On returning home on Saturday night my building was suspiciously quiet. At times over the last two weeks it has been an uproariously, drunken lunatic asylum. I mean, that isn’t terribly different to how it is normally at this time of year, but my neighbours had taken to the Women’s World Cup in a big way.
They didn’t care that women were playing. On the surface they have mostly bugger-all in their lives going on to necessitate a party (not that that stops them), and the beautiful game always brings the best out of these normal Berlin folk.
Their ages span decades, from the stoned young wasters mucking about with a mini-bike on the streets out front, to the unofficial Hausmeister and guard dog – we’ll call him Berndt. Berndt resembles a walrus dressed in an ill-fitting man costume. He communicates entirely and exclusively by barking and has no volume control. It took a while to realise that he is as sweet and congenial as one could hope for in a neighbour, but he can only express himself by barking. Loudly. It can be hard to tell if he is happy or not.
Sorry, back to the point of the story. Berndt was unhappy last night. The flag outside his door was still hanging forlornly, but there was nobody in sight. Germany had crashed out of their own world cup after a display of unrivalled profligacy against Japan. The party was over early for the favourites. The arrogance in the advertising campaign that declared “third place is for men“ is looking as ridiculous this morning as Alex Ferguson did when he declared years ago that he didn’t need to buy Rio Ferdinand from West Ham, because he already had Wes Brown.
It was heartbreak all round. Something my neighbours aren’t particularly used to. Even in losing, they usually can be vindicated. For the men, reaching the final in Japan in 2002 itself was a miracle. Losing to Spain in the final of the European Championships, and the Semi Final of the World Cup last year had no shame attached. Supporting the women has been even easier. They hadn’t lost a single game in the World Cup since 1999.
But despite all the huffing and puffing, they simply couldn’t blow the Japanese down. Though they had been stereotyped as a kind of Barcelona-lite passing machine. Japan was tenacious. They defended like titans, and too many German players had off days.
Inka Grings, who single-handedly destroyed the French with her drive and passion, was anonymous. Babett Peter was excellent, driving up the left for 120 fruitless minutes, but her crosses could never quite find a way through. Celia Okoyino da Mbabi kept running into a brick wall when she tried to dribble, and got lost when she dropped deeper and deeper searching for the ball. Her touch deserted her when she needed it the most.
But in one, small way the sadness was negated. It was the first time that I have actively supported Germany in a major championship (old habits die hard), and was stricken with the pathos of Kim Kulig’s departure after only eight minutes. She had been rested against France because of a yellow card, but knew that she was needed to add some steel and guile into a midfield that still had a tendency towards procrastination.
Kulig fell, winning a header that had just gone over the bar. The camera angles made it hard to see, but everybody knew it was bad, because she doesn’t ham it up on the ground. Kulig gives everything, dusts herself down and gets on with her job. But she was in agony. Physically, her knee was shot, but also mentally it was over.
She was out of the World Cup quarter final, and had to wait the agonising next 112 minutes sat on the bench. When her team-mates needed her most, she couldn’t be there. It was agonising. Her face etched with the pain and sadness of the helpless; of the bereft. It almost broke my heart. I was, in many ways, happy that she wouldn’t be alone in her grief tonight, though I doubt she’ll see it like that.
That grief was indelibly marked on the tear strewn faces of all of the players as they still had to parade the rapidly emptying Wolfsburg stadium carrying a banner to say thanks to the excellent fans that had sold out the stadiums for every one of their games so far. To the fans who had made this the most successful Women’s World Cup of all time, but one that is now destined to peter out like an old biro.
For many in the host country, the World Cup is defiantly, and definitely, over.