As is often the case the story of my love the Die Mannschaft (literally 'The Team') is ultimately a story about childhood heroes.
I did not grow up being a fan of sports teams, in fact I was a late adopter of the very notion of sports. I did not have players I grew up idolizing, I never asked for a soccer ball, football or basketball from my parents for my birthday so I could practice moves I’d seen on TV. My attempts at little league baseball relegated me to right field. I didn't start playing organized sports until freshman year.
Argentina and Germany have clashed twice before in the World Cup final, squaring off in consecutive tournaments in 1986 and 1990. In the first match-up, Argentina won 3-2 and in the second meeting, the Germans (then representing West Germany) came out on top 1-0. For the 1986 World Cup Final between Argentina and Germany Oliver Kahn was just two weeks past his 17th birthday he’d not yet begun his club career with Karlsruher SC where he was born. Bastian Schweinsteiger was 1 year, 10 months old, and 6 months and 13 days prior I had been born in a hospital in Nuremberg, Germany.
For the 1990 World Cup Final between Argentina and Germany, Oliver Kahn was 21 and a starter for Karlsruher SC II, essentially the JV squad for a Bundesliga team. Bastian Schweinsteiger was already beginning youth career for FV Oberaudorf. My father had returned from being stationed in Germany, and we'd moved to Iowa. I'm told it took me until this time to begin speaking because I grew up hearing both English and German at home, much of it between my mother and my Oma who visited for a couple months every few years.
There is subtext in rooting for a World Cup team. Sport is in essence, a competition that replaces battle, and as such the nationalistic pride bordering on jingoism that results is incredibly difficult for Germans to confront. For a generation shamed by World War 2, even the phrase "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" can be a painful reminder of the songs hijacking by the Nazis, to the point that it wasn't until 1991 that Germany agreed to remove the ban and allow just the final third of Deutschlandlied for use as the nation's anthem.
I watched my first soccer game during the 2002 World Cup before my Junior year of high school. My father didn't believe in the TV rotting his child’s brain, but the game was being broadcast on ABC so my 76 year old Oma and I sat downstairs on my family’s old white and blue floral-print couch. My father couldn't overrule Oma, who never talked much about her childhood, but quietly rooted for the team in white on our small RCA television.
2002 Brazil v Germany World Cup Highlights
This was my first notion of soccer. I wasn't even aware of the difference between national soccer and club soccer but I was struck by Oliver Kahn’s stark golden hair and the unique tenacity with which he played the goalkeeper position (which inspired a very popular rock song named after him). This was also my first exposure to the realities of sport, where despite my rooting interest, my team and the first player I looked up to didn't win when I wanted it most.
"Playing the final match with torn ligaments in his right ring finger, Kahn conceded the first goal by fumbling a rebounded shot from Rivaldo to the feet of striker Ronaldo in the 67th minute."
Despite losing, Kahn became the first goalkeeper in history to win the Golden Ball for the best individual performance.
"There is no consolation... it was the only mistake I made in seven games and it was brutally punished".
—Oliver Kahn's statements after the final of the 2002 World Cup
In the intervening years I graduated from high school and found myself adjusting to a host of new people. The resulting chaos of different environments and new experiences were overwhelming and I felt small. I sought out a way to identify myself with something larger, a tribe with a connection I could call my own. The most obvious was the one thing I considered unique, my dual-citizenship, which I could trace only as far back as my mother and her mother.
"A child born to an American parent and a German parent acquires both American and German citizenship at birth, regardless of place of birth. Neither country requires a person born under these circumstances to choose between American and German citizenship. They may keep both for life."
(That's right, if I were any good at soccer, I would be a target of former Bayern Munich head coach Jürgen Klinsmann.)
In 2006, the World Cup would be played in Germany. I was now in college and my mother was coincidentally in Germany with Oma. I’d phone and she’d tell me about how day and night, loud German fans roamed the streets around the Frankenstadion unabashedly singing in German as their national team advanced through the group stage:
4-2 over Costa Rica. 1-0 over Poland. 3-0 over Ecuador.
One of my best friends is first-generation Argentine-American and we watched together as Germany romped 4-1 over Argentina before losing to Italy 2-0 on the 4th of July. In the third place match, Bastian Schweinsteiger scored two brilliant long-range strikes and assisted on a third in a 3-1 victory over Portugal, which won him the Man of the Match.
Once again the team had come up short, but Schweinsteiger’s peroxide-dyed blonde hair reminded me of Kahn, who had earned his final start for the German national team in this third round match. Through Kahn and Schweinsteiger I had a connection from one generation of German soccer to the next.
Among other things, I began to explore my roots through the lens of soccer. I started seeking out ways to follow Kahn and Schweinsteiger and realized they both played for Bundesliga juggernaut Bayern Munich. I realized that fellow Bayern teammates Michael Ballack and future world class fullback Philipp Lahm, (from whom I derive one aspect of my online handle) also played for the national team and were both highly regarded talents. Even the spry 28 year old 'Aussiedler' descendant Miroslav Klose played for Bayern Munich.
Even among my college-age friends, their initial reaction when I told them about being born in Germany and identifying more with that side, the most typical response was "Oh, so your family were Nazis huh? Haha" Despite Germany being the main ancestry in the United States, people who self-identified as German struggle to move past that stigma. It wasn't until recently that I learned about Bayern Munich's history during World War 2.
In the years after the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933, football was "Aryanised". Yet Bayern continued to hold out, after a fashion. The club's Jewish members, players and administrators were forced to leave. Many were later murdered. Albert Otto Beer and Berthold Koppel, two Jewish textile merchants and club members, were deported and killed. Another, Siegfried Weisenbeck, committed suicide. During the Nazi period, local rival club 1860 Munich collaborated with the new authorities, but Bayern selected non-Nazi presidents while Landauer secretly ran things behind the scenes. This ended when he was arrested on Kristallnacht in 1938 and briefly held in Dachau.
Here I'd found something fiercely German and yet proudly apart from the atrocities so quickly associated with Germany and it validated my ancestry, allowing it to be a positive I could claim openly.
2010 saw Die Mannschaft struggle slightly in the group stage, winning 4-0 over Australia and 1-0 over Ghana, but dropping 0-1 to Serbia. Bastian Schweinsteiger had taken charge of the middle of the pitch from Michael Ballack and with his and fellow Bayern teammates Miroslav Klose, Thomas Müller and Philipp Lahm they advanced to face England. I remember the 4-1 outcome because the two Polish-Germans Podolski and Klose split the scoring with the voracious raumdeuter (space-interpreter) Thomas Müller.
Again I joined my Argentine friend as Thomas Müller scored in the first three minutes and Miroslav Klose added a brace to Germany’s 4-0 victory. Bastian Schweinsteiger became a fußballgott in my eyes due to his lock-down of Lionel Messi while also contributing two assists.
Germany lost to Spain 0-1 and finished in third place with a 3-2 victory over Uruguay which again saw Thomas Müller open the scoring and would go on to win the World Cup’s Golden Boot award.
From a 2011 article in the Classical about Germany:
"Classic" Germany–the one defined by square-jawed, stoic demigods like Lothar Matthaus, Berti Vogts, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Michael Ballack, and the downright frightening Oliver Kahn–is dead, and pleasingly so. The spontaneous combustion of the new class–Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, and Lukas Podolski swarming in support of Miroslav Klose in the penalty area, with Mario Gotze unleashing his jet-heeled brilliance coming off the bench–seems wholly un-German compared to the controlled explosions of Ballack and Co. But when viewed in context of the system that created them, it feels natural. Compared to the natural ease of Spanish soccer or the fiery genetics of Brazil, the Germans solved their soccer stagnation at the turn of the 21st century with a typically left-brained Teutonic approach to a right-brain problem, the end result being a team drilled in the art of individualism. Where German teams used to collapse so predictably if their Plan A faltered, they’re now so well schooled in self-expression from an early age that their in-game possibilities seem limitless."
Between 2010 and 2012 I visited Germany twice, and finally got to see the place where my folks met and the street they lived on when I was born. They lived in the same city where Oma resides to this day, her house packed full of photos like the one of a blond-haired boy and his blond-haired grandmother waiting at the bus stop before school. It was during this time I also learned about her time in a German camp as an Aussiedler and the relocations that followed. I knew enough not to pry for too many details, but I could sense that telling me was itself an act of closure.
The 2014 German National team features seven players from Bayern Munich; GK Manuel Neuer, Center-Back Jérôme Boateng, Fullback Philipp Lahm, Winger Mario Götze, Forward Thomas Müller and Center Midfielders Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger don both uniforms. It’s easy to see why a fan of one team could easily become a fan of the other and it’s become my personal theory that those in charge of Die Mannschaft use Bayern as a sort of incubator for National team development. Gathering as many players as possible on a club team allows them to practice together and prove their mettle even in off years while also passing down the culture and years of experience to the next batch of stars.
These past weeks have seen me anxiously watch my team survive the same group of death that the US Men’s National Team barely advanced beyond. I worry because I see the clock ticking down on 29 year old Schweinsteiger and by proxy, Kahn’s chance, to win a World Cup. Bastian has won everything he could conceive of at the club level, seven Bundesliga titles to go with seven German Cups, two League Cups and in 2013 a UEFA Champions League title over fellow Bundesliga rival Borussia Dortmund. For better or worse, the machine that is Germany will eventually roll on without him.
My family now lives in Munich, two hours south of where I was born. I’ll watch Germany play Argentina with my family via Skype, and my Oma, now 88 will be there, rooting for our team, for The Team.
The German uniform bears the same colors as the flag, stark Black, Red and Gold, but like many standards, these colors stand for something.
Durch Nacht und Blut zum licht
From the blackness (black) of servitude
through bloody (red) battles
to the golden (golden) light of freedom
These limited opportunities to bond one generation with the next.
That's why I root for Germany, this year and every remaining chance I have.