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What a long strange trip for Lehmann

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Do you remember those innocent days when Euro 2008 was still warming itself up amid the pouring rain of Austria and Switzerland?

The days when Holland was on an unstoppable course to the final? When Portugal, thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo and Luiz Felipe Scolari, still was the biggest news story in the tournament? When Russia was an afterthought, Turkey already was looking at the flight schedules home and Spain's big-match credentials still were in question?

On one of those days, when we were deciding whether to fall in love with a tournament that we didn't yet realize would become a classic, I struck up a conversation with some Germany fans in Bern's picturesque city center. The cheerful group was in town to visit friends before catching the overnight train to Vienna for the following evening's crucial Group B decider between Germany and Austria.

As we wandered past the Einsteinhaus, where good old Albert thought and theorized a century ago, I wondered aloud whether the German contingent was nervous ahead of their side's impending date with destiny.

"Not really," said Achim, a towering and bespectacled student from Frankfurt. "Of course, it would be a disaster for German football to lose to our neighbors. But if it makes Lehmann look like a fool, then I won't mind so much."

I did a quick double-take to see if he was joking, but he wasn't. No, this was a German fan admitting that elimination against the weak co-hosts would be somewhat more palatable as long as it left his team's own goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, squirming with embarrassment.

As we progressed toward the train station, I begged to know what the Arsenal keeper possibly could have done to inspire such a level of dislike from his nation's fans. Other members of the group chimed in with glee. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, I listened as the group laid into Lehmann in what can only be described as a brutal character assassination.

The gist of the argument was that Lehmann is – in no particular order – arrogant, selfish, moody, arrogant, bitter, not a team player, disruptive, arrogant, not the best German keeper and a poor man's Oliver Kahn. And arrogant.

This all came as a bit of a shock. Sure, Lehmann never has come across as the warmest of characters and, with regards to his playing ability, the way he narrowly retained his position as Germany's No. 1 keeper ahead of Hannover's Robert Enke and Bayer Leverkusen's Rene Adler was well-documented.

After being bumped out of the Arsenal first team by Manuel Almunia last season, Lehmann regularly made his displeasure known to manager Arsene Wenger and more than once was accused of rocking the Gunners' boat.

He is a slightly strange man – a deep and unconventional thinker who gave his most in-depth interview following his decision to leave Arsenal for Stuttgart this summer to a political journal rather than a conventional soccer or general news publication. Back in 2004, he stormed off the pitch following his mistake in a 2-2 draw with Tottenham, despite the fact that the point clinched the English Premier League title for Arsenal and that all his teammates were celebrating joyously.

But had he done enough to deserve the ill wishes of his fellow countrymen going into a pivotal game in a major tournament? Surely not. Either way, the comments of the supporters made sure that I followed Lehmann's subsequent performances with extra scrutiny.

Against Austria, he barely touched the ball, as the co-hosts struggled to mount any meaningful attack in the Germans' 1-0 win. In the 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Portugal, Lehmann was powerless to prevent either goal and generally handled himself well.

Then came the semifinal against Turkey.

Lehmann certainly was not the only German player to have a poor night, but his display was especially dismal in the 3-2 triumph. He flapped clumsily at Ugar Boral's moderately paced rebound for the game's first goal, allowing the ball to slide through his grasp and cross the line. Once Germany had fought its way back, he compounded eventual winning goal scorer Philipp Lahm's defensive error with poor positioning at the near post as Semih Senturk pulled the underdogs level.

Despite those mistakes, Lehmann is the man with the jersey, and there is no question of him losing it to Enke or Adler for Sunday's final.

You sense with Lehmann that he constantly is trying to prove a point, perhaps a side effect of having been forced to wait in line behind the legendary Kahn for so many years. Lehmann's big chance as first-choice goalkeeper did not come until the 2006 World Cup, when he already was 36.

Even ahead of the biggest game of his international career, he has been unable to let his difference of opinion with Wenger subside.

"My difficult season was down to the manager," he said abruptly in a team media session. "We had some discussions about that, and I always told him what I was thinking about his decision."

Comments like that make you wonder whether Lehmann's head is in the right place for a major final. Yet title games are fickle and tough to predict. So often the hero or villain comes from the unlikeliest of quarters.

If Lehmann holds firm to help give Germany its first tournament triumph in 12 years, the critics are likely to bite their tongues, even if the antipathy does not immediately turn into admiration.

In any case, the grim-faced Lehmann surely will allow himself at least an inward smile of satisfaction. He is a man who cares more about proving himself right than he does about being loved.

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