Football: The Inconsolables

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The Independent Online
FRANZ BECKENBAUER has done many things for German football, almost all of them with style and grace. But never have those qualities been more obviously called upon than in the hours after his club's defeat in Barcelona. Etiquette demanded that the Bayern players attend the official post-match Uefa banquet, though the only company they wanted to keep was their own. In front of the 800 guests, who had already given the losers a two-minute ovation, Beckenbauer, the club president, rose to speak.

He said that Bayern had lost a football match, they had not lost a battle or a war, or their lives. "I am proud of what you have done," he told the players. "I am proud of how you played and the whole of Germany will be proud too. But we have seen tonight how cruel football can be."

Just how cruel only those dressed in the colours of Bayern will know. After 90 minutes Gerhard Aigner, general secretary of Uefa, had gone down to the dressing-room to tie the red-and-white ribbons with the Bayern logo on to the most coveted cup in club football. Three minutes later, an aide came rushing down. "Change the ribbons," he said. "Are you crazy?" Aigner responded.

The sense of disbelief still pervaded the club's handsome headquarters in the Saebenerstrasse in Munich's suburbs on Friday as the players gathered to prepare for their league match away to Bayer Leverkusen. They had arrived back at Munich airport at 2am on Thursday and dispersed without a word. Once they had reached the sanctuary of the dressing-room in the Nou Camp, no one had spoken for 20 minutes. Markus Horwick, the club's urbane and efficient press officer, felt as if he was gatecrashing someone's funeral. "It was like a morgue," he said. "Some players were crying, others you could come up to within half a metre and they wouldn't see you, some just began to pack their shirts away in their bags without seeing or thinking."

Horwick has worked at Bayern for 20 years and has supported the club all his life. When you go there he will show you round the training facilities and the offices, not like a tourist guide in a foreign city, but with the pride of someone showing you his home. The jacuzzi, the swimming pool, the chute where the muddy training boots go for cleaning and the dressing- room with numbers and the names of the players above the lockers. Oliver Kahn on the right, Lothar Matthaus and Stefan Effenberg side-by-side in the centre, Mario Basler on the left.

He enjoys his work and is good at it because he loves the club by nature. But in the bowels of the great Nou Camp stadium, enveloped by his own misery, his passion and his profession were at odds. He had to persuade the players to talk when all he wanted to do was join in the tears. "I've only known an atmosphere like that twice. Once was after the 1987 European Cup final when we lost to Porto. But this was worse. I'm searching for the right English word." He flips the pages of his dictionary. "Yes, here it is. Cruel. That's it. That's the word I've heard most."

Eventually the old troupers, Basler, Matthaus and Mehmet Scholl, were persuaded to answer the questions for which, right then in the middle of an anonymous concrete tunnel faced by a barrier of notebooks and cameras, there were no answers. The rest slipped past into the comforting dark womb of the team coach. "It's that famous sentence, 'The show must go on'," Horwick said two days later. "Today, until 7pm, the job goes on, then after that I can go down again. I think only today is what happened really beginning to hit people at the club, you know, reading the newspapers and talking about it. This is a big club and we have had many great nights, but that was the perfect event, the sort of moment you wait a lifetime for. If you'd made a film, you would have come down to Manchester United against Bayern in front of 90,000 people. Two top teams, both on an equal level, both going for a treble. But you got a result and scenes no film would dare to do."

On Friday morning Ottmar Hitzfeld also faced the press for the first time in the light of a grey Munich morning. As Alex Ferguson later admitted that he was preparing himself to lose in those closing seconds, Hitzfeld, who had taken Borussia Dortmund to the same title two years before, must have been secretly contemplating his second European Cup.

He had no time to prepare for defeat, so his dignity was more revealing of the man. How, he was asked, would he be able to lift the German champions for a league match which had no meaning? "It will be very difficult," he said. "But we are Bayern Munich and Bayern Munich never go into a match thinking they are going to lose. It will be hard to concentrate but we will do it."

No less than United, Bayern are a club which discourages indifference. "Fifty per cent of the country love us, 50 per cent hate us," said Horwick. "There is nothing in between." By late Wednesday night, as first Teddy Sheringham and then Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer turned Europe the red of United not Bayern, an unusual feeling of unity welled up inside fans praying for Bayern to lose. On Thursday, Bayern's switchboard flickered with messages of sympathy all day; supporters of Frankfurt and Hamburg, of Schalke and Kaiserslautern, where Bayern's glamour is loathed and envied, rang just to say sorry. "Maybe three-quarters of those who hate us were crying with us," said Horwick. "The day after they will hate us again, of course, but for the day I think they understood."

Anyone not sparing a thought for the losers in Barcelona was born with a heart of stone. To watch Matthaus, so often the symbol of German superiority, walking slowly back on to the field to console his team mates in such shocking defeat was not to glory in revenge but to mark another notch in the career of a great player. Matthaus, remember, was the one German player with the sensitivity to acknowledge the losers after the penalty shoot-out in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup. Now he was experiencing the emotions for himself. Slowly he went from player to player, exchanging a brief slap of the hand with Hitzfeld: a pat on the head for the gangling young centre-forward Carsten Jancker, who was staring into nothing and was still in tears at the banquet, a handshake for Thomas Linke, the centre- back, and then on his way a huge hug from Pierluigi Collina, the Italian referee, an old sparring partner from the German's days with Internazionale. The European Cup is the one medal missing from Matthaus's extensive collection and, at the age of 38, the time for filling the gap is fast running out. He had brought along his new girlfriend to witness the moment.

When Lennart Johansson, the president of Uefa, grandly put the loser's medal round his neck, Matthaus took two steps before wrenching it off and crushing it in his left hand. If there had been a rubbish bin at the side of the pitch, the collectors would have had an unexpected bonus. "The best team didn't win," Matthaus was to say later. And few, even among the hordes of United fans who had swamped the stadium, could muster an argument. But he and Hitzfeld and two other German players still summoned the dignity to applaud United's triumphant frolicking.

For 80 minutes Matthaus had organised Bayern's defence, sweeping up expertly in front of Markus Babbel, Linke and Samuel Osei Kuffour, and timed his runs forward - two in the first half, one early in the second - to perfection before he tired and was substituted a fatal 10 minutes from time. Bayern's composure seemed to vanish with him, but no one has yet had the heart to start the tactical inquisitions. It was just as well for United, who got the whole night spectacularly wrong yet emerged from another night of Anglo-German thunder with the prize they wanted above all others.

United can start a new chapter in their history, but the night will shape Bayern's future with equal clarity. "It will take weeks, possibly months, to understand the events in Barcelona," added Horwick. "We want to show that Bayern have style in losing as well as winning. That's important for the club. To win is easy, to lose is difficult."