Dortmund is a quiet, unremarkable town; middle Germany, if you like. The Park Hotel opposite the Westfalenstadion, home of Borussia Dortmund, is hardly a venue the Bridget Jones generation would choose for their romantic mini-break. Businessmen meet in the pleasant but ultimately forgettable restaurant to discuss deals and ponder their trips back to other middle German towns. This is Milton Keynes in lederhosen.
Last Tuesday, however, Dortmund was given a large shot of caipirinha and dragged, rather willingly, into a carnival. I sat in the Park Hotel and watched open-mouthed as a hyperactive six-foot pink rabbit led a conga around reception. Outside, a ten-man Chinese dragon rippled awkwardly inside one huge football shirt as it attempted to shimmy through the crowd. Drummers hammered out a hypnotic rhythm across the well-tended gardens; a man who looked for the world as though he’d fallen into his kids’ dressing-up box placed a three-foot horn, probably sorely missed by the beast from which it came, to his lips and engaged the world’s largest rhythm section in a battle for sonic supremacy.
Brazil and Ghana were in town. Dortmund, like me I suspected, had seen nothing quite like it before.
Amongst the devoted masses lurked those from the corporate world, taking in another event thanks to Sepp Blatter and his ticket-touting operation. For every madman in a rabbit suit, there are two day-trippers unable to distinguish one end of a football pitch from the other. I attempt to tailor my pre-match small talk accordingly.
“Lovely drop of Riesling. So you’ve never been to a football match before then?”
“No, first time. I’ve seen Ronaldo on TV though. And Ronaldinho. He’s always smiling, isn’t he?”
Well you would, wouldn’t you? You’re World Player of the Year, La Liga and Champions League double winner with the mighty Barcelona and, despite a slow start, still amongst the favourites to backheel and stepover your way to another World Cup with talent and tricks to spare. It’s a long way from Gremio, his first professional club and the suburbs of Porto Alegre where The World’s Greatest Footballer learnt his trade.
Even those who don’t follow football know something of the mythology that surrounds Ronaldinho’s men. During the build-up to FIFA’s showpiece event they’ve been dazzled by advertisements, video clips on viral e-mails seducing them with the beauty and power of a football machine whose very name strikes fear into the hearts of the opposition. Pelé has probably appeared at a book shop nearby and told them as much.
Upon arrival at the ground, the cult of Brazil becomes ever clearer. The steeply-banked stands of the Bundesliga’s ‘Opera House’ cascade down to the pitch, filled with armies in Ronaldo and Ronaldinho replica shirts. A conversation with one man and his son speaks volumes; for the old football adage about United fans in Singapore dreaming of Old Trafford, read Guildford and the Maracanà.
An hour before kick-off the samba stars take to the pitch in a manner seemingly choreographed to drive their disciples further into a state of delirium. Lesser-known players appeared first and the drums started to build. Roberto Carlos emerged, followed by Ronaldo whose appearance took the volume to a Spinal Tap-esque eleven, and after another dramatic pause came Ronaldinho. I thanked the heavens for the efficiency of German engineering; I’ve been in football grounds that would have disappeared into a cloud of dust and masonry under such an incredible, deafening aural assault.
The game itself followed the script us non-believers had ignored in blind love of the underdog. Within five minutes Ronaldo had latched onto a through ball from the sublime Kaka and slotted home his fifteenth World Cup goal, peeling away as an immortal. Stephen Appiah battled as Brazil started to cruise, delighting the crowd with the occasional trick that seemed to defy the laws of physics. Ghana went about their business and fashioned chances for both Amoah, playing on his home ground, and Gyan to level which were ultimately wasted.
On the stroke of half time, Pelé’s age-old prediction about an African nation winning the World Cup flickered into life for a split second and then died just as quickly. Mensah’s bullet header looked like the equalizer that Ghana deserved until Dida’s fortuitously placed foot denied him. Cafu responded with a counter attack finding Adriano who, despite being offside, doubled the lead.
Ghana pressed forward after the break and looked far more likely to score than their opponents until Gyan, guilty of spurning at least two good chances, received a second yellow. Ricardinho capitalized on the subsequent gap and found Ze Roberto who flicked the ball past Richard Kingson to slot home Brazil’s third. And so the clichés ran thick and fast; Ghana had won friends but defended naively, Brazil had started to click and Ronaldo had demonstrated that whilst his rotund form is probably temporary, class is permanent.
A week later and the pre-tournament favourites are back home, the carnival in Dortmund a distant memory. Victims of a Zidane masterclass, along with a lack of team spirit according to Brazilian stars past and present. Roberto Carlos, darling of Nike campaigns and sometime scorer of a career-defining free kick has called time on his days in blue and gold. Ronaldo waddled his way out of Gerd Muller’s back yard with Der Bomber’s record, but precious little else. Kaka should have emerged with an enhanced reputation but too many were talking about the anonymity of Ronaldinho, the first Brazilian number ten not to score at a World Cup since before the days of viral marketing and multi-million pound advertising campaigns, to notice. The team that skillfully bounced footballs around airports is in the departure lounge, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s ‘magic square’ stripped of its powers. The drums have fallen silent.
Back in a hotel bar in Dortmund, I pondered the most remarkable of days and what might have been for Ghana with Essien and without Dida’s foot. Another story for World Cup folklore to be talked about from Accra to Zagreb, how the plucky underdog nearly gave mighty Brazil a bloody nose. The cult of the beautiful game is built on such tales, lest we forget; Ronaldinho’s fleeting moments of genius just provide the decorative flourishes.
“Who’s that they’re setting up the cameras for?” came the question from the corporate ranks.
A few feet away from me, a film crew pointed the lights at a man named Dunga. Runners scuttled around, in and out of the crowd that had gathered as he smiled for the TV cameras and talked about the victory over Ghana and Brazil’s belief that they could lift World Cup number six. A spell playing in Germany gave him some command of the language, but Dunga didn’t seem to say much which looked to be of little concern to the presenters, apparently happy just to be in his presence. He didn’t have to, I suppose – he could have recited the Dortmund Yellow Pages and everyone would have stopped to stare at the World Cup winner, another part of the travelling Brazilian theatre, in itself a triumph of irrepressible style over everything else.
It’s just like watching Brazil.