MUNICH: The sense of anticlimax in Germany yesterday was tangible. One could feel it on the train, as I journeyed from Dortmund to Munich via Frankfurt. One could feel it in the restaurants and pubs.
Suddenly, in a land where stoicism is king, tears were shed and emotions were revealed. The defeat to Italy in the World Cup semi-final on Tuesday night, in the cauldron of Dortmund, was not part of the script.
It is tough enough seeing grown men cry, but to see grown Germans cry - that is just too much. But it is part of the World Cup story; the encore to a match that will live long in the memory; a match that could go some way to saving this World Cup from mediocrity.
Prior to the dramatic events of Tuesday, it was the Italians who felt a sense of lament. Their domestic game is in turmoil and the performances of the national team against the United States and Australian this World Cup provided more questions than answers.
But Germany had not learnt the first law of the World Cup: begin strongly at your peril. Germany, more attractive than in previous years, but more vulnerable, too, started their campaign with joyful victories against Costa Rica, Poland, Ecuador and Sweden. But there was always a sense that they were a tragedy waiting to happen.
They were fortunate to defeat Argentina on penalty kicks in Berlin in the quarterfinals. Against Italy, in what turned out to be a memorable semi-final, they had their enthusiasm and their supporters, but not a lot else. In extra time, Italy were brilliant, turning into a contest between men and boys.
Italy had learnt in 1982 that momentum is everything in a World Cup, and the best time to gain momentum is in the latter stages and not at the start.
Typically, Italy's best players are in defence and in midfield, where Alessandro Pirlo of AC Milan has been a revelation. Pirlo is enjoying a rebirth in Italy, having failed with Internazionale, he has revived his career at the same San Siro Stadium with Milan. He was the main reason why Italy were better than Germany on Tuesday. He was the one player Germany lacked.
He is the one player most national teams lack. That is one reason why Italy will take their place in Berlin on Sunday evening.
Italy needs this World Cup final. Their domestic game is a shambles after the betting scandal that threatens to turn the likes of Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina into sinking ships.
But Marcello Lippi could see that Germany were shattered going into extra time on Tuesday. In the past, Italy might have opted to play out for penalties. Not this Italy team; not under Lippi.
The head coach sent on extra strikers and stretched Germany to such an extent that the configuration of the match changed. At the start of extra time, Italy struck the post, then the crossbar, and they finally scored just a minute before the lottery of the shoot-out. The second goal, just as impressive as the first, was inevitable.
That was when a large black cloud descended upon Germany. That was when the sunshine moved south to Rome to give Italian football something about which it can smile.