One Small Voice: Infected by their spirit

2008-06-20 00:00

In sport, in life, never say never.

Yet, on Thursday night at the St Jakob stadium in Basel, I found myself sitting among the massed ranks of black, red and gold; and … I confess, bless me father for I have sinned, may the ancestors forgive me … I allowed myself to be swept along by an irrepressible tidal wave of emotion as Michael Ballack’s team surprised the pundits and defeated Portugal 3-2 in the first quarter-final of Euro 2008.

‘Ole! Ole! Ole! Super Deutschland! Super Deutschland! Ole! Ole! Ole!’

Those words passed my lips, they really did. What’s more, I repeatedly stood, clapped, yelled and joined in a series of patriotic chants and dance routines more usually seen in a primary school.

How did this happen? I’m not sure.

On reflection, there had been no indication of impending emotional vulnerability and moral frailty during a warm afternoon in this functional Swiss city. Bedecked supporters of both teams had mingled in the streets and squares, enjoying the unique atmosphere that envelops all of the most enjoyable major sporting events. In fact, I had spent most of the day taunting German colleagues that their cumbersome defence would be exposed by Cristiano Ronaldo, and that the national elf would be eliminated, ideally in a penalty shoot-out.

“We never miss penalties,” they replied, arrogantly and accurately.

I arrived in the stadium to find a large piece of red paper on my seat, something which — I was informed by the off-duty traffic officer from Saarbrucken sitting beside me — I should hold above my head when the teams walked on to the field. In so doing, he told me, I would contribute one red square in a giant mosaic of the German flag at our end of the stadium. This was clearly an obligation, not an invitation.

Fearful by nature, I held my red square in the air and joined the chorus: “Heimspiel in Basel, wir singen Heimspiel in Basel …”

In fairness, it did feel like a “home game in Basel” as the Hun hordes outscreamed a few pockets of purple Portuguese. Similarly on the field, sheer German muscle and mental strength seized the initiative, and goals by Bastian Schweinsteiger (‘Schweni’) and Miroslav Klose (‘Miro’) put us 2-0 ahead after 25 minutes.

Chances followed at both ends and Portugal did pull a goal back before the interval, but Ballack’s powerful header on the hour restored the two-goal cushion and, even though a late goal by Hélder Postiga did fray the nerves, the outcome was never in doubt. I even learned to speak German during the course of the second half … “ja-ja” seemed to sustain any conversation, “genau” created an impression of understanding and “total-super” showed enthusiasm.

At the end, as Ronaldo sulked away, without acknowledging the Portugal supporters, ensuring he will forever be a hero who inspires great admiration and zero affection, the celebrations began and our jubilant heroes gathered on the pitch right in front of our stand.

Lu! Lu! Lu! Lu-kas Podolski!

The striker, evidently as excited as any of us, assumed the role of conductor and led his team-mates and the grandstand full of fans through a series of songs. The spectacle of a millionaire star player in such perfect harmony with the fans is sadly rare in professional sport, but it was fun, wonderful and memorable.

On and on, for maybe 25 minutes after the final whistle, true fans and impostors alike, we celebrated with the team. Strangers hugged each other like family members, sharing the joy and exhilaration.

The message for South Africans counting down the days until they shine in 2010: open your minds, open your hearts and prepare for a party like you have never seen before. Well, maybe never.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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