goal. Safe than sorry. 2-0 Germany.

In what should be the best game of the group, Germany and Poland meet. Germany can match Poland in just about every area on the field. Ballack looks much healthier and organizes one goal and scores another himself. Lehmann, however, gives up a goal in a most embarassing way. 2-1 Germany and advancement is clinched.

The final match against Ecuador is meaningless and Germany uses it to get experience for many of their young players, but Lehmann is also removed in exchange for Kahn. It's a boring match, a scoreless draw. 0-0. But Kahn's performance is strong, and suddenly there's a controversy.

Germany tops the group, and for that they draw second place Sweden. The big news is that Kahn starts instead of Lehmann, and it pays of immediately, as Ibrahimovic nearly scores twice but Kahn is a wall. Both teams have great chances, but both keepers play fantastically. The match goes scoreless through extra time and the match heads to penalties. It goes 7 rounds until Kahn stops one after a Huth conversion. Germany advances to the quarterfinals.

In the Quarters, Germany faces one of the few teams that hasn't lost so far, and Argentina team on a roll. In a move that will upset millions, Klinsmann replaces Kahn with Lehmann. And almost immediately he wishes he hadn't. Tevez drills one five minutes in. On the half hour, Germany equals though, with a great goal by Klose. In the second half, Germany takes the lead on a set shot from Ballack. But late in the match replacement Messi breaks loose and beats Lehmann who had crept out way too far on the breakaway. Neither team scores in extra time, and it's another penalty situation for Germany. Argentina nets the first three, while Germany misses one and has another one saved. Needing to score to stay in the match, Ballack misses high. Just like that, Germany is out of the tournament.

A good run, but keeping becomes their undoing, unlike in 2002, when it took them so far. Two PK matches in the knockout stage could cause heart attacks across Northern Europe. Of course, a safer bet would be for this team to advance at least to the semis. Host nations normally do.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Germany would be... an efficient, organized, strong team. Incredibly successful, year in year out, regardless of who comes and goes. But also hasn't won a title in a while, despite a long run. Kansas is the team that comes to mind.

German women: very strong forearms.