"It's the dark, destructive force of German football. You really shouldn't mess with it," cautioned Berlin-based broadsheet Der Tagesspiegel in 2008. Sadly, plenty of prodigious German footballers have failed to heed the warning over the years, and the consequences have been nearly always disastrous. Scientists are still at a loss to explain the workings of this strange phenomenon, but among ordinary superstitious football folk, there is little doubt: There is a curse. The curse of Nutella.
To the uninitiated, Nutella is simply a hazelnut-based chocolate spread manufactured by an Italian company. Tooth- and waistline-destroying but essentially harmless stuff, you might think, but you couldn't be more wrong. Since becoming an official sponsor of the Germany team six years ago, Nutella has been singularly responsible for the demise of an entire generation of young footballing talent. The eerie coincidences are too great to be merely coincidental. This is voodoo: Whoever features in the (usually cringe-worthy) TV ads for that particular product soon finds his career in a downward spiral.
TSV 1860 Munich striker Benny Lauth, touted as the next Gerd Müller when he made his professional debut, was one of the first Nutella boys, in 2004. His stock sunk so rapidly, however, that he was no longer called up by the national team and had to lead a nomadic existence, moving from club to club with little success. Today, he's in the second division and about as likely to get to another Germany cap as Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.
Midfielder Tim Borowski (Bremen) and right fullback Andreas Hinkel (Celtic), two other Nutella endorsers, never lived up to their enormous promise, either. Both are no longer part of the Germany squad. Tobias Weis' light flickered all too briefly, too. The Hoffenheim midfielder must regret jinxing his chances, although the nutty curse didn't quite hit him as badly as Simon Rolfes. The rather excellent Leverkusen captain has missed the second half of the season with a serious knee injury and is unlikely to recover in time for South Africa.
It won't surprise you at this point to find out that Schalke striker Kevin Kuranyi was a Nutella player once as well. Today, he's still frozen out by national manager Jogi Löw despite scoring 18 goals this season. One has to seriously fear for the current crop of players featured in the ad: goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and defender Benedikt Höwedes of Schalke, defender Mats Hummels of Dortmund and Bremen's Mesut Özil. Of the original lineup, only Hertha BSC's Arne Friedrich has been able to keep the dark side in check. It's quite a miracle, really, as is his continued involvement with the national team.
There can be no doubt who has been the worst affected player, however. Jermaine Jones was a rising star and Euro 2008 hopeful when he signed with Nutella. But the Schalke defensive midfielder was given limited opportunities by Löw. Jones ended up being dropped a week before the Euros and featured only once more in white and black after that, in a friendly match against England. Three friendly games into his international career, the son of an African-American soldier stationed in Germany changed allegiances and decided to turn out for the U.S. In an interview with TheNew York Times in June 2009, Jones hinted that the move was motivated by racist attitudes he encountered in Germany.
"When somebody looks at me, I'm not the perfect German," the 28-year-old said. "When I look at people in the States, they look more like me. In Germany, with my tattoos people say, 'Ooh, he's not a good man.' But look at [David] Beckham, he has tattoos and no one says that. Maybe because I don't have blue eyes and blonde hair."
Jones later claimed he had been misquoted, but many commentators felt he had cynically brought in politics to justify a straightforward career move: Getting into the U.S. team, he must have deduced at the time, would be a lot easier than displacing the likes of Michael Ballack, Thomas Hitzlsperger or Rolfes.
It didn't quite work out that way, of course. A hairline fracture of his left tibia has sidelined him for more than 10 months. His immediate prospects are looking bleak, too. "I'm wearing a 'bone stimulator' around the clock," he told Kicker magazine last week. "It's a battery-powered device meant to help with the healing."
Jones couldn't even rule out the need for more surgery. "If that's the case, it will take three more months for me to be on the pitch again," he said.
He's actually come close to making a comeback in recent months, perhaps too close at times. "I think I might have started too early," Jones said. "We've all made mistakes: me, the doctors, the coaches." He's not even able to run at the moment.
Schalke manager Felix Magath seems to have given up on him, at least for the time being. "He hasn't been in touch with me for five months," Jones said, "but that's professional football. When you're fit, you're needed. When you're not, they replace you."
Truth be told, Schalke has hardly missed him. Magath did say he needed more "characters" in the team a couple of weeks ago but has juggled formations and lineups to devastating effect this season. Schalke's 1-0 win at Hertha Berlin on Saturday kept it firmly in the title race -- first-place Bayern is ahead on goal difference only -- and secured participation in next year's Champions League, along with an estimated $26 million in appearance fees.
For Jones, his club's surprising success should prove a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Magath will be able to bring in better players (defender Christoph Metzelder has been signed from Real Madrid for next season), and he can't afford to lose too many experienced players capable of coping with the increased workload. At the same time, the influx of more quality will increase the chance that Jones will be further marginalized, especially if his rehabilitation process hits further snags.
Even his detractors in the Bundesliga will wish him a speedy recovery, but unfortunately, the omens are not good. The fact that Jones shares his fate with a long list of victims who have all been hurt by German football's dark side can be of little solace to him.
Michael Bradley had a very good game for Gladbach, who held their old '70s archrivals, Bayern Munich, to a 1-1 draw on Saturday. The 22-year-old U.S. international constantly harassed Bastian Schweinsteiger in the Borussia Park and witnessed jubilant scenes in the stands when Schalke scored the winner in Berlin to ruin Bayern's day (a bit). That's what you call schadenfreude in those shores.
Hannover 96 weren't quite as bad as against Munich the week before (when they lost 7-0 to Louis van Gaal's team), or maybe Leverkusen weren't quite as good as Bayern; in any case, 3-0 to Bayer was the correct scoreline. Steve Cherundolo and his colleagues in the visitors' back line mostly chased shadows in the BayArena. They still have a small chance to avoid the drop, however.
Former Houston Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark made his Bundesliga debut in Frankfurt's topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at local rival Mainz. The defensive midfielder had a decent game in front of the Eintracht defense and should get a couple of more games before the end of the season. Frankfurt is in mid-table safety, unable to go further up or down.