Sunday, July 4, 2010
German team inconceivably strong
A handful of minutes before the end of the Germany versus Argentina game, Michael Ballack and the German media director Harald Stenger left their VIP seats and walked down the stairs. They knew the team was in the process of writing history and wanted to be as close to the players as possible when the final whistle sounded.
• Low hails 'champions' display
• Gupta: Germany winning fans
• Blog: Undone by a proper team
• Press praise German victors
It was here, at pitchside, that they saw Miroslav Klose score Germany's fourth goal of the game. When the celebrations ended, Stenger stared at the pitch with a sparkle in his eyes. Millions of German television viewers had no problems reading his lips, as he repeatedly said, to no one in particular save maybe himself: "Inconceivable, inconceivable."
One can understand his mixture of joyous excitement and stunned disbelief. You just don't win a quarter final game at the World Cup by a score of 4-0. (This hasn't happened since 1978, and back then the last eight didn't play knock-out games.) And certainly not against Argentina. (Germany had never scored more than three goals before against the Albiceleste and never won by a margin of more than two goals.)
So, yes, in some ways it's all indeed inconceivable. You'd use less strong a word if this was a team that had been playing together and using the same tactical formation for such a long time that it could run through some moves on autopilot. Or if there was one outstanding individual who carried the side through moments of doubt or anxious periods.
But Germany switched to the 4-2-3-1 system so popular at this tournament only last September, when Mesut Ozil made his debut in the starting XI and suggested his talents would be wasted in another formation. And many of the players who ran rings round Argentina are novices or play in new positions - or both. At one point in the game, the German TV commentator reminded his audience: "It feels as if Thomas Muller has been a part of this team for years, when in fact five of his seven appearances have come at this World Cup."
Said Muller is certainly one of the finds of the tournament and one of the best performers for Germany so far. But he is not the central figure in the German game. And it's not Ozil, either, who had a strangely bloodless and uninspired game against Argentina, which didn't seem to bother his team-mates one bit.
It's not Miroslav Klose, despite his now uncanny scoring record for the national team and at big tournaments, as the coach and his players also have absolute faith in Cacau. It may be Bastian Schweinsteiger, as I said in my tournament preview and as Joachim Low seems to feel, since he called Schweinsteiger "irreplaceable" on Saturday. However, the past weeks have me presume that Germany could now even cope in case Schweinsteiger has an off-day, sustains an injury or is suspended. Toni Kroos surely has got the nerves and the talent to fill the breach.
So the central figure is the team - and this means the whole team. That includes men like Harald Stenger, whom most of the players regard as a team-mate rather than as suit-wearing official. You could see this feeling of togetherness when the players had finished their lap of honour on Saturday and approached their dugout: the whole coaching staff, the physios and the trainers, were waiting for them and did a small-scale Mexican wave to salute the players.
But as it goes without saying, these men, often invisible and nameless, are not only there to foster team-spirit. Judging from what we get to see on the pitch, they must be doing an outstanding job - because one of the central factors in the German side's success is that the players are in excellent shape.
One tends to explain fitness or the lack of it in very simple terms - the number of injuries the players have suffered or the number of games they had to play. But it's not as easy as that. Schweinsteiger, for instance, should have legs of lead, considering he went down to the wire with Bayern in every competition, and in a new position where he has got to do more running than in the past. But he looks as fleet-footed as if this were mid-season.
Some people argue that Germany always do well at tournaments because we have such a long winter break that our players are more rested than their counterparts from other countries. What irony, then, that the Bundesliga has just had the shortest winter break in 30 years, after the league association cut the length of the break in half, down to three weeks. And what irony that the US ran into such stamina problems in extra time against Ghana, even though the MLS season only started in March.
No, the best explanation for Germany's fitness seems to be that the staff are very good at what they do. And of course that includes the man who has completely overhauled the national side in the past six years, Joachim Low. A lot of people have forgotten that the team was in total tatters in 2004 and that Jurgen Klinsmann and Low rebuilt almost from scratch, in terms of personnel and playing style.
We will have a closer look at Low after the end of the tournament, because that's when he will have to make a decision about his future.
One of the issues that are certainly making him consider the German FA's offer to stay on with some hesitation is that his team may break up. The German FA are not too fond of Oliver Bierhoff - and they have already told Stenger that his contract will not be extended.
But for the time being, let me close not with personnel but with playing style. No matter how stunning the eventual scoreline against Argentina may have been, no matter if the side will lose against Spain or in a possible final - as was the case in 2006, Germany have already won because they are once more the only side that doesn't play like Germany.
I don't want to give the impression I'm name-dropping, so I won't mention names. But four days ago, a well-known English football writer announced to his friends on Facebook: "Find myself in the strange position of wanting Germany to win the World Cup."
And on Saturday evening I received an e-mail from another well-known writer, an expert on Netherlands. He reminded me that the last time Argentina had lost a World Cup game by a score of 4-0, it happened in West Germany and at the hands of the legendary Total Football side representing the Oranje. Then he predicted: "So, history with a twist: Germany and Netherlands meet in the final. But the heirs to Cruyff and Michels will play in white and the heirs of Herberger in orange."
So an Englishman wants us to win and a Holland fan says we are playing like the heirs to Cruyff and Michels. Inconceivable.