Though the result has been an unstoppable realism, the thing that animates the soul of German football is fatalism.
It starts in 1954, with the first of the country’s three world championships, and the manager of that team, Sepp Herberger.
Herberger was an autocrat and a divisive figure, given to the sort of bland pronouncements that pass for philosophy when they emerge from the mouths of sportsmen.
“Der ball ist rund” is the most famous of them – “The ball is round.”
Germany’s been turning that one over in its mind for 60-odd years, and still hasn’t tired of it.
They’ve been lavished in good fortune since, but German greats continue to talk about football like it requires years of hermetic isolation to fully comprehend. Or maybe just a good, long cry.
Manager Otto Rehhagel: “Sometimes you lose. Sometimes the others win.”
Franz Beckenbauer: “One can win each game. One can also lose each game.”
And this, possibly the greatest sports quote of all time, from current player Lukas Podolski: “Football is like chess, but without the dice.”
Here, then, is the essential difference between England, the country that invented the game, and Germany, the country that mastered it.
The former approaches it with boundless hope, knowing full well it will all end in disaster. The latter creeps toward each tournament with dread, secretly sure that it will work itself out in the end.
When they last hosted, in 2006, Germany spent the weeks of lead-up convincing themselves they were going to be humiliated. Once you arrived, they’d done nothing to glam the place up. Just before the opening game, they booed their own mascot.
Away from the stadiums, the tournament barely existed. Germany still made the semis. Ho hum.
Despite great ability, this tendency toward dourness permeates German football. On the pitch at least, it’s been absent for a while. It reappeared on Monday.
This game was a chance to right a long-standing historical wrong – the so-called “Shame of Gijon.” That was the game at the 1982 World Cup in which Germany and Austria conspired for a result that pushed a vibrant Algerian team out of the tournament. That contest is the reason that the final meetings of the group stages now kick off at the same time.
Algeria arrived here having never lost to Germany at a World Cup. They were still 10-1 underdogs. This was a pro forma result. They decided to play the game anyway, just to be sporting.
From the off, Algeria had by far the brighter side. If fortune favours the brave, this had the feel of a huge upset.
Algeria was repeatedly able to run in behind their opponent’s backline. The only things keeping the Germans in it were the remarkable instincts of their goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. On 11 occasions in the first half, Neuer had a touch of the ball outside his own penalty area. One of them was a stunning, sprawling tackle that almost certainly saved a goal. It could just have easily ended in a red card and disaster.
In the second half, it settled into that old cliché – a goalkeeper’s duel.
This tournament continues to deliver in every possible way. Somehow, the games without goals are more compelling than the ones shot through with them. This was end-to-end, defence-free stuff, in which the prescience of Neuer and the instinctive reactions of his counterpart, Rais M’Bolhi, prevented a baseball score.
But as it wore on, you could feel Germany beginning to take hold of proceedings. At this stage, guts will get you so far. International class and a team packed with players who’ve already acclimated to the biggest stages at the pro level will take you through.
The Algerians pushed it to added extra time, still scoreless. Credit to them – this was no fluke. They traded blows with one of the best teams in the world, and never once touched the mat.
Two minutes into the extra period, a crossed ball drifted into the Algerian box. This time, André Schurrle opted against the straight blast; M’Bolhi had turned away a half-dozen of those. Instead, Schurrle tapped it lightly with the heel of his trailing foot. The ball skittered into the net while M’Bolhi was still trying to figure out where it had come from.
It was a goal of diabolical creativity, and another tournament highlight.
Predictably, it ended in madness. The Germans scored again, in the 120th minute. The Algerians finally got one in the 121st. You wished it could go on.
But once again, despite the imminence of fate, German football overcomes all obstacles, including itself. That’s both their secret and their way.