Saturday, July 3, 2010
Germans winning over neutrals
In my schooldays, Germany - West Germany - were the team no neutrals wanted to follow. They no longer had the class of Franz Beckenbauer and the deadly accuracy of Gerd Mueller; Karl-Heinz Rumenigge was cold-eyed and Teutonic and a pale imitation of Sting. And that was before we got to Harald "Bonecrusher" Schumacher. Even when they won in 1990 the positive energy that seemed to flow from Lothar Matthaeus and Pierre Littbarski was undermined by the much-maligned Rudi Voller.
• Argentina 0-4 Germany
• Low hails champion Germans
They were monochromatic and dull, seemingly automated, like Kraftwerk would be if they were a football team. Not anymore. In three matches, where they have scored four goals each, they have buried that image, most emphatically against Argentina on Saturday.
It was said, before the game, an Argentina win would complete the job began in 2006, where a promising side were cut down by Germany in the quarter-finals. That actually holds more true for Germany; their play here is a continuation of the freedom of the mind and spirit that was seen throughout that tournament four years ago, on the field and in stands. It comes from the top - for example from the unashamedly fanatical Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose reaction to the first, early goal was to look around the VIP box and then do a little jig. It stems from Joachim Low, who looks as if he's a paid-up member of Berlin's hip, arty set.
Most of all on the ground, where they have found a way to express the emotions felt in the stands and to recreate the growing vibrancy of their landscape. Much has been said about the ethnic stew that is the nationalmannschaft and the extra dimension it has acquired but the victory was based on two principles that would have gladdened the hearts of Kaiser Franz and his heirs: teamwork and leadership.
They did not dominate Argentina to the extent the scoreline suggests, rather there were long periods through the first-half and the early part of the second when Argentina seemed a goal away from turning things round. But, as against England, their two quick goals killed the contest and it wasn't very late into the second-half before the German fans brought out the oles. They kept running, they kept trying and well before the game was won they were clearly the hungrier side, winning the 50-50 balls and refusing to rest on their lead. Coach Low later acknowledged that his side "played a liberated style of attacking football."
It says much for the team's youth that Bastian Schweinsteiger, still only 25, is seen as a senior; man of the match, he was the one pulling strings for his players and putting up the first line of defence against the opposition. He set up the first goal, had a shot on goal minutes after that and set up the third for Arne Friedrich to break his international scoring duck. When he was not creating or defending, he was drawing the tackles, forcing Argentina into committing errors.
Without his sublime passing it's unlikely the team's elder statesman Miroslav Klose, winning his 100th cap, would have got the two goals to equal Gerd Mueller's record of World Cup goals. Both were relatively simple tap-ins yet he fully deserved them for his overall play. Tracking back, hustling in midfield, he was content to play the role of the isolated striker; just before his first goal he was involved in a tussle for the ball on the near touchline, near the halfway line. He won the ball with his back to goal, swivelled and controlled it and then shot it to an opponent's hand to win the free-kick.
The other "veterans" chipped in as well - Philipp Lahm, running and organising and tackling and passing; Lukas Podolski, whose runs down the left, especially when Argentina were chasing the game, always threatened a goal. And of course the youngsters. Sami Khedira marshalled the midfield and plotted the surges through the middle, Mesut Ozil, though less exuberant than he was against England, still pulled out the flicks and the tricks; Thomas Muller worked his socks off - his goal came after a 20-yard sprint from the pack to free himself of the defender - and will be missed on Wednesday as he picked up a booking to rule him out of the semi. Their walk around the pitch after the final whistle, arm in arm, summed up the spirit of camaraderie that runs through this side.
Nowhere was that spirit more evident than in how they cut out the threat of Lionel Messi, reducing him to post-match tears in the dressing room. "We closed down Messi very well - without resorting to fouls, so that was great," Low said after the game. The job was largely undertaken by Schweinsteiger and Khedira but shared by whoever was closest. Someday Messi will also have to figure out a Plan B, one that does not involve veering to the left on receiving the ball. He had his moments - his very first touch, just before the ten-minute mark, saw him retrieve the ball from near his area and ride a series of tackles before shipping it out to Carlos Tevez.
Overall, though, he cut a forlorn figure, reduced by the end to long-range shots that rarely threatened Manuel Neuer; he seemed to be playing deeper than usual, possibly to simply ensure he got the ball, so effectively had the Germans cut the supply lines. He has had wonderful moments in this tournament but goes home without a goal and must join Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo among the ranks of stars to have underperformed.
But now Messi is yesterday's story and Germany are the team to watch - and the team to beat, showing the daring and zest that this tournament has otherwise lacked. Will they retain it on Wednesday, when the stakes are infinitely higher? They must - if only for the neutrals they have now converted.