Starstruck Germany suffer déjà vu
On Wednesday night in Durban, Germany were dealt a double dose of déjà vu. First it was 2006 all over again, when the team played better and went further than most observers had expected, only to go out in rather sobering fashion in the semi-final. But of course the game was also a restaging of the Euro 2008 final, with a similar run of play and the same outcome.
However, the difference to 2006 was that the side didn't come as agonisingly close to reaching the final and freely admitted they had been beaten by a much better opponent; and the difference to 2008 was that this came as a bit of a surprise.
All through the day I had been involved in various pre-match discussions, online and on the radio, and the most common prediction was that we would see a very close game because the gap between Germany and Spain was no longer as large as it had seemed after the final two years ago.
Then we have to watch almost the same game all over again. Strange and disappointing. But not inexplicable. For one thing, respect played a role; it was almost awe.
I wouldn't go so far and call it fear, as some reporters did, but there was a deep-seated respect on the part of Germany. I don't think that stemmed from the traumatic 2008 final, because some of the players who were so thoroughly outplayed, humiliated even, on that June night in Vienna played with their heads held high in Durban - Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose and Arne Friedrich, to name three.
I think many members of the team were overawed by Spain not because of 2008 and not due to this team's performances so far (which have not been awe-inspiring) but because Spain represents the ideal these German players have been taught to strive for.
Low belongs to that generation of coaches who were strongly influenced by Volker Finke, the man who formed the famous Freiburg team of the 1990s. He and his followers sniffed at what Finke called "hero football" and countered it with "concept football". Hero football is what you see in Nike ads - glamorous and fiendishly expensive superstars winning games all by themselves. Concept football is what you see when Spain are on top form, or even normal form.
So I suppose for most of our younger players, the game must have felt like a matchup between apprentice and master. Which is why it was such a pity that Thomas Muller was suspended, as he was sorely missed. Not so much Muller, the player, mind you, as it would be rather silly to suggest Germany can't do without a kid who wasn't even regarded as a starting player six weeks ago.
No, what we were missing was Muller, the character. His carefreeness, his fearlessness, his exuberance - that was lacking. I'm sure he wouldn't have been particularly starstruck. At least not at first. Because even if our players had been totally uninhibited and not felt any respect for Spain as the game began, they would have been impressed soon.
And that is, of course, another reason for why the game was so one-sided is that Spain were awesome.
At first it wasn't entirely certain if Germany were playing so deep against their will or whether this was according to a plan. This second option wasn't as far-fetched as it may sound. Earlier in the day, I was on Dublin's Newstalk with Graham Hunter. We agreed that Spain were actually glad they were about to face Germany and not any of the other teams, glad to finally face a team that was willing to play football instead of stopping the other team from playing.
When the semi-final began, I thought back to this conversation and briefly wondered if maybe the Germans had decided to surprise Spain by not acting out their designated part, had decided they don't want to play Arsenal to Spain's Barcelona, if you recall the Champions League tie of three months ago.
However, Bastian Schweinsteiger later made it abundantly clear that the game plan had been very different. He said: "It's frustrating when you intend to do something and then just can't do it." And that's where the concept football comes in again, as Spain had the right plan, the right men and the perfect execution during the first half hour, which set the tone.
For 25 minutes, Spain played an almost constant pressing game very far upfield, which was not only risky but also very demanding, both physically and mentally. It put the German backline and the holding midfielders under constant pressure as they had no time to properly build from the rear.
However, the truly devastating effect of this strategy was that it forced the whole of the German offensive midfield - Piotr Trochowski, Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski - to retreat and play very deep. They had to do this to give their team-mates, who were always facing two or three opponents when they had the ball, another passing option.
Normally, you can't keep this pressing game on for a longer period of time, you just use it sporadically. But Spain are such a well-oiled machine that they did it almost constantly for the first 25 minutes. Only then did they finally let up to catch some breath. That was the moment when it looked as if Germany would now get into the match, but all we got was more room. Our game had been destroyed by that time and we never managed to pick up the pieces again.
"They have shown us our limits," is how Low later put it. Yes, they did, but it's no reason to become depressed. Spain are in a class of their own, because they not only play concept football - they do it with heroes. Which means they usually have one more resource than you do, and so theirs is the present. The future may be Germany's. True, on the day that the final episodes of "Lost" aired on a German pay-TV station, the team crashed to earth. But in football, there is always a sequel.