Saturday, July 10, 2010
A question of coachmanship
It would have been a successful World Cup for Germany even if the side had not secured third place in yet another entertaining game, so it's time to acknowledge the national coach and - quite literally, as you'll see - his Mannschaft.
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It was a successful tournament despite the loss to Spain in the semi-final, as the team won praise and many new friends all over the world for their football, not to mention scoring 16 goals in seven games. True, the players themselves would have preferred to win a trophy, but most professional observers share the view expressed by Klaus Smentek, the editor-in-chief of Kicker magazine:
"Whoever would have predicted any of this, particularly after Michael Ballack's injury, would have been derided as an absolute crank. And so Joachim Low and his crew are deserving of the highest respect."
Smentek wrote that two days before the Spain game, but I'm sure he's not taking a single word back. Low came under a bit of criticism from abroad after the semi-final defeat due to supposedly misguided tactics, but over here nobody seriously thinks the team intended to play as deep as it did. We don't have the players for that - and the reason we don't have them is that playing deep isn't Low's style.
That became apparent as early as 14 years ago, when he was in charge of one of the really famous and legendary - mythical, almost - teams in Bundesliga history, VfB Stuttgart's so-called 'magical triangle' side.
In fact, Low is sometimes credited with not only shaping but creating this team of the mid '90s, the highly entertaining and very offensive side led by playmaker Krassimir Balakov and strikers Giovane Elber and Fredi Bobic.
Truth be told, though, it was Low's predecessor, Rolf Fringer, who signed Balakov from Sporting to complete the triangle - and who asked Low to come and join him as assistant coach in Stuttgart. It was under Fringer that the term 'magical triangle' was coined and it was under Fringer that the side enchanted the league with daring football. For a few months.
But soon, in the second half of the 1995-96 season, it all fell apart, as the team, and primarily team spirit, disintegrated. The squad became a collection of cliques, as many players secretly accused Fringer of favouritism. At the end of a disappointing season that had begun so promisingly, Fringer left and Low was promoted.
Somehow, he managed to restore team spirit, foster a sense of togetherness and got the side to play a high-tempo attacking game that finally yielded success, as Stuttgart won the 1997 German Cup and then reached the Cup Winners' Cup final a year later.
In other words, he did pretty much what he's done with the national team over the past years, which is one reason why Jurgen Klinsmann, who's always kept a close eye on Stuttgart, asked him to become his assistant when he took over the national team in 2004.
Another reason, according to recent football lore, is that none other than Low expertly and passionately explained modern tactics when Klinsmann studied for his coaching diploma in the summer of 2000. The two not only became friends, Klinsmann also made a mental note where to find an assistant should the need ever arise.
Actually, more than an assistant. When Klinsmann stepped down after the 2006 World Cup, he recommended Low as his successor, saying: "He was never just my assistant. He was a partner. He did all the real work."
That wasn't just a puff piece to get Low the job, Klinsmann was serious. Low had been at least as instrumental in radically reshaping the team and its football than the - at least internationally - more celebrated Klinsmann.
Which is why this is his team, playing his football. He doesn't seem to get quite the credit he deserves for all this, partly because he isn't the type to hog the limelight and bang his own drum. But since Low is the one who's taken all the risks - for example by discarding players such as Torsten Frings or Kevin Kuranyi and sticking with the much-criticised Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski - he should be the one to reap all the rewards.
And that means a new contract. It would be a rotten joke indeed if German FA president Theo Zwanziger would manage to drive Low away, considering Zwanziger's predecessor Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder did precisely that all those years ago, when he was Stuttgart's president. (Mayer-Vorfelder, stunningly, didn't extend Low's contract in 1998, which had disastrous consequences for VfB and launched Low's years in Turkey and Austria, during which Germans almost forgot about him.)
Yet all the signs are that Zwanziger has realised he's got the perfect man to do the job - and Low seems to know very well that he's got the perfect job. "I need a few quiet, peaceful days now, as I've come close to my breaking point in these past week and months," Low said a few minutes after the final whistle rang on the Uruguay game, but then he added: "And then we'll meet for some talks in due time to see if we can continue this vision we have."
So I assume that once the dust has cleared we'll see the two men shaking hands and grinning into a camera and declaring that Low will be in charge of the national team at least until the next World Cup.
Which leads me to a vocabulary problem I was asked to address. And since I won't have another chance to answer the question during this World Cup, I guess I'll have to do it now.
The question was: why do I use terms like Socceroos or Black Stars for other sides but never die Mannschaft for our own? Well, that's an easy one. We don't say that. Or, to be more precise, it's not a nickname for the national side.
True, the second comprehensive account of our national team's history, written by Ludger Schulze and first published in 1986, was simply called 'Die Mannschaft'. However, that book was given the unwieldy subtitle of 'The Story of Germany's National Football Team' precisely because the snappy title was too sweeping, since mannschaft simply means team. Thus it can and will refer to any team, depending on the context.
If you think the word itself is strange or even funny, as a user by the name of 'marximusthegale' did when commenting on the news item 'Beckenbauer hammers England's style' back in mid-June, please note that it does exist in the English language as well.
Think of terms such as seamanship or workmanship, in the sense of a group of people. The -manship bit comes from the same stem as the German mannschaft. (That the English -ship suffix was once used to denote a collective sense can still be seen in the word 'township'.)
I'm aware that this little digression may be very instructive but doesn't answer the question what we call our national team. Well, just that really - 'national team' or 'national eleven'. The latter version was used by a reader who calls himself 'PitBull37'. When he left a comment on the 'A picture perfect night for Germany' column he correctly said: "But although I cheered die Nationalelf on as hard as any fan, I never felt they really represented my (or other's) mixed heritage."
For 102 years, it wasn't much of a problem that we don't have a nickname for the national team. But during this World Cup a website run by Kicker magazine and a public-service TV channel declared, "This team deserves a name" and started a poll to come up with a moniker.
As I type this, 49% of the users of www.fanorakel.de are in favour of 'The Eagles'. And so, who knows, in two years' time, when the next major tournament will be held, we could be going where eagles dare. See you there!