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Jacob Sweetman: Waiting for goals

It is a sign of how loved in Berlin Arne Friedrich still is that his goal at the weekend for the Chicago Fire was so widely reported. Unfortunately this is a joke with a punchline.

Image for Jacob Sweetman: Waiting for goals
Photo by Steindy (Wikimedia Commons)

You’ve always got to read to the end of the sentence. In any language this is useful, but especially in German, with its reliance on verbs that are split apart like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in the film Twins – the big strong, power hungry one with terrifying delusions of being born to lead goes at the front, the shitty little short ab goes at the end, sulkily bringing up the rear with its annoyingly criminal intentions.

I wasn’t undone yesterday by a misplaced ab, it was the obvious joke in the piece towards the back of the Berliner Kurier that began with “Arne Friedrich scored yesterday” Of course there was a punchline, but somehow I skipped over it until this morning – “…an own goal”.

There is a beautifully cruel, old football song, “You Couldn’t Score In a Brothel”, which might have been created specifically for Friedrich, the man who played eight seasons at Hertha BSC and was captain for six of those, the man who was a superb centre back in an old fashioned way. He was blood and thunder, but could also carry the ball out with remarkable finesse at times – usually when one was just remarking on his lack of ability

He is one of those players for whom Sepp Herberger’s famous line about the beautiful unpredictability of football (“the ball is round”) was designed. If he found himself towards the end of a match up the other end of the pitch, his team desperately searching for one more opportunity, the ball would more often than not pass him by. Or it would squirm off his head at an astonishing angle (the ball is, after all, round).

Friedrich did score 14 times in his German league career, a goal every 1582 minutes – all but one in the blue and white of Hertha – but it was in the German National team that he really set the pace for not scoring. He played 82 times and scored once (that is one goal every 7380 minutes, such as you ask).

The goal. The point of football in microcosm is that, well, goal. It is the boiled down, bare-bones of the game – the crux of the whole thing being to get that round, white, leather thing that Herberger was always on about, and to get it into that rectangular thing at the end of the park. Just one goal, it shouldn’t be so hard. Friedrich may not have done it before or since, but then if you are only going to score one international goal, you might as well make it a good one.

Hertha had already been relegated after a miserable 2010 when everything seemed to go wrong for them. They had some heroic performances that year – but they usually ended up in the same result as the better remembered insipid ones that blighted the season so anyway. Friedrich wasn’t going to play in the 2. Bundesliga, and was on his way to join Dieter Hoeness (the scrawny, ugly, scheming DeVito to his brother, Uli’s, sausage selling, power mad Schwarzenegger) at VFL Wolfsburg to try and cement his place at the heart of the national team’s defence.

He had put all of that out of his mind as he played every minute of the World Cup in South Africa as Germany bewitched the world with their young and exciting, multicultural Mannschaft – and it was he, the man for whom the word Torlos was a way of life, that got to add the gilding to the lily that was their coruscating victory in the quarter final against Diego Maradona’s Argentina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger jinked down the left hand side of the box, beating one, two, three men like they were running through quicksand. He cut the ball back from the by-line to the edge of the six yard box where, of all people, Friedrich was bursting past Gabi Heinze. He hit the ball the first time, all the time as ungainly as Bambi on ice – it looked all the time as if gravity itself was conniving to stop the big man’s big moment – but it rolled gloriously inside the unguarded near post.

Angela Merkel was giving it the “I-am-such-a-big-football-fan” thing in the stands, surrounded by bored looking dignitaries, but it was Arne Friedrich who had broken the longest run of a German national player without scoring a single goal. And, despite the fact that he was gone, he was briefly Berlin’s Arne Friedrich again. The city was proud of their adopted son.

He left Wolfsburg under his own impetus – cancelling his contract after a horrible, injury laden time in a disconsolate and deluded side on the slide – to wind up at the Chicago Fire, for whom his own goal on Saturday was the first time he had hit the net since that game in Cape Town. It is a sign of how much he is still respected that the goal was so widely reported.

Now he just has to try and get one in at the other end, and he will be celebrating like it was 2010 all over again. He can finish the sentence without the punchline at the end. It would be nice if Arne Friedrich could end his own sentence with an exclamation point – with a Tor.