And so it ended with majestic drama, the narrative twisting and turning to the end. Zinédine Zidane sent off. Italy, always under a cloud, triumphing in a nail-biting shootout.
For a World Cup to be wonderful, a strange alchemy has to kick in. So I'll tell you now — my favourite player at the World Cup was a young woman named Christine.
Obviously, she didn't play on the field for any of the 32 countries. But, in a way, she played for Germany and she was magical, capturing the spirit of the tournament.
For me, the key game of this World Cup was France against Spain in the second round.
It was elegantly played and brimming with passion. Spain, so startlingly confident, flowing and intent on scoring, had lit up the first round. France, once world champion but humbled at the World Cup in 2002, had struggled. But then, against Spain, something unearthly happened. Zidane re-emerged, a phoenix from the flames, and suddenly France looked awesomely talented, organized and committed.
It was right after the game that I came across Christine.
On the train back to Berlin from Hanover, I was surrounded by French fans. They chatted and then they all fell asleep. This was odd. I've been on postgame trains in Japan, Korea, Portugal and Germany and I've never the seen the supporters of the winning side simply doze off, contented with the win.
I was supposed to be writing on my laptop and here were dozens of sleeping French people I didn't dare disturb. So I set off for the bar car. The place was packed. Spanish fans were drowning their sorrows, some enthusiastic German drinkers were sympathizing and a few journalists were on the beer. Everybody was having a ball, actually.
Christine was the young woman running the bar and she had foolishly told some Spanish guys her name. There were constant cries of “Christine, may I have a beer?” or “Christine, do you have vodka?”
Christine kept her cool. Twenty-something, blond and struggling to keep a mass of curly hair in check, she could handle the braying crowd.
One guy parked himself by the counter and let his cap slide off his head to the floor of Christine's tiny workspace. The idea, obviously, was to get a glance down the front of Christine's shirt as she dived to retrieve it. Christine read the game well and immediately lifted the guy's cap with her foot. She did this several times, to cheers of “Ole, Christine.”
I drank coffee, as I still had to write when I got back to Berlin. When Christine gave me the coffee, I said to her, “I think you and I are the only sober people here.” She paused to do the mental translation and said, with unerring German gravity, “I think you are correct, sir.”
A journalist from Yemen (yes, Yemen) buttonholed me and, in heavily accented French, told me a great deal about Zidane. I didn't understand much of it, but the upshot was that in Yemen, Zidane is a god. I told him that Zidane is a god in Canada, too.
A Spanish chap who had previously devoted his efforts to appearing sober and to saying, “Christine, may I have a kiss?” began talking to me about Canada. It seemed that he had two dreams: for Spain to win the World Cup and to visit Toronto. Or so he said, anyway.
Oh yes, there were other great games, apart from the French defeat of Spain. France's next game, when it dispatched heavily hyped and truly talented Brazil, turned the World Cup on its head. Brazil was gone. Europe would reign.
Before that, the first round had the pulsating pace and exquisite drama that defines the World Cup for non-addicts. The opening game, with Germany defeating Costa Rica 4-2, was a joy to watch in the stadium. All those goals and the growing confidence of all Germans, not just those on the field. When I left Munich at 6 a.m. the next morning, there were still some German fans in the bars, celebrating.
The extraordinarily bad-tempered game between Portugal and the Netherlands baffled many non-addicts who saw it on television. In the stadium, it was riveting stuff. The seething resentment of the Dutch players and the theatrics of the Portuguese, everyone trying to keep count of the yellow cards being issued — that was high-octane live sports entertainment.
And the English team that promised so much and delivered so little? I felt truly sorry for its massive army of fans, working people who saved their money and traipsed around in Germany in good spirits. They deserved a good deal more than the banality of England's play.
As the World Cup closed yesterday, it wasn't Zidane or David Beckham who truly mattered to me.
I thought of Christine closing the bar as the swaying train pulled into Berlin that night. I thought of the cheers and the kisses blown at her.
She used her feet with dexterity. She didn't dive. She used her head. She kept the ball going. And that, after all, is the true essence of the beautiful game.