Nearly every day for a month, Wolfgang Weber and four of his players squeezed into the cramped interior of a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, his first car, and drove down the freshly paved Interstate 19 to a hotel in Nogales, Arizona. There, Weber, his players and about 40 other diehards would watch Mexican telecasts of the 1978 World Cup.
After the final whistle sounded, the five would cram back into the humble Beetle and trek back to Tucson. The next day, the same journey.
“The only game on American television was the final on ABC; everything else you couldn’t get,” Weber said.
Nine World Cups and 36 years later, Weber’s Volkswagen has been replaced by a Mercedes-Benz, one whose tires won’t touch the pavement of I-19. Weber will park himself in front his TV on Thursday morning for another World Cup match.
This one is personal. Salpointe Catholic’s longtime soccer coach will watch as his native Germany takes on the United States with berths in the round of 16 at stake.
Weber says he will be rooting for the team with the red, white and blue crest. Well, at least in theory.
“I want both teams to do well, but when it comes down to the end, I probably come down on the side of the U.S.,” Weber said.
“But I’ll keep the door open for Germany as well.”
The man who helped popularize soccer in Tucson when he arrived in 1972 says a draw between the two teams would be perfect.
A tie, no matter if it’s 0-0 or 5-5, would allow both teams to advance from the Group of Death. A win by either team would put the loser in danger of elimination.
While Weber could see the result going in any direction, one thing is for sure — we won’t see any collusion like the infamous non-aggression pact between West Germany and Austria in 1982.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who just so happens to be one of Germany’s most decorated national team players in history, is just too competitive. There isn’t the incentive for Germany, either.
“I don’t think Germany has any interest in opening it up wide to pulverize them,” Weber said. “It would be counter-productive because the U.S. is a pretty good counter-attacking team. The Germans would be stupid if they didn’t recognize that.”
Just as Ghana did in the 2-2 draw with Germany on Saturday — the result that put both of Weber’s teams in this predicament — the U.S. can use its speed to expose the less-than-intimidating German defenders on the outside flanks.
That means big games from right back Fabian Johnson and left back DeMarcus Beasley.
“Johnson has been really surprisingly good going forward as a right back,” Weber said. Beasley, in his U.S.-record fourth World Cup, has had some spring in his 32-year-old legs as well.
History, though, favors the European power.
Germany has won both World Cup matchups against the United States, including a shutout in 1998 in which Klinsmann added the second goal. Klinsmann also ushered in a change in identity to the German national team, first as a player and then as a coach in 2006.
“He was a breath of fresh air,” Weber said. “There was not a lot of love for the way Germans played” at the time.
Competitors referred to Germans as machines, using war-related symbolism to describe their hard tackles and unrelenting work ethic.
That’s no longer the case.
German’s are still known for clinical finishing, but an increase in diversity has helped every country form a new, distinct identity. The English aren’t known for booting the ball anymore; the Spanish developed “tiki-taka.” Now it’s time for the U.S. to create its own identity, and Klinsmann is the man to do it, Weber said.
When Weber was involved with Sigi Schmid and at the United States Soccer Federation regional camp in 1986, the goal was to make the U.S. more like Europe. Later the plan was to make them more like Mexico and the Central American teams, Weber said.
“We’re not that either,” Weber said. “We’re a combination of it all.”
Klinsmann and the U.S. have a chance to cement their own identity Thursday. Whether it happens or not, Weber will be eagerly watching ESPN, comfortably from his own couch in Tucson.