June 27, 2018: The Day Berlin Fell Silent

As a non-soccer expert, I like playing devil’s advocate and being the voice of all the couch coaches out there. For those of us who follow the World Cup 2018 only every fifth game or so, it is easier to be dispassionate about the individual team losses, or like the case was last night, the sudden departure of Germany from the World Cup following their 0:2 loss to South Korea.

andresr20027_tnsThe game started at 4:00pm, and before that, all business came to a standstill, the restaurants and cafes with TV screens were full to the rafters, even  those that are normally empty at that hour. I left the office at half-time and walked through eerily silent streets. Usually, when Germany plays Berlin transforms into one major party place, with loud, happy and enthusiastic fans dancing, singing, cheering, and having a good time. Yesterday was completely different, and in some places you could hear a pin drop. I made my way to the subway, and even then the silence followed.

The subway system in Berlin offers free wi-fi at most stations, so the ardent sports fans who had to do the unthinkable and commute during the game were able to continue offering fervent prayers to the soccer gods for miracles. Everywhere I looked there were people watching the game on their phones (ah the wonders of modern technology and live-streaming), and when Korea scored the first goal there was a litany of expletives that resounded all over the train.

By the time I got off and walked towards the clinic, I passed three sports bars that are usually loud and wild. It was like walking through a funeral hall. Silence all over. Except at the little Korean fast food stall. The Chinese noodle shop next door was equally jubilant and ready to dish out free food in triumph.

andresr20027_tnsThe German press is blood-thirsty this morning, highlighting the fact that the defending World Cup champions didn’t even make it through the elimination round. Not even 30 minutes after the game the questions all over the radio, internet and TV commentaries were all focused on Joachim Löw, his coaching decisions and whether he would resign. OMG. This is sports, not civil war. No lives were lost here, just a game and dignity. Yes, national (sports) pride was injured, but the way the press is gunning for the national team this morning, you would think they committed mass murder and are being blamed for bringing shame unto the nation.

This bothers and distresses me, because apparently we have become a society that raises only winners and achievers. What kind of teaching, parenting and child-rearing is going on that people cannot accept defeat with dignity? Sports and sportsmanship demands – yes, demands – players to do exactly that, play. In doing so, someone will win, someone will lose. Yesterday it was Korea’s turn to win, and Germany’s time to lose. No team is perfect, no coach has a crystal ball with the perfect strategy. Accept the defeat with grace – and I address this to the fans and the press, not the team. The media has fostered a culture of all-or-nothing, and nothing but gold will do. If a team or athlete comes in second, brings home silver or bronze, it is not good enough. The headlines will wail “we lost the gold” and so on. Hey, wake up, there are some countries that celebrate the achievement of a single medal or even honorable mention, sometimes even the fact that they even have a team participating – remember Jamaica and their bobsleigh team during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary! THAT is dignity is sportsmanship.

The folly of over-achievement is complacency and arrogance. The higher you fly the harder the fall, and the landing is painful. The over-achievers have hit rock-bottom and are coming home this afternoon to a nation ready to boo them at the airport. As a superstitious Asian I would say it was all the fault of the green shirts yesterday, they should have stuck to the lucky white shirts… but that has nothing to do with sports and performance. Fact of the matter is, the team needs to do some soul-searching, but so does the press. It is OK to be defeated. Give the team their dignity back in their loss.

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