THE German national team are a completely different beast now - they’re almost cuddly, writes Aidan Smith
Don’t know about you but I love these stories of the big beasts of German football, the mostly mulleted, occasionally goosestepping egomaniacs that we don’t have in our game and indeed which don’t really exist anywhere else. My new favourite involves Gunter Netzer, he of the size 12 feet, and Rudi Voller, he of the bubble-perm which once had spittle applied to it as a mid-match conditioner.
It’s 2003 and Voller is the manager of the dismal national team who’ve just scraped a 0-0 draw with lowly Iceland which regular critic Netzer, working as a TV pundit, dubs a “new low”. This causes Voller, listening in a studio next door, to spontaneously combust live on air. “It’s a disgrace,” he thunders. “‘Low point, a new low point, an even lower new point.’ … I’ve been three years listening to such nonsense. You know how much s**t they played in Netzer’s days? You couldn’t watch, it was football without running. I won’t take this for much longer. Iceland are top of the table. Are you saying we have to dominate them? You have to get off your high horse with your delusions about the kind of football we have to play in Germany.”
The story comes in Raphael Honigstein’s fantastic new book, Das Reboot (Yellow Jersey), which describes how German football did change, reinventing itself to conquer the world. It went from “new low” to Joachim Low. From boring to exciting, robotic to hippy, arrogant to corinthian (the 7-1 thrashing of Brazil when they didn’t celebrate wildly and consoled their humiliated opponents). From loathed to, if not quite loved, then certainly hugely admired and getting on for cuddly.
Who else has effected a transformation quite so complete? Not Brazil, who’ve gone from beautiful to ugly to utilitarian to corporate and are still trying to find their way back to their Azteca apotheosis. Argentina can’t transform and are doomed to repeat their divine madness. Hungary did transform but in the wrong direction, finding oblivion. England transformed from an overhyped, underachieving team into an underachieving one who no longer boast about how they’re going to win tournaments, which amounts to only half the fun for everyone else. Scotland have stayed as Scotland. So if you think of the Brandenburg Gate as being like the smoky archway on singing makeover show Stars in Their Eyes, Germany, the Nationalmannschaft, have emerged an entirely different animal.
My very first encounter with Germany, then just West, was the 1970 World Cup. A wallchart advised my brother and I to look out for The Franz Beckenbauer Relaxed Ankle with which Der Kaiser struck a pass hard enough to elude opponents before it slowed down sufficiently for a team-mate to collect. Faither, omniscient as ever, declared: “That sounds like every football ever struck to me.” But the Germans had another trick: the back header with which Uwe Seeler beat England’s Peter Bonetti, who I think was nicknamed Tiddles, and we practised it the whole summer long.
For the rest of the 1970s I was preoccupied with Scotland’s dramas but 1982 was the nadir for West Germany – in image terms at least – with the World Cup of that year producing both Harald Schumacher’s shocking assault on Patrick Battiston and the dirty collusion with Austria to squeeze out Algeria. Honigstein’s detail on the incidents is superb: Schumacher nonchalantly playing keepy-uppy while medics tended to the Frenchman after the neck-high challenge; Spanish newspaper El Comercio printing their report on the goalless draw, played at walking pace, on the crime pages.
The Germans still got to the final that year, as they tended to do, but personality-wise they stank and later sides won them few friends. The revolution was masterminded by Low and first Jurgen Klinsmann. These two “knew of the sins of their predecessors”, writes Honigstein. “More than that: their rebranding of the Nationalmannschaft after 2004 was a conscious attempt to deep-clean the team’s image after a mass of awful connotations had coalesced like grease under the toilet seat … ” In Brazil last summer, another opportunity for a mutually-beneficial result presented itself – Germany vs the Klinsmann-coached USA – but there was no way dark history was going to repeat.
Immediate pre-revolution, Germany minted a new word for the national style – “rumpelfuball”. “The best players didn’t so much play football anymore: they rumbled, lumbered and cluttered,” writes Honigstein. Klinsmann, a man of the world who liked to hang around its famous art galleries, saw no reason why the team shouldn’t be aesthetically-pleasing. He wanted Germany fans to start using the phrase “ramba-zamba” again. The term dated from Netzer’s era – Voller was wrong about that team – when they attacked from deep in rapid, elegant waves but had barely been heard since.
There was resistance. A 0-0 draw eked out by Bayern Munich at Old Trafford – “Joyless, motionless, goalless,” says Honigstein – had thrilled the masochists. Uli Hoeness called it “a beautiful game, something for gourmets”. Germany’s football hero wasn’t a dashing striker or sophisticated playmaker but the goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn – “a constantly over-motivated alpha male who occasionally nibbled on an opponent’s earlobe”.
Klinsmann’s New Age methods were mocked. His decision to base himself in California was criticised. But he stuck to his task. By 2010 with Low in charge, the German team looked quite different – more multi-cultural – and finally had itself a free-flowing style that required the old epithet to be revived. Welcome back, ramba-zamba.
You can liken the revolution to what happened to German music in the 1960s when the krautrock bands Kraftwerk and Can exploded the country’s post-war pop-cultural vacuum. Honigstein describes the players as “academics” with one notable exception: Thomas Muller brings wildness and unpredictability to their game, a “dose of anarchy”. Not really looking like a modern footballer, scruffily kitted out, he plods and scuffles, which shouldn’t be confused with rumbling and lumbering. He possesses his own GPS and it’s deadly. “I’m a raumdeuter,” he said early on with some precociousness, which translates as “interpreter of space”.
The rest is history. With last year’s World Cup final against Argentina deadlocked, Low sent on Mario Gotze. “Show Messi that you’re better than him,” the coach said. As motivation goes, that must be right up there with John Lambie’s quip on learning that a knocked-out Partick Thistle player didn’t know who he was: “Brilliant. Tell him he’s Pele.”
When Muller christened himself a raumdeuter he added: “That would make a good headline, wouldn’t it?” Well, we’ll decide that, son – here in Scotland we’re trying to hold on to what influence we have. But when you bring your ramba-zamba to Hampden you’ll be most welcome.