What a difference 4 years can make.
Wednesday’s embarrassing 2-0 loss to South Korea and worst ever performance by a German side at a World Cup, sent Die Mannschaft packing out of the 2018 tournament in Russia and me to tears. As stark a contrast as you can get from World Cup 2014 in Brazil, that saw captain Bastian Schweinsteiger and Germany win it all.
But that’s just the headliner, the more impactful changes have come behind the international scenes.
That summer of 2014 was the calm before the biggest storms to ever hit my life. The World Cup victory by my favorite team appeared to be the start of a fantastic time in life. I had enjoyed the tournament so much I started following German Bundesliga Soccer, jumping on board with the squad that featured the most players from the national team – Bayern Munich.
Things were good. My lovely wife Julie would soon be starting a great new job, the busy football season was right around the corner which was always great for me at the radio station and we were celebrating on vacation. I clearly remember beaming while wearing my world cup champions t-shirt poolside in Hawaii with Julie and her family in September. I thought, “Can it get any better than this?”
Oh it certainly can…or it can get dramatically worse.
It started in October. A phone call at work from my mom during her doctor’s appointment blew everything up. “I’m worried about what they may have found and I want to make sure we’re ok, that everything is good between us,” she said.
As an only child of an only child mother, our relationship had seen a ton of ups and downs. Over the years it had survived parent/child role reversals, unrealistic expectations on both sides and taken a big upswing since my marriage in 2012. I assured her we were ok. Less than an hour later she called back telling me she wasn’t.
“I have pancreatic cancer,” she cried.
Gut punch. The worst news possible. My mom had always feared getting cancer. She lost her mother to this horrible disease when she was 25. Since then she was adamant about getting any and every cancer concern/scare looked at or treated. She even beat a cancer diagnosis in 2010 with successful robotic surgery.
After a lot of crying and consoling, surgery & treatment took over the remainder of 2014. It was simply awful. I remember asking Julie, “Can it get any worse?”
Yes, it can.
In late December my wife burst into the house in the early morning hours. She was back from a workout, crying and talking so fast I couldn’t understand her. Something was terribly wrong.
Her dad had just died of a heart attack while getting ready for work.
Gut punch. My wife and I were devastated. We had lost a proud, loving patriarch of an outstanding family. A hard-worker who had spent the bulk of his life providing for that family. He was a happy man, a sports fan with a knack for telling corny jokes, who had whole-heartedly welcomed me into his clan.
And now he was gone.
So welcome to 2015, a year of recovering from one death and fearing we were preparing for another. Our days were filled with tears, attempts at emotional recovery and numerous trips up and down I-5 to be with my mom. All while awaiting the inevitable. Our quandary? How does one lean on the other, while both are grieving and worn out?
When times have been tough in the past, the reprieve for me had always been work. More specifically calling a game or doing a show. You can’t think about anything else at the time. When the red light is on, so are you. Call it avoidance or compartmentalizing, but sometimes it’s needed.
Even a workaholic like myself has to slow down, go home and face the music. Even if that music is a sad dirge, stuck on repeat.
I’ve never been a hobby guy. What could lift my spirits and help make the woes go away, if even for only a short time?
The beautiful game.
Without even noticing I had become addicted to German soccer. It shouldn’t be surprising. I am half-German. I played goalkeeper as a kid. Most importantly, as a youngster I used to regularly watch “Soccer Made in Germany” with Toby Charles at my dad’s house. The announcer had a great accent, hooliganism was routinely on display and the international game was somewhat mysterious and enticing!
But as an adult I didn’t like soccer. I had a long history of bashing the sport on the radio. Jokes about orange wedges, soccer moms and 90 minutes of pointless running with a ball were regular fare. But every four years I would tune in the World Cup always rooting for my Germans. Did I fully grasp the group stage/knockout round/goal differential…blah..blah…blah associated with it? No, but Germany was a good team and unlike the US squad they seemed to always be involved until the end. They were my team.
2014 solidified that. I bought a kit. I watched every German match. I read everything I could about the players on the squad. After over two decades in sports radio the idea of being a “fan” had long since been jaded for me. Too many years of watching my favorite players and teams leave and seeing how the “sausage was made” had taken a lot of the fun out of it. This was different. Following Germany took me back to a magical time as a kid where you’re just marveling & learning about sports and your team. Plus, I never had to debate listeners on European soccer! It was as if they didn’t care????
Bundesliga domestic league soccer had taken hold. Despite having to stream it, record it and/or watch it at the weirdest of hours, it was exciting in a similar fashion. Bayern Munich was a great squad. At a time when I so desperately needed a win, they were a near-sure victory every week. And for two hours, garbed in my Bavarian kit, I could escape.
Being a wonderful wife, Julie jumped on board. Reluctantly at first, she watched the matches with me. She started asking more questions about the game and the team. She enjoyed the rare smiles soccer was bringing to our faces. Slowly, Julie was getting hooked and escaping with me.
You can only escape for so long. After a brutal battle, and just days after her 69th birthday, my mom died in October of 2015. I had lost the person that to date, had known me better than anyone. After coming to the end of the first year without Julie’s dad, we were starting the grieving process all over again.
2016 was a zombie-like blur. Lots of work and more tears. A wonderful wedding and two much needed vacations highlighted the year of numbness. Soccer once again provided a pressure valve for the grief. During a vacation to Maui, I read the book “Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World” by Raphael Honigstein. It was outstanding! Delving deep into the how and why of the sport, combining stories about the national team and Bayern Munich. It reminded me of the joy I had watching, reading and devouring everything I could about the Seattle SuperSonics as a kid.
Another vacation was actually centered around soccer. Bayern Munich was coming to the states. Off we went to see them in Charlotte and New York. I turned into a kid again, meeting some of the players and getting photos and autographs. It was a planes, trains and automobiles type of trip that took us to four states, cost way too much money and in the end was worth every penny.
2016 brought another league championship for Bayern Munich and I watched every game. Man did I need each win!
Bring on 2017. We had survived the toughest of losses. Things can only get better…right?
In late October (I really hate that month) I walked into work and was blindsided. After 22 years I was fired for what was termed “strictly an economic decision". I have plenty of thoughts on that, but I’ll save those for a later date.
Gut punch. Suffice it to say, I was crushed.
So, in just three short years we had lost Julie’s dad, my mom and now my job. Rightly or wrongly, a job that had defined me for over two decades. Stability rocked again as everything changed one more time.
Adjusting to this new world order hasn’t been easy. Routines and dynamics have changed. Sadly, and unexpectedly, friendships have been re-defined and yet another sense of loss has been overwhelming. When you can't find your bearings, you look for the familiar. Not much was out there to be found.
Could the beautiful game come to the rescue again?
In 2017 Bayern Munich claimed another league title and the German National Team won the Confederations Cup and the UEFA U-21 Championship. I had a lot more free time (whether I wanted it or not) to enjoy it all, yelling and screaming while watching every match! 2018 was a bit rockier for Bayern Munich, but all signs were looking up for Germany in the World Cup. They were the #1 team according to FIFA, they were among the favorites to win it all again.
Well unless you’ve been living under a rock, you now know that wasn’t the case. Germany crashed and burned in epic proportions. The team looked outmatched, confused and lost during their short tenure in Russia. The losses were unexpected and brutal for this fan. But I was able to find a slim silver lining.
If you were lucky enough to see Germany beat Sweden in the final minute on Saturday, you know how amazing that Toni Kroos finish was. You were also witness to the moment I’ll hold onto from this World Cup. I must have watched the video of his game winner over and over again 100 times. Germany was surely going to have to settle for a draw and lose control of their fate. Boom…goal…2-1 Germany. It was despair to pure joy in an instant.
It was part of the many things I’ve learned during this 4-year odyssey with soccer’s help:
Finding joy in the midst of despair is incredibly tough and you may discover it in the oddest of places. Don’t question it, just hold on to what you find.
2. Getting back to your passions and picking up hobbies are much needed for escape and
catharsis during periods of grief.
3. Those that view sports as “just a game”…don’t get it. It can be so much more, as long as
it’s kept in perspective.
4. One simple win can be more powerful than a raft of losses, both in soccer and life.
5. Former English soccer pro and current broadcaster Gary Lineker was WRONG when he
famously said “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes
and at the end, the Germans always win.”
Not exactly a "Chicken Soup for the Soul" guide list to happiness, but steps in the right direction for me.
I’m not sure what the next 4 years are going to look like. To be honest, I don’t know what the next four days will look like. For good reason, I don’t ask anymore.
What do I know?
I know the Bayern Munich 2018-2019 season starts the last week of August. I know the German National Team is back on the pitch September 6thversus France and we’re one day closer to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The lovely Julie and I will be watching it all!