For all the talk of this possibly being the coronation of Lionel Messi and for all his moments of brilliance that have elevated this tournament above the average, facing him tomorrow is a story just as remarkable.
For Germany, victory would be the culmination of an unprecedented revolution but to get a sense of just what they’ve achieved, you’ve to realise how low they had sunk. Back in 1997, despite being European champions and despite having both the Champions League and Uefa Cup winners, the nation’s football was rapidly plunging into a level of chaos it had never before known. The end of a ruthless era was fast approaching and took them by surprise.
Such was the sudden shortage of adequate players, Karlsruher’s South African striker Sean Dundee was granted citizenship despite having no German connections while not long after, Brazilian-born Paulo Rink discovered his grandparents were from the country and was absorbed as well.
It was as unprecedented as it was desperate and the results showed as much. If 1994 was noteworthy for being the first time they hadn’t reached a semi-final of a major championship since 1984, then 1998 was noteworthy for the manner in which Croatia took them apart, and how poor that team looked.
By 2000, 50% of the Bundesliga was made up of foreign players but in the background, then German FA vice-president Franz Beckenbauer, manager Erich Ribbeck, Bayer Leverkusen general manager Reiner Calmund and director of youth development Dietrich Weise invented a new concept for producing young footballers. In the top two tiers of the domestic league, there was a requirement for clubs to build youth academies. Meanwhile across Germany, 121 talent centres were created, and with two full-time coaches in each, the cost came in at just under €12m over five years. But it’s been an investment that has paid off hugely as not only have the nation regained their status as a superpower, they’ve done it by playing a brand of football as irresistible as it is unrecognisable. As of now, there’s been nothing like this out of Germany since 1974.
Current under-21 manager Horst Hrubesch, who became involved around that time, describes it as a complete overhaul. “We were forced to organise everything new,” he said. “We hoped that it could get better with training focusing on technical skills in addition to the training in the clubs. Besides, Bundesliga made it obligatory for clubs to have a training centre with qualified coaches in order to achieve better educated players. It worked out well. We all — associations, clubs and regional associations — now earn the fruits of the seed we spread out in 2000. In terms of the main characteristics now with playing style, I’d say technically skilful, dominating matches, working hard.”
But as much as planning and science played a part, there was an element of luck from outside factors that helped too. Kirch TV had been paying huge money to Bundesliga clubs for rights, but in 2002 it collapsed. It left teams short of cash and their solution was to release big-money foreign names, which in turn forced them to produce their own players.
Interestingly, if the much-talked about Belgian model of player development next door had a policy of putting winning last and individual growth first, in Germany they took a different approach. In their eyes, a winning mentality matters, and Hrubesch sees this as vital. “When we won the under-21s European Championship in 2009 we had a lot of players with a great mentality like Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira or Jerome Boateng. The boys must gain the experience to win at youth level so that they get hungry for success. Our current generation in the national team has many players who have won the U21s, U19s or U17s at European level and also trophies at club level. I They know what’s necessary to win a tournament.”
It all means that it’s far from coincidental that this is the youngest German team since 1934 and in terms of entertainment, flair and attacking quality, it’s up there with the side from 40 years ago. “We have undoubtedly more talent than 10 years ago,” Thomas Albeck, Stuttgart’s head of youth development told Sports Illustrated earlier in the year. “Last season alone, the 36 Bundesliga clubs spent a combined €74m on youth development, a higher proportion of income than any other major league. Germany’s footballing philosophy has also changed. Whereas youth coaches would traditionally stress stamina and physical endurance, the new crop of highly qualified coaches is more interested in developing technical ability.”
While it might seem like nothing new to see Germany in a final, everything about them is new. This is like no Germany team on the edge of history ever before.
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