Germany v Argentina: Journey’s end in Rio

Togetherness is the key for German bid to change a national stereotype and end their trophy drought. Photograph:  Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images
Togetherness is the key for German bid to change a national stereotype and end their trophy drought. Photograph: Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images
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GERMANY’S 15-year campaign to rebuild from the bottom up culminates in tonight’s World Cup final

FOR Germany, the path to this World Cup final began not a month ago, when they beat Portugal 4-0 in Salvador in their opening game in Brazil, nor even two years ago in Hanover, when they began qualification with a 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands. This final is the culmination, Germany hopes, of 15 years of work.

In the late 1990s, German football looked as strong as ever. Borussia Dortmund had won the Champions League in 1997 and Bayern Munich were within seconds of winning in 1999. Germany had won Euro 96, with a team bolstered by players from the east who, it had been widely predicted, would make a united Germany unbeatable – even if that was a crushingly functional side. But beneath the surface there were concerns, which intensified when, in January 1997, the national manager Berti Vogts took the unprecedented step of fast-tracking the South Africa-born forward Sean Dundee for German citizenship. Injury meant he never actually played for Germany, but a year later, Paulo Rink, a Brazilian with German grandparents, did.

That emphasised the lack of domestic talent being produced, something that was widely believed to be a consequence of the lucrative television deal that had been signed in 1992. That, in a pattern that would soon become familiar in England, led to clubs suddenly flush with cash looking abroad for transfers. Some of those brought in were players of genuinely high quality, but many were merely cheaper alternatives to players already available in Germany. Between 1992 and 1997, the proportion of foreign players in the Bundesliga doubled from 17 per cent to 34 per cent.

By the end of the decade, the dearth of German talent being produced had begun to be reflected in tournament results. In 1998, Germany were hammered 3-0 in the World Cup quarter-final by Croatia. Two years later, at the Euros, Germany went out bottom of their group and suffered the indignity of a first competitive defeat to England for 34 years. By then, though, the rescue plan was already in place.

In May 1999, Franz Beckenbauer, the vice-president of the German football federation (DFB), Erich Ribbeck – who had succeeded Vogts as national coach – and the DFB’s director of youth development, Dietrich Wiese, outlined a scheme to ensure the development of young German players. All clubs in the top two divisions in Germany were required to build academies, while 121 national centres were established to help ten-to-17-year-olds with technical practice. “We were forced to organise everything anew,” said Horst Hrubesch, once a powerful centre-forward and now the national under-21 coach. “We hoped that it could get better with training focusing on technical skills in addition to the training in the clubs. It worked out well. We all – associations, clubs and regional associations – now reap the fruits of the seed we sowed in 2000.”

That provided the groundwork, but German football also benefited from two factors outside its control. Citizenship laws were relaxed, the result of which has been the emergence of a number of top-class German-qualified players from immigrant backgrounds.

German football was also aided by the economic dip of the early part of the last decade. By 2002, 60 per cent of all players in the Bundesliga were foreign but then the Kirch TV conglomerate, which had lain behind the boom of the 1990s, collapsed. That forced clubs to sell off their expensive foreign stars and give youth its chance. Last season, although the German economy has recovered, more than half of the players in the Bundesliga are qualified for Germany.

Hosting the World Cup in 2006 was another major step in Germany’s evolution. Under Jurgen Klinsmann, with Joachim Löw as his assistant, Germany played bright attractive football in a bright attractive tournament that many believe helped change the perception of the nation. There were goals, there was fun, there as none of the uncompromising muscularity of old and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, there was no victory. Germany were such perfect hosts that they exited in the semi-final, leaving their guests to contest the prize.

As the football writer David Winner observed, Germany had abandoned their traditional role in the narrative. They were supposed to be the remorseless villains who destroyed the dreams of beautiful teams – Hungary in 1954, the Netherlands in 1974, France in 1982. Suddenly they weren’t Darth Vader any more. They’d become one of the beautiful but doomed. The pretty football continued, and so did the failure. A final at Euro 2008, a semi-final in 2010, a semi-final at Euro 2012. Could it be that with the pretty football had come a loss of edge?

“When we won the under-21 European Championship in Sweden in 2009, we had a lot of players with a great mentality like Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira or Jerome Boateng,” said Hrubesch. “The boys must gain the experience of winning at youth level so that they become hungry for success. Our current generation in the national team has many players who have won the under-21s, under-19s or under-17s European Championships and also trophies at club level. I’m sure that they will bring this experience on to the pitch. They know what’s necessary to win a tournament.”

The reference to 2009 is telling. Six of that side are likely to start Sunday’s final, while Argentina will probably have six of their team that won the under-20 World Cup in 2005. The cores of both sides have developed in tandem. For Argentina, this probably represents their best chance; Germany’s class of 2009 should have more tournaments in them, but the thought that they might have subverted stereotype entirely and become a team that perpetually misses out on the prize has come to irritate. Remarkably, for all that is right in German football, if they fail to win here, this will be the longest trophy-drought in German history.

Toni Kroos was splendidly unemotional after the 7-1 victory over Brazil, insisting that there was still one game to go and that no title is ever won in the semi-final, a deadpan performance that perhaps suggested some of the old relentlessness had returned. The doubt, perhaps, is more tactical. Germany have proved repeatedly under Löw that they are superb at slicing apart open or confused teams on the break – they did it to Argentina in Cape Town in the quarter-final four years ago (11 Germans and eight Argentines who played in that game are in the squads this time round).

What they have not yet proved they can do is force the game against well-drilled, steely opposition. Argentina will be compact and will sit deep and that means that, unless Germany can come up with yet another set-piece goal, the related passing drills that make them so good on the counter will not be enough.

“We want that title so badly,” said Benedikt Höwedes, a veteran of 2009. “If we lose, nobody will talk about our game against Brazil any more. We know that we made a good match against Brazil, but we won’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s going to be easy against Argentina.”

Fifteen years after ground was first broken, the edifice might at last be completed tonight.