Think, if you will for a moment, of your country’s wildest sporting dream. For Canadians, a gold medal in hockey might be just the accessory to go with all that maple syrup. In Australia, winning the Rugby World Cup over rivals New Zealand and South Africa is a source of pride for locals. The people of the United States find it best to rest laurels on domestic competitions, only really getting involved externally if their nation happens to be exerting dominance as a sort of athletic manifest destiny. Regardless of the means, people love putting stock in competition because they believe the payoff far outweighs potential letdowns. It is fun to concoct scenarios, however unlikely, in which your team defies all the odds to win. Be careful what you wish for, however. Living vicariously means dying vicariously, and the only resting place for most is a grave on the world’s most visible stage – the FIFA World Cup.
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After years of coming up short in major tournaments, Germany has finally broken a two-fold spell, one for itself and one for European teams in South America, and won the World Cup. Following a scoreless ninety minute period which begat extra time, a very late goal from a midfielder at a tight angle sealed the world championship. The team impressed with its incredible combination of ball control, skill, finesse and fitness, with a world-class midfield and perhaps the best goalkeeper on the planet manning the posts. Scoring could come at any time from just about anyone, as the team’s sole striker was merely one tool in an ever-expansive shed. Their coach, a pragmatic machinist whose playing career was good but not distinguished, is being hailed as a genius for mentoring and handling a golden generation.
Does any of this sound familiar? As Spain found after winning three consecutive major tournaments from 2008-2012 and then crashing out of Brazil in spectacular fashion, it is a difficult task to get to the pinnacle, but it is perhaps a far more grueling endeavor to even attempt to stay there. Ten years in the making, Germany’s victory almost felt inevitable in the wake of Bayern Munich’s preeminence in Europe and the seamless coalescence of vibrant youth and established veterans. Whereas Spain’s tiki-taka reduced the world’s game to a clockwork tapestry of invisible triangles, the German ethos emphasized power, utility and a willingness to do what must be done in order to win. Anything else would have been unfathomable.
That’s not to say that the German victory is undeserved in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. Over the course of the last month, Germany has been the most consistent and thorough side of any in the tournament, even with its weak showings against Ghana and, yes, the United States. The team passed more fluidly than at previous Cups and Euros, and Manuel Neuer finally seems comfortable in his supremacy, having taken the keeper’s throne from Iker Casillas and deflected any and every potential uprising.
Observers have taken to referring to Germany as “the machine,” a moniker as indicative of the nation’s industrial history as it is of the team’s efficient complexities. Indeed, when some parts ceased to work, Joachim Löw seemed to be able to swap them out for others interchangeably. Like the Spanish national team and, to a degree, the San Antonio Spurs before it, Germany surrounded its formidable core with a rotating cast of functional, albeit world-class, characters, each cognizant of the role he would be filling upon entering the playing field. It was this total surrender of the individual to the team which led to the German triumph, its first since 1990. With Lionel Messi staring ominously from the opposing side, the machine produced as expected, much to the chagrin of a lone star.
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You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super-states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy, and truth is a menace.
There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone which I saw (again) recently and had been turning over in my head for sometime before that. In “The Obsolete Man,” a librarian faces punishment for carrying out his duties in an unnecessary sector of society. The totalitarian government has, predictably, done away with literature and other forms of artistic expression, and the result is a bland, dystopian society whose State kills off those who become “obsolete.” Everyone fills a role, and when they don’t, they’re finished.
I won’t spoil the episode, but, as I’m sure you can imagine, every person eventually becomes obsolete as the State produces better-looking people with better ideas and less talent. No one is safe. The mere illusion of safety is a State-produced fantasy, and even in the best of times, the end, obsolescence, is never too far. Proving oneself to be relevant and functional can even be damning.
Everything came together for the German national team in Brazil. All the cogs spun according to plan, and the moving parts seemed almost to replace themselves at times. One Reus here could be an Özil there, and so on. Germany has reached the peak during a fiercely competitive era in soccer, and with an excellent group of young players either just entering or in the midst of their prime, this may just be the spark the team needs to go on a run similar to Spain’s over the last six years.
Funny thing about chasing history, though. It is far better to create your own path than to try, and fail, to re-create someone else’s. What Spain did was, in truth, an outlier, a statistical anomaly not likely to be repeated in this or in any era. To achieve the highest level of success in the world’s most-played sport is human; to sustain it is divine. An expectation of continued relevance, let alone great success, is foolish, and the pursuit of it may only lead to frustration engendering madness.
The Germans have earned their time, but they must be careful not to rest too easily on their laurels. In 2016 and, more importantly, in 2018, new, unknown challengers to the throne await, and they will be hungry for success. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, and the faceless devils awaiting Germany are just the kind to render this team and its style obsolete. It can happen that quickly, and it does happen – at the FIFA World Cup.
“History teaches you nothing, does it?”
“On the contrary, history teaches us a great deal.”