Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It's just not realistic

We're in the midst of WM-Fieber (World Cup Fever) over here in Europe, and the energy is fun, exciting, over-the-top at times, and after Germany's resounding win on Monday against Christiano Ronaldo Portugal, even cautiously optimistic. Only during the WM and EM (European Championship) can one buy German flag items just about anywhere, because it's during those few weeks that it is acceptable to show patriotism. Except for soccer championships and the olympics, Germans do not get into nationalistic displays of pride. Although one of our neighbors flies the German flag on a pole outside his house all year 'round, that is very unusual.

Optimism isn't really a German thing, either. A fellow blogger described the spring weather in Germany as "gray with hints of darker gray and a general hue of hopelessness." Spring in America is a season of hope, beauty, new life, bright happy colors, warming winds, and a general sense of looking forward to the joy and fun of summer. On a warm sunny day Americans look blissfully to the heavens, inhale the spring scents, and dream of lying on the beach sipping a summer cocktail. Germans go about their daily business, briefly notice the sun, and comment, "Yeah, it's nice today. But it's gonna be cold and gray again soon."

And this is where the German head coach of the American national soccer team went wrong recently. Jürgen Klinsmann (who is a Swabian, by the way) has been the head coach of the U.S. men's national team since 2011. Prior to that he was the head coach of the German national team, and led the lads to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup.  He's been living in California for quite a few years, though, and so he should have known better than to be publically realistic.

Here's what he said when asked by a reporter about the U.S. team's chances in the Brazilian World Cup: "You have to be realistic. Every year we're getting stronger...We're going to take the game to Ghana and they will take it to us, and it will be an exciting game and then we go from there. For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it's just not realistic."

Frankly, I find nothing wrong with his statement. He made this comment last December - before the World Cup had even started! To talk at all about winning a competition that doesn't even start for another six months is ridiculous, isn't it? How about focusing on the job at hand - training, working out, practicing, talking strategy, and watching the competition - rather than jumping way ahead to make superfluous predictions about who will or can win? But that's what American sports fans expect. Crazed and painted fans of any sport are filmed in the stands with beer in hand before the kick-off, first pitch, tip off, etc. shouting, "YEAHHHHH!!  WE'RE GOING ALL THE WAY, MAN! WE'RE GONNA WIN THIS THING!!"  Has the U.S. team ever won a World Cup? No, but that doesn't matter. We Americans want to hear our coaches and players say pretty, optimstic, and team-building things like this. In the world of American sports there is no room for realism because blind optimism fills the bench. Klinsi probably should have said something along the lines of "We're going for it, we're going to give 110%, and God-willing, we'll take home that trophy."

But he's German, and he couldn't choke out a statement like that if you fed it to him on a cue card. A German knows there's no such thing as 110%. "If it's God's will, then we'll win this championship"? A German is definitely not going there. And a German keeps his dreams in check and focuses on reality. Is it possible? Of course it is. Klinsi and his lads are there to play soccer, and they're going to play their best. They'll take it as far as they can go. I would imagine that's what every team in Brazil is going to do.

According to ESPN, Klinsi has been saying this privately and publically for several months - that it's just not realistic for the U.S. team to talk about winning the World Cup. Then why, for the love of all that's holy, do reporters keep asking him the same question?!? I picture these reporters saying, "Oh look, there's Klinsmann! Let's go ask him if he thinks the U.S. team can win the World Cup!" and then giggling like little schoolgirls. In the recent interview Klinsi added, "First we have to get through the group we're in, so let's stay with our feet on the ground and get that group first. And then the sky is the limit." Right, but that bit isn't what gets everyone's attention - it's only the "It's not realistic" which gets everyone's boxers in a bind.

Clearly, if one listens to everything Klinsi said, he was and is not saying the U.S. can't win. Before Game 1 he said it was not realistic to talk right then about the U.S. winning the whole thing. Don't do that to a German! Don't ask him if something that has never happened before can happen in the next several weeks. If the reporters had asked him if the U.S. had a chance against Ghana in their first game, he might have been able to produce the sought-after optimism or at least "Yes, it's possible." But don't even ask him if they are going to win their group. He doesn't know, and Germans do not confidently declare favorable outcomes of sporting events weeks or even days before the events actually occur.

I think that's one of the reasons I feel comfortable around Germans. Pep talks and pep rallies always pissed me off:
"This is going to be our best year ever!" or "This is OUR year! We're going to win this thing!"
"Really?" I'd think. "How do you know that? Stop wasting my time with your fantasies and tell me what needs to be accomplished so I can get to work."

"All things are possible with Christ." (I taught at a Catholic school.) No, all things are not possible. Even if I pray real hard, it is not possible for me to, for instance, swim across the Atlantic Ocean and survive, or learn Italian within a week.

Optimism works for Americans, and it can be charming. Much has been written about the American Dream and the idea that serious hard work can lead to success and open unimaginable doors. "Don't fence me in!" "Don't hold me back!" "Work with me or get out of my way!" Americans set goals and throw their effort and energy into achieving them. When they come to a roadblock, they find a detour and keep going. These are the values we admire.

Germans tend to want to figure out what is possible and realistic, and go for that. "Wouldn't it be great if..." is met in Germany with, "You're losing focus." Germans admire someone who does what he can do and does it well while keeping his head out of the clouds and his feet on solid ground.

Both ways of thinking are valuable and appropriate. The awkwardness arises when we come together in politics, in business, or in sports and try to lead the others to our mindset or world view. Don't try to get Klinsi to be optimistic, and he won't try to get you to be realistic.

Let's just enjoy the WM!
Graphic: wikipedia

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