WHEN David Cameron and his family were on their German mini-break courtesy of Chancellor Angela Merkel, I wonder if the chat at her official residence near Berlin got round to football.
Cameron isn’t much of a fan but Merkel definitely is and she must be thrilled right now. If there was a World Cup for financial affairs, Germany would be champs, and next year in Brazil they’ve got a great chance of winning the real thing. Cameron, on the other hand, as he seeks a more flexible European Union where “we don’t all have to do the same things in the same way at the same time”, could look to the example of the Champions League.
The innate flexibility of football has meant that the best team in the world can, in the space of two seasons, suddenly seem highly vulnerable (Barcelona). It’s meant that the self-styled best league in the world can, within four seasons, go from three clubs in the semi-finals to none even making the quarters (English Premier). And it’s meant that a league which fell out of style when it lost its indigenous talent, seeming to indulge in sulking self-harm by perpetuating the permed mullet, can rebuild with cheap admission prices and fantastic youth development to the extent it’s on the brink of turning a Wembley final supposedly in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Football Association into a private, local competition – and, ja, does this stadium sell beer and will it come in European Cup-sized tankards?
This is the Bundesliga, of course. Barça and Real Madrid have still to be overcome but who’s to say it won’t be an all-German showdown betwen Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund? Barcelona struggled against AC Milan and Paris St Germain: Bayern are better than both. In the other semi, Dortmund shouldn’t fear Real, having achieved a win and a draw against them earlier in the competition.
Not so long ago, German football triumphed by dint of its sheer Germanness. The national team won the World Cup in 1990 and became European champions in 1996 and both times the rest of the football world asked: “How did that happen?” How could a team succeed while possessing so little flair, over-depending on a few gigantors while sporting those hideous zigzag shirt designs? Germany didn’t win these tournaments, so the football snobs said, they merely prevailed in them. Meanwhile, my Hearts-supporting friend Ricky, who wears the white of Germany under his Hearts top (well, it couldn’t be the green away strip, could it?), would smile and say: “What’s wrong with efficiency? I love it.”
But Bayern and Dortmund aren’t simply efficient. In Thomas Müller, Bayern have one of those quicksilverly ghost-like players, neither properly midfield nor attack, operating in the zone between and causing mild havoc. England seem incapable of producing a version of this ultra-modern footballer, but they’re becoming a German speciality (Mesut Özil is another). Properly up front, Mario Mandzukic won drooling praise from no greater aesthete of centre-forward play than Alan McInally for his performance against Juventus (prefaced of course by yet another reminder of Rambo’s Bayern days). And Bayern, being German, still do efficiency but it’s good efficiency – the focus and discipline to wrap up the Bundesliga and close in on the Champions League despite coach Jupp Heynckes’ previously-announced retirement. At Manchester United a few years ago, when the teacher said he was leaving, there was lots of mucking about at the back of the class, forcing Sir Alex Ferguson to change his mind.
I’d love to see Bayern lift the European Cup in England given that they thoroughly deserved to beat English teams in two previous finals (Man U in 1999, Chelsea last year) and contrived to lose. But maybe I’d love Dortmund to win it more. Before youthful nerves showed against Malaga, they’d been the outstanding team in the competition, exuberant in their buzzy yellow-and-black, with Marco Reus, pictured, Mario Götze and Nuri Sahin passing the ball with as much verve as Barcelona’s tiki-taka masters and – dare I say it – slightly more penetration to romp the so-called Group of Death. They’ve also been responsible for the Champions League’s most beautiful moment thus far – Reus’ outrageous flicked pass last Tuesday setting up their first goal. With stunning improvisation, the player showed that footballers don’t all have to do the same things in the same way. David Cameron must surely approve and applaud.