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Hope, not expectation

The hosts may not win the cup but they want to enjoy the journey

GERMANY? AGAIN? IT’S ONLY 32 YEARS since the World Cup was previously held on German soil; surely it should have been somebody else’s turn? That was a view pretty widely held when this World Cup was awarded, not least in South Africa, pipped at the post but winners next time around.

But that’s not altogether correct. In 1974, the World Cup was held in just half of Germany. The other half got nothing, as was the custom of the time. In the half where they didn’t get to hold the football tournament, they didn’t get much else either. You led a much glummer life and were much less free, a life full of authority and surveillance in which individuality was a crime and the Stasi were ever on the watch.

East Germany used sport to wage war on the world, with steroid-charged athletes as missiles, and as the coup de grâce, the hormonally charged Katarina Witt. The Stasi went so far as to time her sexual encounters and record them in their logs: seven minutes, says the famous entry. So there is, then, a splendid appropriateness about a German World Cup held in a country that is whole again, and it duly kicked off yesterday evening under balmy Bavarian skies.

It is still less than two decades since the Wall came down and it came down not through political pressure but because of the will of the ordinary people. On both sides, they simply got fed up with it all. The Wall tumbled because people had had enough of it. Perhaps that is what democracy means — not voting, but people saying as one: no they can’t do that.

So, in country that is once again entire, a sporting festival began, with the home nation taking on Costa Rica. The World Cup is always a festival of jingo, but it is also a lot more than that. It’s not really victory that people seek. You could feel that in the fraught and nervy players, and the fraught and nervy supporters. There are no grandiose expectations here: in fact, there is plenty of pessimism. Germany are seen as too lightweight, insufficiently reliant o n traditional disciplines, short of great names. Victory would be nice, but what every one really wants is a ride. A journey. A story to live through. There is a strong feeling here that what matters is not the arriving but the travelling, the hitch-hiking from hope to hope until journey’s end, which is generally at the town Disappointment.

The Germans feel like this and so, too, do the English. It is not a matter of “please God let us win”, but “please, God, let the journey not end just yet”. We can always face one more round, just as the surfer is always ready for just one more wave. For as long as Germany are in the competition, the country will remain en fête and that will be a wonderful thing to live with. Not expecting, but hoping, and there is a lot of difference between the two states.

These opening matches are notoriously nervy affairs: I-dare-not and I-will forever at loggerheads. Scoring a spectacular goal though Philipp Lahm after seven minutes failed to settle anyone’s nerves. The result was that the back line twitched at exactly the wrong moment, Paolo Wanchope — who had a memorable Carlos Kickaballs career around the Premiership — timed his run perfectly, the referee’s assistant made a brave and accurate decision and the scores were level.

Cameroon beat Argentina in the opener in 1990, Senegal beat France at the same stage last time. It can be done. Miroslav Klose put Germany back in front, but angst is a German word. Germany craved the insurance goal and made heavy weather as they looked for it. The crowd simply didn’t trust their side to make the game safe. Now the Germans know what it is like to be English. They’ll be losing on penalties next.

It was only German nerves that were keeping the Costa Rica defence together, and Klose was given two goes to score the third. Costa Rica pulled one back with another from Wanchope, but Torsten Frings sealed it with a belter. It was a glorious moment of release.

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