The Germans are sweeping across Europe again, and although no one’s out on the streets waving flags to welcome them, they’re for once being met with nods of begrudging admiration. Gone are those gritty, functional teams of the 1980s and 90s that always seemed to win without ever making themselves any new friends. No one liked them anyway, so they didn’t care. But now the country that’s increasingly seen as Europe’s political and economic kingmaker is also setting the trend for modern football. Attack is back, and Germany, for once, are looking young and popular.
Even the normally testy German press is singing psalms of praise for Joachim Löw and his thrusting, youthful team after Friday’s 6-2 demolition of Austria saw the team attain early qualification for Euro 2012 with eight straight wins. Last month’s stylish 3-2 victory over Brazil was greeted with similar eulogies. No one seems to mind that they conceded four goals in two home fixtures.
This team looks like scoring almost every time they go forward. If the price of that is the odd gap in defence, no worries – they’ll just nip down to the other end and get it back, as they showed last night in a friendly against Poland when they still managed to equalise after conceding a 90th-minute goal from a penalty.
Löw’s offensive strategy has been consciously and intensively cultivated over the past few years, as Jan Christian Müller wrote in the Frankfurter Rundschau this week. “Many [German] clubs have long since oriented themselves to this strategy,” he wrote, “and have loaned him the highly trained staff necessary for realising his vision of perfect football. This mutual pollination is resulting in beautiful blossoms. And soon there should be even more.”
So Mario Götze, 19, and Andre Schürrle, 20, the first two national-team players to be born in unified Germany, and who scored a goal each in both the Austria and Brazil games, are not lone prospects. The Under-17 team that finished third at the World Cup this summer in Mexico amid a frenzy of high-scoring encounters is also bursting with tomorrow’s front-line talent. Schürrle and Götze came off the bench against Austria, but their emergence is renewing the motivation of established players like Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the flag-carriers of the first wave of New Watchable Germany under Jürgen Klinsmann.
Even the superb Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil can’t afford to be complacent. Now that the team has qualified for Poland/Ukraine, Löw has announced he’ll be using the remainder of the qualifying games to rest his starters. If, or rather when, Germany reach the semi-finals or the final next summer with players injured or suspended, bench-warmers will be ready to step up without disrupting the system.
What could possibly go wrong? The biggest obstacle Germany now face is self-manufactured expectation. Despite the new era of dynamic, attractive football, the team hasn’t won a trophy since Euro 96. The quartet of second- and third-place finishes since would have made them national heroes in England, but in Germany this qualifies as a success drought. And there are mutterings of concern that, in a knockout competition, those defensive lapses could prove costly.
What this team maybe needs, say the doubters, is a Dieter Eilts, the hard-tackling ox who shored up the Euro 96 victors. Or the wonderfully named Herbert “Hacki” Wimmer, who did the grafting that allowed the artists such as Gunther Netzer free rein in winning the 1972 European Championship. Should a player like the comparatively ordinary, but defensively effective, Sami Khedira be allowed to start at the expense of one of the team’s numerous creative sparks?
There’s also the possibility of implosion from within. Whereas past German teams have often been swollen with an excess of Teutonic testosterone, the current generation has generally been characterised by its good-natured modesty, at least to the public eye. Löw seemed to show his intolerance for prima donnas when he banned Kevin Kuranyi in 2008 after the striker, who hadn’t been selected to dress for a World Cup qualifier against Russia, left the game at half-time and failed to return to the team hotel. Kuranyi has since apologized, but found no way back in.
On the other hand, captain Phillip Lahm, who shamelessly elbowed out Michael Ballack a couple of years back to take the armband, was given Löw’s (not quite full) support last month after publishing an autobiography (aged 27) aiming several pointed criticisms at previous coaches, including Klinsmann.
In the 1990s, when Lothar Matthäus was sniping at Klinsmann (and many others) on an almost daily basis, such bitching was par for the course. In more harmonious times, with PR lackies working night and day to prevent players from even thinking, let alone uttering, controversial thoughts, the mildest of comments seem to hit a nerve, especially at a time of obsessive media scrutiny. Can the other players trust Lahm not to publicise what they say in the changing room? How will the volatile Podolski, who once slapped Ballack on the training ground, react if he’s dropped for the up-and-coming Götze?
Still, these are minor question marks that fade to invisibility when you watch Germany play. It’s hard right now to see any other team with the depth and drive to sustain the kind of form that will win a major title. France are rebuilding, Italy are scratching out results and England are England. Spain – assuming they can motivate themselves to take a third successive honour – and Holland are again the main challengers. For the sake of the game, though, a win for Germany could be the most positive outcome, if the influence of Löw’s philosophy on the Bundesliga can spread its way across Europe too.