Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the U.S. playing Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Women's World Cup is the support the German men's national team and some of its legendary former players have given to the tournament.
Granted, Die Mannschaft's most prominent role has been their involvement in a Mercedes Benz television campaign promoting the tournament and the three-peat effort of the German women, the two-time defending champions. Clearly the players involved have a vested interest to participate from an image, marketing and commercial perspective. But in both the television campaign and the behind-the-scenes making of the commercial available online, it's pretty evident that the men are having fun, and so are the women.
The television commercial begins with a close-up of Franz Beckenbauer apparently urging his players to give their best (my German skills aren't up to a translation, but its seems like Der Kaiser is channeling his inner Vince Lombardi). Then the commercial cuts to German superstars such as Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, Thomas Mueller and several others, standing in what appears to be a players tunnel dressed for a national team game, but also wearing all kinds of crazy head gear, wigs, and scarves in national team colors. Many of them have the national flag face painted on the cheeks and foreheads. They are whooping it up, playing vuvuzelas and drums and just being crazy fans. In the midst of all this, the women's team walks down the tunnel to go onto the field, cheered on by their male national team colleagues. It's a great scene, and the symbolism of the men cheering on the women is not lost on anyone.
In a World Cup that has seen more competitive games than ever, a much higher standard of play both technically and tactically, and no shortage of spectacular goals, the battle for respect in the male-dominated world of soccer is still the biggest challenge for women playing the Beautiful Game. But someone in the German soccer hierarchy and their business sponsors get that, and they have tried to address that cultural dynamic here at this World Cup. And they are to be highly commended for it.
It's something that stands in stark contrast to three French players who posed naked for a German newspaper last week (with the blessing of the France federation) to drum up some interest in the team's efforts at the World Cup in the mainstream media back home. Judging from the lack of ink being generated in the British press about the England team, which plays France in the quarterfinals on Saturday, it clearly takes more than winning games and climbing the world rankings to get the gatekeepers of so-called public interest to pay attention to women's soccer. (It's also been proven here that a defender nonchalantly carrying the ball around in the penalty looking like she was getting set to participate in a watermelon-eating contest can generate plenty of headlines -- especially when the referee has a senior moment and waves play on instead of awarding a penalty kick. But such a scenario would get mass coverage for the men's game as well, lest anyone forget Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland.)
The involvement of German stars in the Women's World Cup is not just limited to television commercials. Former greats such as Rainer Bonhof, Bernd Schneider, Carsten Ramelow, Matthias Sammer and Karl-Heinz Riedle are all serving as World Cup ambassadors. But in Germany, nothing says respect quite like Gunther Netzer ripping you in his newspaper column. One of the most flamboyant and creative players of the great West Germany teams of the early 1970s, Netzer is as opinionated off the field as he was dynamic on it. And last week he decided to weigh in on the Birgit Prinz debate that has made headline news in Germany since the finals began.
Prinz is the poster child of the 2011 Women's World Cup, but age seems to have tackled the German legend at just the wrong time. Her Hollywood ending -- lifting the World Cup in her home town of Frankfurt on July 17 -- may still happen, but her World Cup movie is looking more Alfred Hitchcock than Steven Spielberg at the moment. And Netzer didn't pull any punches in declaring that Prinz should go to the bench.
Now, I haven't checked too closely, but my guess is that former England players aren't writing about the status of Kelly Smith in their ghostwritten tabloid columns, and Brazilian scribes aren't taking too much interest in Marta & Co. while Copa America is going on in Argentina.
It's too easy to say that's the way of the world. And at this Women's World Cup, Germany is amply demonstrating that the status quo shackles the men's game as well as the women's. And the really great thing: Take one look at that Mercedes Benz commercial and you'll have a new respect for the German men's national team as well as the women's.