The lasting visual memory of the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ is arguably the ever-present sea of Germany flags, proclaiming a nation’s pride and a country rediscovering patriotism in its most healthy form. People think back to a host nation transformed, from stereotypical dour efficiency into welcoming and celebratory hosts to people from all over the world.
The significance of the event, hailed afterwards as the "summer fairy tale" by Germans themselves stunned at an apparent sea-change in the national character, extended beyond the sport itself. However, the world’s favourite game was the essential catalyst for a new self-perception and external image. The single match which best embodied this momentous development took place in the late afternoon on 30 June at the Olympic stadium in the capital city of Berlin.
Faced by in-form Argentina, the Germany side cajoled by Jurgen Klinsmann into adopting a near-revolutionary attacking élan squeezed to victory on penalties and progressed to the semi-finals. Drama, ecstasy and seething emotion were all part of a memorable afternoon, with key roles played by a scrap of paper and a string-puller who suddenly stopped pulling strings. At the end, a respected coach called it a day, and a nation of 80 million exceeded their own previous efforts in dancing the night away.
The fixture was a mouth-watering re-run of the FIFA World Cup Finals of 1986 and 1990, in which each nation claimed victory once, but the South Americans were strong favourites on this occasion. With three wins and a draw, scoring ten goals and conceding just two, Jose Pekerman’s side had marched impressively into the quarter-finals.
The world sat up and took notice of the two-time world champions following a thumping 6-0 group stage win over Serbia and Montenegro. However, the Germans were determined to neutralise their opponents’ fast and skilful play. "Argentina were favourites before the tournament, but it’s their misfortune to meet us now," said Miroslav Klose beforehand.
Klinsmann’s men were certainly confident. Roared on by the home crowds, they had also scored ten and conceded just two when winning all four of their opening matches. Klose and young strike partner Lukas Podolski had fired seven goals between them, but after dispatching Costa Rica, Poland, Ecuador and Sweden, Argentina represented the hosts' first really serious test. After all, almost six years had passed since Germany had beaten one of the recognised big names of the game, in a 1-0 win over England at the old Wembley in a Korea/Japan 2002 qualifier.
Verbal sparring characterised the build-up. "I’m not frightened. It’s up to Germany to prove they’re any good," Carlos Tevez fired back at Klose. The emotionally-charged atmosphere created by the 72,000 at the historic Berlin arena came as little surprise.
Clearly determined to stamp their authority on proceedings despite the intimidating surroundings, Pekerman’s stars dominated the opening exchanges of a hard-fought encounter. For their part, and faced with the smallest team in the tournament with only three players taller than 1.80 metres, the Germans aimed high balls at their target men, only to make little headway.
For the South Americans, playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme sought to continue the majestic probing and prompting which had been so effective at the finals thus far, but gaps in the deep-lying German rearguard were few and far between. Riquelme required a set-piece to break the deadlock, swinging over a corner four minutes from half-time for Roberto Ayala to power a header into the net, the first time the hosts had fallen behind at the tournament.
Michael Ballack and his men battered away at the Argentinians in an effort to stave off defeat, but La Albiceleste always looked comfortable enough. That was until the 72nd minute, when Pekerman replaced Riquelme with the more defensive Esteban Cambiasso. Germany suddenly took charge, and Klose headed an 80th-minute equaliser, unlikely as it had seemed just minutes earlier, but to the joy of the massive crowd.
Extra-time passed with both sides focused exclusively on avoiding a potentially decisive error, and the tension ratcheted up another notch as the game moved to penalties. The eyes of the world turned to Jens Lehmann, the keeper who controversially displaced the legendary Oliver Kahn shortly before the FIFA World Cup on home soil.
"Best of luck. It’s up to you now, and you can do it,” Kahn whispered to his unloved rival, shaking hands in a gesture of reconciliation likely never to be forgotten in Germany. And Lehmann duly did it, saving from Ayala and Cambiasso in the defining moments of his long career, to send his side through to the FIFA World Cup semi-finals. A nation took to the streets and partied like never before.
"Goalkeeping coach Andy Kopke scribbled the vital details on that little piece of paper, which went on to achieve so much fame," Lehmann said in an extract from his soon-to-be-published autobiography. The player, who finally hung up his gloves at the age of 40 after the 2009/10 campaign, was the hero of Berlin on the day. But the scrap of paper, which the keeper pulled from his shin-pad and consulted before the eyes of each Argentine penalty-taker, became the stuff of myth and legend.
However, Lehmann later confessed, he could hardly read the coach’s helpful hints. "Andy, why did you have to write in pencil? No-one can read this," he cursed as Cambiasso stepped up. But in any case, the sub’s name never appeared on the scribbled note. The keeper saved the penalty, the slip of paper was later auctioned for charity, and Lehmann became a Kahn-like idol.
What happened next
Distressed Argentina coach Pekerman quit after the game: "This chapter is at an end. I definitely won’t stay in the job." The German fairy tale ended in the semi-finals with a 2-0 extra-time defeat to eventual world champions Italy. Klinsmann’s side beat Portugal 3-1 in Stuttgart to seal third spot, and millions turned out to hail them as if they had won the Trophy. Both teams are again among the favourites for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.