Tuesday, 19 November 2013

In Appreciation of German Football

Joachim Löw may just be the luckiest man on the planet. The 53 year Head Coach of Germany has at his disposal one of the finest international squads in living memory; a stable of players unrivaled in depth and favourably situated in terms of skill. At the helm since 2006 having progressed from the technical staff of Jürgen Klinssman, Löw is blessed with the incredible responsibility of guiding a multitude of world class players towards a common goal. If we forget the manufactured 'rivalry' for just a moment, it will be a pleasure to watch Löw and his cast of superstars work at Wembley tonight. It'll be educational.

In many ways, Löw can be seen as a serendipitous beneficiary of Germany's root-and-branch footballing reform in the wake of Euro 2000. It's become a cliched subject in broadsheets throughout Europe, with many jumping on the bandwagon, but the great re-boot of German football deserves true recognition. After a humiliating Euro 2000 campaign, and with a dire lack of domestic talent, the German footballing authorities went back to the drawing board. The ideas seemed Utopian at the time, with promises to re-establish the Bundesliga in Europe's upper echelon; create an unending stream of youth talent progressing through professional clubs; and ultimately to bring sustained success for the national team. Whereas other nations hope wistfully for the stars to align and a Golden Generation to magically appear, Germany actually set about installing policy to expedite the process. A monumental financial investment in academies and youth football was substantiated by political reform. It became obligatory for all clubs to build youth development centres, and adhere to strict protocol about standards of facilities, coaching and education. The geographical spread of Germany is such that professional clubs are distributed handsomely throughout the country, which increased the likelihood of top football players being discovered and trained in a professional environment from earlier ages.

When Löw assumed power in 2006, there was still a long road ahead. However, players such as Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukasz Podolski were beginning to assert themselves on the international scene. These were the first products of Germany's youth talent machine. In time, the players who were at the fore of this revolution aged eight, nine or ten in 2000 have trickled through the system and began to hone fine professional career at the top level. Löw is far from a meaningless figurehead, but every time he is on the television, I can't help but feel the envy of every football manager in the world. I believe that any manager in the games history would give their right arm to be in Low's position, managing such an array of youthful stars whilst bringing to fruition the grand plan. The German footballing authorities and the expansive academies have laid on a fine assist; Joachim Low just has to pop up at the back post and slot the ball home.

It's worth taking a moment to just actually comprehend the unbelievable amount of talent Löw has to call upon. A goalkeeping stable of Rene Adler, Roman Weidenfeller, Ron-Robert Zieler and Marc-André ter Stegen would make most managers salivate; and that's without even considering Bernd Leno and Kevin Trapp. However, all of those candidates are vying for the backup position, because, in Manuel Neuer, Germany have one of the world's best goalkeepers as first choice. A similar equation percolates in defence, where comparative veterans Lahm and Per Mertesaker are joined by the imperious Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Phillipp Wollscheid, whilst Marcel Schmelzer and Benedikt Höwedes also feature. However, it's in midfield that Löw's cornucopia will make other managers weep. The players are recognisable by surname only, a certain indicator of incredible talent: Özil, Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Götze, Reus, Kroos, Schürrle, Draxler, Muller, Bender, Gündoğan, Podolski. Even if England could pick just one of those players, we would become hysterical as a nation and infinitely-better as a team. There may not be a similar depth at centre forward for Germany, but a mixture of Mario Gomez, Miroslav Klose, Max Kruse and the exiled Stefan Kießling should get the job done. It's a gift to football which all fans, regardless of nationality, should admire and enjoy.

The same is true of domestic German football. It can be educational for any fan to watch a Bundesliga game or highlights package, with the skill on show just one aspect of the experience. In recent years, the mainstream has latched on to German fan culture and ran to the high hills with it. Accordingly, true German football fans have to endure banal references to Dortmund's “Yellow Kop,” and “fans drinking a beer in the stands!” On a deeper level, there is plenty for purists to admire. The 50+1 rule imposed on German clubs enshrines the idea of fan involvement, with its members or supporters in possession of a majority stake at all times. In this regard, clubs are safeguarded from heartless asset-strippers and brute commercialism, and remain in touch with their historical heartlands. The bond between fan and club is strengthened, with passionate terrace displays a creative outgrowth. It's all very appealing.

Furthermore, it's intriguing to watch the growing gravitas of clubs such as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund on a continental scale. Whilst I'm not an active supporter of any one German club, I have a keen interest and enjoy watching many different teams. It was a real treat to follow the progress of Dortmund's UEFA Champions League run last season, with the impressive comeback against Malaga and the astounding semi-final with Real Madrid epic chapters. I think the entire football world writhed in appreciation of Robert Lewandowski as the Dortmund striker rattled four goals against Mourinho's men en route to the Wembley final. It was monumental. Who should they face at Wembley? It was only ever going to be Bayern, who thumped Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate and were crowned champions after Arjen Robben wriggled through to tap home a late winner in the Final. The entire world was captivated. A German dynasty became visible.

Joachim Löw is its greatest beneficiary. He is fortunate enough to work with these fine players and earns praise when they merely do their jobs. However, it is undoubtedly a double-edged sword. The rest of the world deems it unthinkable for Germany not to win at least one major championship within the next decade. Germans demand that it happens. Ultimately, Joachim Löw has to deliver. In the past, he has brushed with near-failure; defeat by Spain in the Final of Euro 2008 compounded with sudden semi-final exits at World Cup 2010 and last summer in Poland & Ukraine. The award of a three-year contract extension last month may give the illusion of security, but an undercurrent of skepticism has become more pronounced as the talent has flourished. It's not a job for the faint hearted.

When the German footballmannschaft arrives at Wembley this evening, the atmosphere should be different. We shouldn't sneer or hiss or taunt. We shouldn't even refer mockingly to Stefan Kuntz or hearken back to our hallowed 5-1 away win. Rather, we should all settled down with a notepad and pen, ready to learn from our esteemed guests. After years of planning and building, Germany have cracked the code.

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