Every year on FA Cup final day, the broadcasters like to remind us that the big match is being beamed live to 184 countries around the world, and will be watched by an audience of 1.6 billion people, from fishermen in Shanghai to beekeepers in Saskatchewan. This we take as affirmation that English football still rules the planet. Never mind the inadequacies of our national team, unable to qualify for Euro 2008; never mind the dwindling number of Englishmen playing for our leading clubs; the blue riband occasions in English football still capture the world's imagination. So we are told, and so we like to believe.
But today in Germany our FA Cup final has scarcely registered in the consciousness of even the most committed Anglo-footyphile, while Wednesday's European Cup final between Manchester United and Chelsea – Michael Ballack's participation notwithstanding – is a mere petit four after the main footballing event, an event of such magnitude that even hausfraus uninterested in sport are talking about it. Today, Germany has eyes only for the Bundesliga match between Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin, not because it has any significance in the outcome of the championship, which Bayern have long had wrapped up, but because it represents the final competitive match in the long, distinguished and often stormy career of the man almost as many Germans as Brits love to hate, Oliver Rolf Kahn, 39 next month. Auf Wiedersehen, prat.
By and large over the years, German footballers have confounded the crass stereotype that some in this country have developed about German people in general. It was another goalkeeper who started the ball rolling, the former paratrooper Bert Trautmann, who became a Manchester City folk hero, and must be the only man alive with both an Iron Cross and an honorary OBE. Then there was Franz Beckenbauer, known as Der Kaiser, a nickname with an unfortunate resonance for the British, yet a fellow of elegance and dignity, impossible not to admire. And Jürgen Klinsmann, who won over not only the Tottenham Hotspur faithful but all English football fans during his time in the Premiership, and in 1995 succeeded Alan Shearer as the Football Writers' Association Player of the Year. Nor are there many players more popular with the Fulham fans than Moritz Volz, who confounds tabloidy perceptions of pampered Premier League footballers as well as arrogant, strutting Germans by being ever so 'umble, and turning up to Craven Cottage on his bike. Even Ballack, nobody's idea of a paragon of humility, is starting to win friends and influence people.
On the other hand, and it is another hand as big as that of Sepp Maier, one of his great predecessors between the Bayern Munich sticks, there is Kahn. Whatever Trautmann did to overcome prevailing anti-German feelings, has been torpedoed by Kahn. He is loud. He is arrogant. He struts. He seems humourless. He badmouths opponents and team-mates alike. He had an affair with a barmaid, for whom he left his wife in the eighth month of her pregnancy. He has even shown vampire tendencies. During a match in 1999 he thundered towards the Borussia Dortmund forward Heiko Herrlich and attempted to bite a chunk out of his neck, a bizarre incident even by his own rich standards.
Today, at the Allianz Arena, all that will be forgiven. As a goalkeeper, Kahn's record is nigh on exemplary. His 557 Bundesliga matches, a record for a goalie, include 196 clean sheets. Only Mehmet Scholl can match his eight championship medals. He has been world goalkeeper of the year three times.
Yet paradoxically it is his failures that have most enhanced his stature in the Fatherland. He was more influential than anyone in getting Germany to the 2002 World Cup final against Brazil, yet his uncharacteristic fumble after 67 minutes gifted Ronaldo his first goal. Four years later he was devastated when his bitter rival Jens Lehmann was made first choice for the World Cup in Germany, but just when it seemed likely that Lehmann might have to keep his neck well covered, Kahn accepted his role as a reserve with something approaching dignity. Both these setbacks showed his vulnerable side, and Kahn himself recognised the paradox. "It's funny," he said, of the plaudits he received for his "model sportsmanship" in 2006. "Throughout my career I've been renowned for fighting to be the best but now, when I settle for second, everyone calls me a hero."
Perhaps in the end even we in England should tear our thoughts briefly away from Wembley – where David James, just a year younger than Khan, will be hoping to strike a blow for the ageing goalies' club – to offer a half-affectionate farewell to the Bayern giant. Among the ranks of charismatic, controversial, brilliant keepers – Lehmann, Maier, Peter Schmeichel, Rene Higuita, Fabien Barthez, Jose Luis Chilavert, Bruce Grobbelaar, John Burridge and "Calamity" James – Kahn walks tall.Reuse content