How can Germany make the United States suffer this time?
The two nations have met twice in previous World Cups, with the Germans inflicting pain, physical and psychic - once with a vicious elbow, once with a well-placed dangling arm.
Now the two teams will meet Thursday in Recife, Brazil, in the third match of their so-called Group of Death. Both can go through to the Round of 16 under the right circumstances - particularly a draw - but Germany can also send the Yanks tumbling out of the World Cup.
One way of inflicting pain we can probably cross off the list is biting. That peculiar tactic seems to be the specialty of Luis Suarez, who put his choppers into an opponent for a third time in his career Tuesday.
That unhealthy behavior ought to get the Uruguayan (a) banishment from this tournament and (b) mandatory medical and psychological care, not some FIFA whitewash job or even a mere suspension, before Suarez ever again puts on a uniform. The man needs help. His potential victims need protection.
Having covered the two previous U.S.-Germany matches - and having predicted a German victory in this World Cup - I am sure this German squad is not about to blatantly waltz to a cowardly draw, even if it would suit both teams.
Soccer buffs know the disgraceful ancient history of June 25, 1982, in the first round in Spain, when West Germany needed a 1-0 victory over Austria for both of them to get through to the second round. The West Germans scored in the 10th minute. Then the neighboring German-speaking teams waltzed with each other, like performers in some schlocky tourist cabaret in Vienna.
On my way to my first World Cup, I was watching in a media room at Wimbledon, and heard soccer-savvy journalists and business types directing loud contempt at the television screen. The whistling and hooting in Spain was equally disrespectful.
One English paper declined to run the lineups of the two waltzing squads on the theory that they had in fact not played soccer that day. Even that morally numb world soccer body, FIFA, paid attention to that embarrassment, and in the next World Cup it mandated simultaneous third games, to avoid chicanery. The waltz is unlikely to be repeated in the worldwide electronic gaze of 2014.
Since that contemptuous match in Spain, Germany has been an admirably aggressive competitor, winning a title in 1990 in its last moments as West Germany (with a fleet striker named Jurgen Klinsmann).
In 1998, now representing a united nation, the Germans opened with the United States in the Parc des Princes in Paris. It took less than a minute for Jens Jeremies, one of the lesser talents on the German squad, to emphatically plant his elbow near the kidneys of Claudio Reyna, the talented young midfielder making his World Cup debut.
"That was a clear tactic," Klinsmann was quoted as saying in The Chicago Tribune after that match. "We knew Reyna was capable of running the game from midfield. Our intention was for Jens to make life difficult for him, not to let him develop his game. We think that tactic worked successfully."
Reyna was hammered into submission for that match, Klinsmann scored a goal, and Germany sent the Yanks stumbling toward a three-and-out humiliation.
"In all honesty, some of us were a little in awe of them," Reyna told The Tribune that night. "It was the whole first World Cup game thing."
The two teams met again in 2002, but this time the circumstances were different. The United States had just dominated Mexico, 2-0, in the Round of 16 - still the best American match I have seen, until further notice - and reached the quarterfinals. With Reyna now the linchpin of the team, the United States played Germany evenly, although falling behind, 1-0.
In the 50th minute, the Americans battered the ball away from keeper Oliver Kahn, but a German defender, Torsten Frings, deflected a shot by Gregg Berhalter in the goal mouth. The ref knew nothing, nothing, and play moved on, toward a 1-0 victory.
I will never forget how, after work was done, German reporters stopped by the desks of American reporters to tell us the United States had outplayed the Germans - sincere praise from colleagues. The retired icons Franz Beckenbauer and Klinsmann both said the United States should have been awarded a penalty kick for Frings' obvious handball.
"Whatever," said the sardonic American coach, Bruce Arena.
This time both teams would surely go through with a draw. Everybody knows Klinsmann is friendly with the German coach, Joachim Low, who was his top aide in the thrilling third-place World Cup finish of 2006. But the idea that Klinsmann and Low could devise some kind of detente is ridiculous. Their players would sense any instructions aimed at an intentional draw.
Klinsmann has made a big point that the United States plays it straight. After all, he points out, a late goal by Graham Zusi eliminated Panama and sent Mexico, America's most bitter rival, into a playoff and now a place in the Round of 16.
This time, as Landon Donovan, the greatest American player not in uniform in Brazil, said on ESPN the other night, there are ways of playing into a draw, without any collusion. Two teams could independently devise conservative game plans to avoid giving up a goal, to avoid a loss. It would be boring but it might make tactical sense, Donovan said. Still, it is hard to make players hold back.
The Germans are always one of the great squads - relentless, smart, talented. They can inflict pain with attacks, finished by a lethal striker. They have been known to inflict pain with elbows and handballs. But not via biting.
© 2014 New York Times News Service