Aidan Smith: ‘I loved the Wagnerian nutters’

THERE are a lot of questions which, with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation, we’re asking about Scotland before Gordon Strachan’s first big, meaningful, grown-up, long-trousered match as international boss.
Stefan Effenberg, who scored in Germanys 2-0 win, arrogantly challenges Scotland midfielder Stuart McCall at the Euro 92 finals in Sweden. Picture: GettyStefan Effenberg, who scored in Germanys 2-0 win, arrogantly challenges Scotland midfielder Stuart McCall at the Euro 92 finals in Sweden. Picture: Getty
Stefan Effenberg, who scored in Germanys 2-0 win, arrogantly challenges Scotland midfielder Stuart McCall at the Euro 92 finals in Sweden. Picture: Getty

But, turning our gaze if we dare towards tonight’s opposition, the really interesting imponderables concern Germany.

This might seem daft. Surely there isn’t a word for “imponderable” in the German language, just as there aren’t words for “shy” or “retiring” or “wee sleekit cow’rin tim’rous beastie”.

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But can this team stay hungry? Can they, as some were predicting immediately after the Maracana triumph, dominate for the next six years, maybe the next ten? Was there any significance in how the retirement-hit defence conceded four in 50 minutes to Argentina in last week’s friendly? Just how long did that World Cup-winning party last? How crummy was the indigenous music? (We’ve still got to be able to lord it over them in some way). And could unity yet be shattered by a sudden outbreak of big-shot behaviour?

Let’s be honest, this is pretty indigenous, too. Think of Franz Beckenbauer, Der Kaiser, not backward in coming forward, from sweeper position or anywhere. Think of Rudi Voller whose perm was a dire dare: “Go on, tell me it’s a shocker, ja.” Think of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who played on with broken legs and arms half hanging off to ram home his credentials as Der Macho-man. Think of Andreas Brehme, unbreakable robot perfection. Think of Oliver Kahn, the oldest swinger in the most decadent disco in Berlin. Think of Lothar Matthäus, even more vain than Kahn, who told a girlfriend, “Come on, Sylvia, give me a French kiss for the cameras”, and whose relentless opinions earned him the nickname “The Loudspeaker”, causing Voller to despair: “Why don’t you go and talk to a toilet seat?” Think of Stefan Effenberg, maybe the vainest and most argumentative of the lot, who gave Germany fans the finger, just as the great Beckenbauer, in his pre-football statesman days, had once spat in their direction.

Michael Ballack was perhaps the last German to get anywhere near the national team who gave the impression he was standing back and admiring his own passes, and would have rather liked to be painted at these moments, as if atop a Bavarian hill, king of all he surveyed, with his Sylvia gazing up at him, adoringly. But coach Joachim Löw eased Ballack out of the picture because he was slowing the play. He, and Jürgen Klinsmann before him, slapped down others, too. The team was the thing. Germany, if they were to succeed, had to pick and choose their national stereotypes. Efficiency, power, the collective – good. Strutting egomania – bad.

I’ve always loved German football for this contradiction. The love affair began with a poster from childhood obtained with newspaper coupons which illustrated the party-pieces of the world stars including “Franz Beckenbauer’s Relaxed Ankle”. A ball struck this special way, the text read, was too fast for opponents to stop, slowing down so a team-mate could collect in his stride. “That’s straightforward velocity,” scoffed my father. But I, for one, believed. The most recent reaffirmation of this love came two months ago in that incredible semi-final when Thomas Müller decided not to try to score the second goal, Sami Khedira chose to pass for the fourth and Mesut Özil found someone better-placed for the fifth – brilliant unselfish play all around.

But I’ve also loved the brilliant-but-bad, totalitarian, Wagnerian nutters of German football, even the seemingly unlovable Effenberg. When he stole team-mate Brian Laudrup’s flash new wheels he couldn’t believe the Dane’s outrage. “I only went for a drive in your car,” he sneered, “I didn’t f*** your wife.” (No, he slept with Thomas Strunz’s wife). I can still see Stef-Eff going head-to-head, literally, with Roy Keane in those epic Bayern Munich-Manchester United clashes of yore. Maybe Effenberg wanted to be painted atop another hill, a proud, rutting stag. Of course, I was watching agog from a safe distance, happy in the knowledge he wasn’t causing chaos in the Scotland team.

Interestingly, Germans don’t altogether recognise the pose. “One of the most baffling accusations levelled against the national teams is arrogance,” writes Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger in Tor!, his brilliant history of German football. “We would never allow one of our teams even the slightest air of complacency. Arrogance is the beginning of the end.” But the book was written before the revolution. After Germany’s dismal failure at Euro 2000, change was needed. Millions were pumped into the game at youth level and a national network of 366 training centres was set up. Look out for the fruits of this at Russia 2018. Meanwhile, the Bundesliga began to thrive again thanks to cheap prices and sound morals and Müller and Co were promoted from the successful under-21s to the full squad. And, when the striker with the famous German name scored two goals in the trouncing of England at the 2010 World Cup, he explained how Germany had beaten a team containing too many “alpha males” not prepared to “go the extra mile for their team-mates”. England, by the way, were booted from Euro 2000 at the same stage. They chose to spend their money on the new Wembley, last week dubbed a white elephant, and maintain the tensions and lack of continuity between clubs and country.

Is Müller actually a striker? Or is he one of the most intelligent, fluent footballers operating all over the pitch right now? After leaving Gareth Barry and his chums heavy-thighed and huff-puffing, Germany in South Africa were hailed for their new-found flair. Müller and Özil had added a dancing unpredictability to the traditional virtues.

Now, you could argue the World Cup was won this year without huge input from the guys with the most flair and maybe the most unGermanic members of Löw’s squad in the historic sense. Özil rarely sparkled, Mario Götze’s golden goal masked a generally poor showing and Marco Reus was injured. But that theory is blown away by one performance, maybe not the performance of all-time, but certainly the result. I still don’t know how Brazil managed to score even one goal. And, if I’m annoyed that they did, what must the Frankfurt super-banker or the reserve tuba player in the smallest oom-pah band feel like?

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Ah, but that’s the old supremacist viewpoint. Germany eased off at half-time, not wanting to utterly humiliate the tournament hosts. Manuel Neuer dashes from his goal but is unlikely to half-kill an opponent and not say sorry like Harald Schumacher once did. Andreas Möller’s goosestep goal-celebration probably won’t be copied any time soon. For Scotland to win in Dortmund we’ll probably need one of the heroes of Brazil to stop and admire the view from his personal hilltop, then to be outraged that two team-mates he’s always secretly regarded as inferior are doing it, too.

That would be my idea of a perfect outcome.