No rioting in the streets – Germans are too stunned for that. For the first time ever, the country’s football team has been eliminated in the opening round of the World Cup. It is tough for North Americans to understand just how big a deal that is.
When I was growing up soccer, or football as it is known outside North America, was an afterthought. As a Canadian I was naturally hockey mad. I didn’t even know there was a football World Cup.
Germans today are in shock and mourning. As the defending champions they expected to win again. They aren’t used to this level of disappointment. I’m a Canadian, I have lived through this story before.
When I was younger, what made us Canadians different from the rest of the world was that we didn’t get excited over the Olympics or world championships. In hockey we had the best players in the world, but that didn’t translate into world championships. Our best weren’t allowed to play on the world stage.
The Soviet Union was the hockey powerhouse. International hockey (and most other sports) was for amateurs only. Canada’s best players were all paid to do what they did so well. The best Soviet players weren’t allowed by the regime to play professionally: they were amateurs through and through. Mind you, they were amateurs who played hockey 365 days a year. They could do that because they were all officers in the Red Army and seconded to the national hockey team. Sport governing bodies accepted this hypocrisy.
All of which explains why Canadians came to expect and accept less than a championship from our national teams. We’d sent a local firefighters’ recreational league team to the world championships knowing they were unlikely to beat the Russians. It was always about the experience, not about winning.
I think that has made it possible that people my age and older have a defeatist attitude when it comes to international competition, even though professional players now make up the teams. We became accustomed to losing for 30 years and it seems to be the norm.
For Europeans, especially Germans, the World Cup is different. There is an expectation of victory, not defeat. And certainly not defeat in the preliminary round. Losing to South Korea, as happened Wednesday, was seen as impossible.
That match was a heart-stopper for the nation. Fans kept hoping that the team would pull it off in the dying seconds, as the team had in its previous game with Sweden. As the game continued, scoreless, the hysteria of the television commentary was obvious even to me. The unthinkable was about to happen.
I have seen this soccer mania before. When we lived in Liberia, almost 30 years ago, a win by the national team was a big deal. So much so that the day following a victory was a national holiday. Fortunately, national teams don’t play with much frequency outside of the World Cup season, or no work would have been done.
The national team stars were national heroes. The biggest star on that team (which if my memory is working were dubbed the Lone Stars) was a striker named George Oppong Weah. Every Liberian knew who he was. Which may explain why today he is President of the country. In Canada our hockey stars have sometimes been elected to Parliament (including Red Kelly who was an MP while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs) but not has managed to lead a party let alone the country.
The German attitude towards its football heroes is more Liberian than Canadian. I don’t think there will be many smiles in the country today. At least no-one will be talking about the latest political intrigue, which might make some politicians happy – but they would never admit it.