He shouldn’t be here. That’s all Miroslav Klose can think, singing the national anthem on the pitch at the beginning of the opening game for the 2014 World Cup. He shouldn’t be – well, he’d be here in Brazil, even in the stadium, but not here. Not on the pitch. He’s too old for this at thirty-six three days ago, and while it’s not the oldest anyone’s ever played, this isn’t 1982 and he doesn’t think he’s Dino Zoff. The last thing he wants is to slow them down. It doesn’t matter that this is his fourth appearance and, god, his last chance, it really doesn’t matter, not for him. Second, third, third. They’ve been so close for the last sixteen years.
The whistle blows.
It’s halftime and he feels old. He and Arne are standing in the locker room, sipping their water slowly and resting as much as they can before the second half. Somewhere up front, Löw’s giving an inspirational speech, but Klose’s been playing for the national team since before Jogi Löw was coach and as inspired as the man is, even his speeches grow familiar after a while. It’s eight years since he started coaching the national team, and they’re close enough he can predict what the man will say. He catches the coach’s eye, and finds him frowning at him.
Löw pulls him aside as he walks over to join the line.
“You’re thinking I made a mistake,” he says. “I don’t make mistakes, not with the team.”
“No,” Klose says thoughtfully. If there’s one thing Löw doesn’t do it’s allow sentiment to interfere with the game. He remembers the furor over Philip Lahm’s captaincy, the refusal to cap Micha, and smiles. “You don’t.”
“In the last season, you’ve scored a quarter of the goals for Bayern. You’ve assisted in as many again. I’ve got younger attackers,” Löw continues, “Fewer injuries, faster. I could play them and I will play them, but I’m playing you here and unless you are throwing up on the pitch or break your leg, I’ll play you in the final. Now go.”
He goes. And maybe he scores in the first ten minutes of the second half, but he’s had a pretty good season these last few years and despite Bayern’s coaching problems he starts for them as often as not. It’s not like he’s decrepit. Thirty-six! He’s not even lived half his life.
Hell, he can still do a front flip. So he does, and he doesn’t know how anyone could tire of hearing the crowd.
It’s ten minutes before the start of the final and all Miroslav Klose can think is that he shouldn’t be here. He’s standing in the tunnel between Thomas and little Marko, who’re practically vibrating with excitement, and he’s so calm, no one should be this calm before the start of the final of the World Cup. Additional emphases do not, as it happens, attract the excitement he’s hoping to feel. Flori should be starting, or that ridiculously young striker who hadn’t even been signed by a club four years ago, much less called up to the national team. He shouldn’t be here.
Thomas scores a goal in the first ten minutes and he can feel his team start to fray a little at the edges - he’d swear he just heard Basti tell Mario that this was going to be easy. Easy! Uruguay’s beaten just as many teams as they have to get here, and their statistics are just as impressive. But half the team was there when they beat them for third, the last time, and it shows. Bastian is sending long, taunting passes up the field to his best friend, and for once, he doesn’t see the captain call him out on it.
“Philip,” he says, when for a moment the game pushes them close, “They’re… this, they’re too giddy.”
“It’s like any big match,” he tells Miro. “They’re just excited. They’ll calm down, once they tire out a bit.”
“Sure, okay,” he agrees, and turns back to the game. Lahm’s a good captain – the best, he thinks, he’s never seen one better, even if he is right at the heart of it every time there’s a problem with the press. He’s probably right.
Mesut and Marko set him up for a beautiful goal in the fortieth minute, the kind of goal people talk about fifty years later – god, it’s gorgeous, he wants to see a replay, see what it looked like from the side, from the air, from the net, like that beautiful goal in ‘98 by Bergkamp. Settle, touch, strike. Simple. He doesn’t know if he’s ever scored a more beautiful goal.
It’s so loud in the locker room at halftime that he thinks they must hear it in the stadium. Lasse is squirting water at Leander, who is giggling and flushed and half out of his shirt, and the air is full of sweat. He picks up his water bottle, drinks half of it down. It seems freezing cold, although it can’t be more than cool even with the air conditioning. Basti comes up behind him and his congratulatory pat nearly knocks Miro over. Which might be the point of the congratulatory pat, judging by the giggles Poldi is so unsuccessfully attempting to hide. He’d try to frown at them, but this match! Instead, he spins around and squirts Basti, who splutters, and before Poldi is two steps in his direction the brat’s falling down laughing.
Thomas, calm, mature Thomas, is talking so fast he’s turning red and it doesn’t seem like more than half of what he says is anything like intelligible. Arne is gesticulating, describing, from the looks of it, some exciting defensive coup to Mats, who is only nodding and grinning, but when he speaks he moves too fast and his hands jerk out of his control.
Miro suspects neither he nor the rest of them’s ever been so intoxicated on actual alcohol. They’re about as sober as the end of Oktoberfest, and it’s amazing, the whole night is amazing and they’re finally going to win the World Cup.
Someone’s singing the national anthem when Löw walks in and two seconds later they all are, even Löw, who has lost his sweater, a button off his sleeve, and the lace out of his right shoe. Miro knows from sad experience that he tends to fiddle with whatever he can pull at, including, to the amusement of the commentators and the general embarrassment of Germany, his nose.
He doesn’t hear the inspirational speech, though he’s sure there is one; Löw may be beyond excitement, but he’s an excellent coach and excellent coaches do not let their teams go back on the field without hearing what they did wrong and what they need to do. Someone hands the man an air trumpet and he bellows into it, something incomprehensible. It might be something like, ‘so go out there and play!’
And really that’s the best advice he can give right now.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t help.
A lucky shot five minutes out of halftime brings Uruguay up one and they aren’t nervous, not yet. Still bubbling over, almost dancing over the field. A second goal three minutes later brings that to an end. They’ve thirty-seven minutes left to play. Thirty-seven minutes, and he can tell the boys are thinking that any moment now someone will score. Basti will score, he always scores. Mario will score, he says his hair demands that he score, it’s the sacrifice needed to keep up such perfection. Thomas will score, he has the most beautiful shots and they always go in. Miro will score, they think. He’ll score for us. He would if he could.
And no one does. Thirty minutes left. Twenty minutes left. Everyone’s getting frustrated; no one wants penalty shots and no one’s scoring. It’s been a clean game so far and anyone can tell that won’t last. You can see it in the way they run, and you can hear it in the stands. Someone’s going to snap and then there will be ridiculous undignified footage of a shove-fight to watch later, after they’ve won or lost.
The first round of substitutions, finally: Mario comes off for Flori and he sees Löw hesitate and look at him for a moment, then shake his head. It’s a fair call, he has to admit. He’s getting tired.
On the other hand, he’s pretty sure that he’s what’s holding the team together now. Uruguay’s put together an iron defense and they aren’t afraid to foul their opponents, not now. He can see the captain getting angrier and angrier, as each progressive foul happens with no calls beyond a free kick, and it’s really a toss-up at this point who will snap first. If it’ll be Lahm snapping too hard at the ref, or Basti deciding to get a little of their own back with a rough tackle, or if the younger ones will simply snap altogether, lose their ability to play.
Miro trips over an outstretched foot and lands hard. He’s wrenched his ankle, he thinks, and maybe done something to his shoulder – the medics come out with their marvelous spray, and Löw comes with them, since he’s right at the edge of the pitch.
“Can you play?” he asks. “No, should you play? I’m going to sub you out, you can’t play on that ankle.”
He shoos the medics away and stands up, tests the ankle. It feels fine, if a bit wobbly. Behind him, he can hear his captain shouting, and the distinctive motions of Bastian’s jabbing finger seem to indicate a contretemps over the foul committed.
“It’ll do,” he says, “sub me off if you –“
He’s interrupted by the ref’s whistle and he spins around just in time to see a red card flip up, shoved right in Philip’s face. The voice of the commentator booming around the stadium says something about biting, but he can’t quite catch it.
One man down, Miro thinks, and stops there. He can’t think about what this means for the team. Philip is their magic charm, their brilliant fierce and fearsome captain. He’s everywhere on the field, holding up the defense when he isn’t joining the offense.
They can’t lose again. Not now.
The defense. There’s just Arne and Mats now. He looks over at Uruguay and now they’re the ones who can’t keep still.
“I’m pulling you and sending on Boateng,” Löw tells him. Miro grabs his arm, and feels the cameras zoom in. He hates it when they do that.
“Wait,” he says. “Give me ten minutes. You’ve got twenty left. Philip’s off, sir, and look at them. You can’t take me off. If you take me off, they’re going to fall apart. Give me ten minutes.”
The match starts up again, and he’s off before Löw has time to respond – he doesn’t know if he’s got ten minutes, if he’s got twenty, if the whistle’s going to blow in a moment and it’ll be eleven up in red on the substitution sign.
Uruguay attacks immediately. He’s not used to playing defensively; the team’s never been a defensive one the whole time he’s been playing for it. They block it, this time, before it gets to Neuer, but it’s close. So’s the next one and the next. They’re being hammered, and it only takes a minute more before they’ve broken through.
Fortunately, they have a legendary goalie. Neuer stops the ball, and more – he’s trapped it and the match has shifted again in a moment. He uses that breath Neuer takes to set the ball down and aim the kick to catch as many eyes as possible. They’re looking at him now, he realizes, even though it’s Basti wearing the armband.
This attack, it’s just a moment to breathe in before they’re defending again. They’re a man down, confidence shaken. Uruguay knows it, and they’re pressing that advantage. Two minutes of fruitless passing. Miro tries to find as many of them as he can, touch their shoulders. He’s – not quite got a plan, really. He’s not the man to set up plays. But he can nudge them, little by little, into something approximating something that might just work. Get them thinking again.
Four minutes and his time will be up, unless Löw decides to leave him on, but that can’t be counted on. His team is looking a little better now; Bastian is, as Klose is not, capable of playing every part in the team except goalie, he’s terrible at that. Fortunately they still have theirs. The back’s stabilized, if not secure. Lukas looks a bit lost without Basti there to work from so he shoves him into a more defensive role and jerks his head towards Mesut. No need to push Marko and Mesut into position; those two’re still fluid together, even after years in different clubs.
When the next break comes, it’s Mats, not Basti, who runs it forward and passes it to him. He doesn’t think, not for a moment, but passes it to Lukas, who works with Marko, Mesut, and Thomas in a shifting three by three until Mesut breaks free, whips around the encircling net of defenders, and snaps the ball in to Marko, who has taken advantage of their distraction to edge forward, just enough, enough so that he could shoot – but he doesn’t, he dribbles backwards, forwards, twists around and sends the most beautiful cross to Basti, who, out of nowhere, is there to receive it.
The ball hits the back of the net.
That finishes the game, really. Uruguay’s scattered, their concentration broken, and there’s not quite enough time for them to regroup; they launch two more concerted attacks on the German goal, but none of them manages to go in. The referee’s not a stupid man; adding a lot of extra time would be asking for a fight, and he, like everyone else, would prefer the final as clean as possible. He puts on the three minutes bare decency calls for and there’s an end to it.
Miro doesn’t really know what to do. Four World Cups, now, and he’s finally won one. What do you do when you win the Cup? He’s tired and sore and it doesn’t seem quite real until Basti skids to a halt in front of him – he thinks he saw the brats spinning around somewhere to his left – and says,
“Miro! We’ve made a decision!”
“What?” he says, confused. When? For what purpose? There’s nothing left to decide, really. It’s – it’s handshakes and bowing and medals now, he thinks. That’s what we do now.
“It’s a very honorable decision,” Lukas says, appearing on his other side. They turn simultaneously and yell,
“MATS!” and the man lopes over, running a hand through his hair and pretending he hadn’t been giving Marko a piggyback ride moments before.
“Give us a hand, okay?”
And then he’s up in the air, perched on Basti and Mats’ shoulders and clutching desperately at their hair, and he can’t stop laughing, he’s bowing and laughing and Mesut’s making faces at him and Löw’s running towards him from the sidelines, surrounded by a stampede of staff and substitutes.