For years Oliver Khan was the most famous player on the German soccer team. The goalkeeper was so stoic that no one would have been surprised to find out that he had been created in a laboratory; one British newspaper's website constantly referred to him as Mary Shelley's Oliver Khan. In a way he typified the sporting universe's perception of German soccer: devoid of personality and ruthlessly efficient.
So what to make of the German team on display in South Africa? Joachim Loew's side thrashed England 4--1 in the round of 16 on Sunday, the second time it has scored four goals in its four games. (Only two other teams have scored more than three in a game.) But it's not just that Germany has rolled; it's how they've rolled, with a watchable flair. Can it be that the culture whose contributions to literature and film include a book called The Sorrows of Young Werther and a movie (Fritz Lang's M) about a child killer has a soccer team that is actually, you know, fun?
Part of Germany's élan is due to its youth. Injuries and a lack of better options caused Loew to insert whippersnappers Mesut √ñzil (10 caps before the World Cup), Sami Khedira (five) and Thomas Mueller (two) into the midfield. The lineup produces chances galore—at both ends. "My comments might be slightly misplaced, but they're a side that gives the opposition opportunities," said England goalkeeper David James after Sunday's game.
Indeed, Germany nearly blew a first-half 2--0 lead in the span of 90 seconds. (Germany has lost a match after holding a two-goal World Cup advantage once: in 1938.) After England defender Matthew Upson nodded home a goal, midfielder Frank Lampard volleyed a shot onto the underside of the crossbar. It hit the ground a good two feet behind the goal line before spinning out, but neither referee Jorge Larrionda nor linesman Mauricio Espinosa saw it go in. "It was huge," said Lampard. "[Being] 2--2 and pushing to go 3--2 up, I think it would have been a different game. We maybe did get a bit desperate and got [beat] with some counterattacks. For sure, it affects the game."
Its lead safe, Germany tacked on two second-half goals from Mueller, both on counters. But they came after Lampard once again struck the post, leaving England feeling as if the result might have been different had their luck run better—and wondering if Germany has the discipline to make a run to its fourth World Cup title. In the quarterfinals on Saturday the Mannschaft faces Argentina, which has outscored its opponents 10--2 in going 4--0. "I'm not going to put a bet on it, but I know who I fancy," said James. "Because I think [Germany] gives away too many opportunities, there is a vulnerability there." Whatever happens, at least it's going to be fun.
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GETTING FRESH Up-and-comers like √ñzil (8) have turned the Mannschaft into a freewheeling squad.