There will be many players worthy of special attention during Euro 2004 in Portugal: Zinedine Zidane of France, Deco of Portugal, Steven Gerrard of England, Francesco Totti of Italy. But the player I shall be monitoring with keenest interest is the German and Bayern Munich goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. With his thick blond hair, his aggressively heavy brows, his intimidating physicality and his formidable strength, Kahn is less a footballer than a figure from Teutonic or Norse myth. He is Wotan, he is a berserker warrior, he is the very embodiment of the Hun.
That, at least, is how he used to be most commonly caricatured. Today, Kahn is less a warrior-goalkeeper than something of a national joke, a figure who, in his mid-thirties, has taken to making calamitous mistakes on and off the pitch. His very public troubles began at the 2002 World Cup final in Japan. He was without question the best goalkeeper at the tournament, inspiring a mediocre German side to the final.
Yet that match was a humiliation for Kahn: he fumbled an innocuous shot at the feet of Ronaldo, who received the gift with amazed delight, scoring to smooth the Brazilians' way to an easy victory. "There is no consolation," Kahn said. "I have to live with this mistake. Because of it, everything is lost. It was my only mistake in seven games, and I was punished."
On his return to Germany after the World Cup, Kahn announced that he was leaving his pregnant wife, the mother of his four-year-old daughter. He had met a 21-year-old barmaid called Verena Kerth who, unlike Kahn, was a far-from-natural blonde and alongside whom he was soon being photographed at nightclubs and bars.
The couple delighted in displays of affluent ostentation. They choreographed their clothes like members of a teenage pop band: one night it was matching white suits; the next, black T-shirts. The once-ascetic Kahn began to smoke, and to drink champagne. He and his girlfriend had become, wrote the German tabloids, "the Beckhams of Schwabing".
Meanwhile, Kahn continued to make elementary goalkeeping mistakes: crosses were dropped and shots were fumbled. He was far from invincible; he was fallible, exposed. Most recently, in a Champions League match against Real Madrid, he allowed a benign last-minute free-kick from Real's Roberto Carlos to slip through his arms and into the net. "It was one you could stop without arms and legs," he said later of the error that allowed Real to leave Munich with an undeserved 1-1 draw.
Kahn was vilified after the match; he spoke gnomically of the need for self-analysis and of retirement. "I need to look inside myself, ask questions and find out what it all means. Maybe you have to ask yourself if it's actually worth it. Something isn't quite right." Then, at Bayern's next home match, he was leaving the pitch at half-time when he noticed a small boy in the crowd holding up a banner: "Don't worry, Ollie, we forgive you."
It was one of those moments in a sportsman's life, Kahn said of the boy with the banner, that "really move you. I imagined him carefully making the banner with his marker pens. It made me think about when I was younger and always going through my own emotional ups and downs as a fan every time my heroes won or lost." Kahn later gave the boy his goalkeeping gloves and invited him as his guest to the return Champions League match in Madrid, which Bayern lost 1-0.
Should one feel sympathy for Oliver Kahn? After all, until his recent misfortunes, he was a monolith of on-field arrogance, belligerent, superior and prone to speaking about himself in the third person.
Of late, a certain stability has returned to his life. He and his young lover are no longer together, his performances for Bayern have improved and he will captain Germany at Euro 2004.
So what, if anything, has he learned from his struggles? Perhaps he should speak for himself. "I'd like to be an actor when I retire," he said recently. "James Bond would be an ideal role."
Hunter Davies returns next week