‘Before Klinsmann, we had a group of good players behaving badly. Now we have a team that is difficult to hate.’ – Ronald Reng
Germany finished runners-up at the 2002 World Cup, but it was far from seen as a hard luck story.
Brazil, with Ronaldo on a personal mission to make up for his failure in France four years earlier, were worthy winners in South Korea and Japan.
For Rudi Voller’s side, it represented progress nonetheless, with the embarrassment of failing to emerge from the group stages of the European Championship finals in 2000 as fresh in the minds as the subsequent 5-1 loss to England in Munich towards the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Germany had a rather gentle passage to the final, having beaten Paraguay, the United States and hosts South Korea in the knock-outs, but they were comfortably defeated by Luis Felipe Scolari’s side thanks to Ronaldo’s brace.
Had Germany prevailed against the Brazilians, it would have stood as something of a false dawn, resembling the manner in which Italy triumphed over France in the 2006 final.
The Italians had created a club mentality in the face of turmoil back home caused by the match-fixing scandal, and many of the players who excelled at the tournament were in the autumn of their careers.
While Italy took the glory, something more profound had taken hold of hosts Germany, who would prove the greatest beneficiaries in the longer term.
Just as France used the 1998 competition to create a sense of unity between football and the nation as a whole that would spill over into the following decade, the wave of optimism sweeping back into German hearts and minds under manager Jurgen Klinsmann made their semi-final exit far from a disaster.
‘2006 was the real turning point for German football,’ Raphael Honigstein, author of Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, said at the London Sports Writing Festival on Thursday. ‘Germans started to feel good again about German football and Germany – those two things are closely linked. Everyone started to buy into what Klinsmann was doing.’
Honigstein was joined at Lord’s by Ronald Reng – promoting his book Matchdays: The hidden story of the Bundesliga – who marked the point of transition further back, with the 3-0 defeat by a Portugal ‘B side’ at Euro 2000 representing ground zero during Erich Ribbeck’s tenure.
‘After that loss, there was a really uncomfortable press conference. The nation had gone out in disgrace, and Germany took a long hard look at themselves,’ Reng reflected. ‘Even Kevin Keegan’s England had managed to beat us!
‘We were playing a system that relied on man-to-man marking seen 30 years ago. As a boy growing up in West Germany, you were even embarrassed by the way we won. The physical approach has now been replaced with a focus on entertaining. Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan in the mid 1990s really led the way with zonal marking that made Germany reconsider the need for a sweeper.
‘It was only then that the German FA realised we had a team full of defensive midfielders. Desperate attempts were made to find creative players across the world with German grandmothers!’
The boost of being announced as the winning World Cup bid in 2000 was precisely what Germany needed given the extent of the malaise on the pitch.
‘We didn’t want to embarrass ourselves at our own World Cup,’ continued Honigstein. ‘We admittedly looked at the Premier League and French model and created a sense of momentum through the Bundesliga clubs working together. This was fundamental and money was also key.
‘The boom time of the ’90s in Germany was over at the turn of the century. Spending €10 million on an academy was seen as worth the investment. A major emphasis was placed on this.’
The dour and relentless manner in which Germany bulldozed teams into submission had become ineffective, but Klinsmann kick-started the process of change, bringing with him an American mentality whereby the national side was treated more as a club team.
‘He changed the attitude of German football,’ said Reng. ‘Before, the players were just allowed to play, but now we weren’t just relying on ability. The squad woke up to the fact they had to work scientifically in order to succeed and they developed their own tactics. Before, it was a group of talented players behaving badly. Now, we have a team that is difficult to hate.’
On the 2006 World Cup, Honigstein added: ‘Klinsmann really used the energy of the home crowd. He didn’t have the best players, but he brought a real professional approach. Things that seem totally banal nowadays, like eating the right foods, sports psychology and the shift in goalkeeper training, all started under him.’
Joachim Low took over from Klinsmann in 2006 having worked under him, but it was not until 2014 that the nation overcame a substantial mental block created by the fallow period without success dating back to 1996.
Runners-up to Spain at the 2008 European Championship finals, Germany lost by the same 1-0 scoreline to the same opposition two years later in South Africa, before Italy’s Mario Balotelli broke their hearts in the semi-finals of Euro 2012.
The ‘re-boot’ was 10 years in the making, the watershed moment in Holland and Belgium ending infamously with Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller taking apart Fabio Capello’s England in Bloemfontein. Much has changed in the way we now stereotypically view German football.
When we think of Brazil last summer, we think of the surreal nature of the 7-1 crushing of the hosts, the way Manuel Neuer played like an outfield player against Algeria and of course Mario Gotze’s goal in the final.
But how difficult will it be for Germany to keep advancing? The Spanish model of possession football enjoyed plenty of success in a four-year period that brought three major honours.
But death by asphyxiation, wearing their opponents down through a breathless demonstration of tiki-taka, was brutally undone by Holland and exposed once more by Chile at the World Cup 17 months ago.
The danger is that if Germany stand still, they too will eventually come unstuck in half the time it took to rebuild, but the process of reform has already begun at club level.
‘There’s a movement, headed by the Red Bull Leipzig manager (Ralf Rangnick), which is all about the high pressing game, but I think they’re trying to be too smart,’ added Reng.
‘It’s obsessed with pace and getting in behind teams. It’s full of running and they do point to numbers for its success. But I think this is a very dangerous movement as if you teach youngsters too much about a game based on pace, they’ll lose sight of technique.’
Honigstein disagreed. The high-pressing (or gegenpressing as it is known in Germany) is something Jurgen Klopp wants Liverpool to adopt in the Premier League, and he placed his concerns elsewhere.
‘Thomas Tuchel has shown at Borussia Dortmund that this system works and teams can adapt. I think it’s more that we are in danger of letting players have things too easy. Maybe they could prepare on poorer pitches, for example. Now it’s more about small steps to optimise the success, it’s not a change of model that’s needed.’
England and the Premier League could most certainly do with making a few giant strides to catch up with their German counterparts, at least in terms of the relationship between clubs and their supporters.
It was a subject brought back into public consciousness during Bayern Munich’s recent Champions League visit to face Arsenal at the Emirates, with many visitors taking their seats five minutes into the game to protest against the £64 ticket price.
While many supporters of Premier League sides have campaigned for cheaper matchday experiences, the biggest sides in Germany are now struggling to control the hardcore contingent, and Reng believes there needs to be a balance between supporters being heard and clubs honouring the need for financial growth.
‘Fans are not treated as customers in Germany,’ said Reng. ‘Supporters now behave like a power base. Fans don’t care about the game anymore; it’s like they’re there to praise themselves. They sing throughout regardless of what’s happening on the pitch and they feel like they are the show. The fans have taken over.’
Honigstein added: ‘German clubs realise that despite all the commercial deals, the number one market is still the local market – they never lose sight of this. It’s taken time for success as things have been done organically and there’s been a few false dawns. But Bayern and Dortmund are good examples of how it’s worked.’
Klopp caused a stir last weekend when he expressed his disappointment at seeing huge swathes of empty seats at Anfield towards the end of his side’s 2-1 defeat by Crystal Palace, and while Germany is not entirely immune from the culture of fans leaving early, it is not something the Reds boss would have expected so soon into his reign.
‘I think he’s been a bit surprised by the atmosphere,’ said Honigstein. ‘You see even in Europa League games how German fans behave. Klopp has found Liverpool to be not quite as it was advertised. He came from Dortmund (with the famous Yellow Wall) and Mainz prior to that.
‘He’s acknowledged that he needs to change the atmosphere. He’s got himself heavily involved in the new stand and he’s got the ability to get players to play for him. Some managers don’t have his charisma. He has the ability to play players like an instrument. That’s what makes him the full package. He’s a great personality not just for Liverpool but for the whole of English football.’