Germans lost 1:4 to the Italian Azzurri at Florence’s Franchi stadium on March 1, 2006, which happened to be Ash Wednesday. It was one of those international ‘friendlies’ after which the losing team ask themselves: with such friends, who needs foes? Even less surprising is the national and international reaction: a combination of angst, schadenfreude and pure sadomasochism. But the question to ask is: what is wrong with German football?
Alberto Gilardino of Italy after scoring on the 4th minute in the German-Italian international friendly on March 1, 2006
The sympathies and antipathies of the European nations amongst themselves can still be observed in their purest form when it comes to either football or the Eurovision song contest: the triviality of these pursuits apparently justifying a fallback to the dividing lines of the Second World War. Then there’s the pleasure at the fall of the mighty. The chorus of derision in the European press after the German debacle is by itself a proof of the relief sweeping through many a footballing nation: it’s as if German football had got the bird flu!
The “Klinsmann system”
It is not unknown in Europe that the Germans have been a bit under weather for some time now. After the legendary ‘Kaiser’ - Beckenbauer - Berti Vogts, Rudi Völler and Jürgen Klinsmann, all three national coaches have been in the nature of stopgaps, if not trial-and-error. Vogts lived more-or-less from the leftovers of the Beckenbauer era. Völler couldn’t make up his mind whether he should send the older generation of players into early pension. And the youthful Klinsmann staked everything on rejuvenation – and got Florence for his pains.
Klinsmann lives in the US, gets American fitness trainers to tone up his team ,doesn’t consider it infra dig to ask for tips from a successful German hockey coach. He believes in attacking, aggressive football – the Germans turned out in Florence in red jerseys as a symbol of aggression and passion, if one is to believe Klinsmann. Well, passion and aggression were the only two things missing in the German team in Florence.
German masochism means harbouring completely unrealistic, sky-high expectations regarding the national team – especially in a World Cup ‘at home’. Secondly, Germans felt that those unrealistic expectations were completely justified on the basis of that single showing in the Confed Cup. Thirdly, they’re now treating the whole project as a wash-out after the 1:4 bashing at the feet of the silky Italians.
Living with reality
Well, neither Klinsmann, nor the functionaries of German football would or could be mad enough to think that there can be any major change in selection or tactics at this stage, with 99 days to go till the start of the World Cup. They’re sticking to their guns, or to their young guns, as in this case.
As regards Florence, Klinsmann and his players have been pleading that they were under shock after going two goals down in the first seven minutes. Especially Klinsmann has been pleading that his players have a lot of potential, individually. There might be a point in both. Nevertheless, as Günter Netzer, a former German international from the glory days of Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, commented in ARD television immediately after the Florence disaster that football is a matter of skills as well as of personality, a player either has them or he doesn’t. For example, Michael Ballack is not Zinedine Zidane, just as Lothar Matthäus was not Zinedine Zidane. The German team will have to live with that.
On the other hand, there are certain essential German virtues which Netzer had missed in the game at the Franchi stadium: like stamina, like a strong physical presence, like dogged determination. Netzer summed up the chances of this young German team by saying that they might not be the greatest players on earth, but they could still mean something as a team, as the German team.
Netzer also pointed out that Klinsmann didn’t really have much of a choice, looking at the present Bundesliga line-up. He’d have to make do with what he’s got.
Reasons for the decline
That, too, is a different story: how Germany reached this stage of decline. One could begin with a story that Berti Vogts’ once related from his store of experience as a youth trainer: how boys of 10 or 12 would turn up for practice flanked by parents and a solicitor, if Vogts had seen so much as a glimmer of talent in the youngster. They’d be having the contract all ready for Vogts to just fill in the zeroes. It’s not just a question of money corrupting all, Germany doesn’t have enough young people, hungry people in tenement parks to take on the Brazilian favela’s.
On the other hand, though football is talked about as ‘King Football’ in this economic powerhouse of a country, football clubs in Italy and Spain are infinitely more wealthy than their German counterparts, just as football fans in Italy or Spain – or even England – are ready to spend more time, money and energy on this “most important triviality in the world”, as the Germans fondly call football.
Which means – with apologies – that the absolute top stars of international football like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho or Zinedine Zidane are not on view in German stadia, neither are they on German television. As a matter of fact, German television being equally shy about buying foreign footage, the German youngster gets a rather one-sided vision of football as an art – and always with German involvement, unless it’s a Confed Cup in Germany, or the European championships, or the World Cup.
France took 20 years of youth work to produce a team which went on to win the World and European double. Jürgen Klinsmann has done what he could to rejuvenate the German team. The typical German qualities, once they begin to hold, will do the rest. Nobody’s betting on Germany, but nobody should strike Germany from the list either when it comes to winning the World Cup 2006.
It will still be an accident.