This year, more than any in more than 15 years, it is a good year to be a Germany supporter. We entered the competition as a co-favourite with Spain and our young, electrifying team is a joy to watch. Of course, with expectations come pressure, and both the media and general public expected great things from the 2012 Mannschaft. At this point – having crushed Greece in the quarterfinals – no result would be disastrous. The worst case at this point is to lose to a much older Italian team steeped in history and with many quality performers. It would be a disappointment, but hardly a disaster.
Of course, getting here was a more complicated picture. Being part of the always-dreaded “Group of Death”, Germany found itself needing to finish in the top two of a group that also included the Netherlands (4th in the world), Denmark (9th in the world), and Portugal (10th in the world). Yes, to simply reach the quarterfinals, all of us four teams would need to beat out two other teams in the top ten in the world. And this was a European-only tournament. To put it into perspective, the Group of Death contained four of the seven-highest rated teams in a tournament of 16. Yowch.
Now, Germany won the Group of Death. And we won it with three wins, the only team in the entire tournament, the only team to achieve such a feat in the competition. Sounds pretty good, right? The media certainly seems to think so, trumpeting Germany as the dominant standout of the group stage.
Our third and final group game was against Denmark. Entering into that game, we had 6 points and were in first. Portugal and Denmark each had 3 points. In the event Denmark and Portugal both won, Germany would be eliminated from the tournament entirely, not even reaching the quarterfinals. You need to understand, from the perspective of expectations, this would have been an unqualified disaster. If Germany loses the game and falls out at the group stage, a terrible chain of events would occur: key players on the team would have their reputations badly tarnished; the coach, seen as a superstar in the making, would have been pilloried. A team that was being positioned as one getting ready to make a decade-long run of dominance would instead be viewed as chokers who were perhaps terribly overrated.
So it was that, in Germany vs. Denmark, the game went into the second half tied at one. As the half wound down, Denmark was unlucky not to take a 2-1 lead. Star Danish forward Nicklas Bendtner had his jersey conspicuously pulled on a scoring chance, which should have resulted in a penalty shot and likely goal. They even had another point-blank chance that missed, and fortunately for Germany we managed a second goal with less than 11 minutes left to win the game and continue down the path toward the expected result of an exceptional finish at this tournament.
Think about that for a moment: if the referee had simply (correctly) called the foul on Germany it would have resulted in a penalty kick, a likely Denmark win and, with Portugal going over the Netherlands in the other game, Germany would have been eliminated entirely. Instead, a call was missed, a Danish shot was missed, a German shot was made, and Germany moved along.
It is the absolutely thinnest of margins. And even though it is, ultimately, simply a matter of dumb luck, the difference in the two possible results is staggering. Now, Germany is a wonder team, performing up to the enormous expectations. Then, the entire German programme would have been under fire. The same players, the same basic play, the same results for 99% of the time. But that one moment, that could fall either way, moves things from a glorious celebration to entirely shambolic.
Now, while this is nothing new in the world of sports fandom – people pledge their allegiance to a club and put a curious degree of their identity and self-esteem into results they have no influence over – it takes on particular gravity in the context of international sports. The Russian team – a club that obliterated the Czechs in their first game 4-1 only to draw against Poland and be shockingly defeated by a lackluster Greece side to miss the quarterfinals themselves – have subsequently been eviscerated. As the 13th ranked team in the world, the long-suffering Russian side finally appeared poised to make a long run in the tournament. Instead, they were eliminated. Along with receiving particularly furious abuse back home, here in the U.S. I read articles correlating their failure in Euro 12 to various past instances of unrealized national expectations, including going back to the Soviet space program more than 50 years ago!
Oh, but for the bounce of a ball.
I can understand people taking pride in the outcome of sporting events. Particularly for myself as a citizen of one country with a history and nostalgia for another, having sporting events as a unifying element to share and experience with others, is a joy. But the expectations and perspective everyone has – fans, media, observers – has no basis in reality. If that penalty had been called and Denmark advanced with Portugal, this would have been the same German team, more or less, as before. Holger Badstuber, who committed the potentially tournament-altering infraction, would have never been on the German back line in a major tournament again. Otherwise very little in reality would be different. It was an unlucky break. Holding happens all the time, and often isn’t called. The talent would be there, as would the teamwork. With good coaching and leadership, the mental aspects as well. It was the Group of Death, and it was a bad break. It happens. Regret the result, appreciate the effort, and life goes on.
But thanks to the irrational reactions of others, as the poor Russian players and coaching staff are dealing with now, it would be spun into something entirely different. I suspect, if any fervently nationalistic president or other member of top leadership stopped to think about it, they wouldn’t want the reputation and perception of their nation to be based on whether or not a Spanish referee keeps a card in his pocket at a key moment. It is absolutely irrational.
And yet, least rational of all, this odd system of putting incredible expectation and psychic need on a national sporting event will certainly continue to lurch forward, spinning and twisting and contorting, crushing careers and dreams and expectations, tarnishing national identity.
Oh, but for the bounce of a ball.