Germany’s ‘efficiency’ and ‘mentality’ are again expected to come to the fore this summer, but how do they actually work? Ulrich Hesse, author of Tor!, the definitive book on German football, lifts the lid on their secrets…
“Can you believe we’ve reached the final of a World Cup with these players?”
Four years ago, I toured the southern parts of Britain on an invitation from the England Supporters Club and the Goethe Institute. The idea was to prepare people for the World Cup in Germany, and so I spoke to fans in Exeter, lectured students in London, appeared on a regional television show with Paul Durkin, and talked to scores of journalists.
I promised them the tournament was going to be wonderful and that the travelling fans would love the country. I predicted everybody would be treated well and there would be no trouble. I even said Italy were going to win the World Cup. Then, invariably, someone asked about the Germany team.
Initially, I would simply state we were hopeless. Since I could sense a slightly sceptical reaction, I then held up a poster of Christoph Metzelder and asked people to put a name to the face. This always resulted in blank stares and silence.
At this point I pompously declared: “This man played in the 2002 World Cup Final and will be our starting centre-back for this tournament. And yet you have no idea who he is. That tells you everything you need to know about Germany’s chances at the World Cup.”
In Islington, someone stood up while I was smiling smugly and resting my case. He said: “It doesn’t make any difference who you field: You’re gonna make the semis anyway.”
And he was right. Of course he was. It’s just that one of the defining characteristics of us Germans is that we’re, well, German. We’re much too sober to believe in supernatural powers or preordained destiny, because where would that leave discipline and hard work?
Could you name this man?
And yet, every two years, our national team seems to prove that regardless of preparation or performance, the result is always roughly the same. We should have learned to take that for granted, yet it never fails to amaze us – like it once amazed Franz Beckenbauer, sitting on a hotel bed in Mexico City.
That was two days before the 1986 World Cup final and the Kaiser was talking to a journalist from the magazine Der Spiegel. Beckenbauer, who had practically been begged into taking over a national team in disarray two years previously, was talking about his potential line-up when he abruptly burst into a ringing fit of laughter.
The reporter was bewildered, yet could do nothing but wait until Beckenbauer had regained his composure before asking him why he was so amused. Beckenbauer said: “God, can you believe we’ve reached the final of a World Cup with these players?”
The Kaiser may have been laughing back then, but he was dead serious when implying his side had no business playing Argentina for the biggest trophy in the game. “Luckily enough, we did not win the final,” he said later. “Because that would have been a defeat for football.” His squad, Beckenbauer recounted, “was not made up of artists, just players you could rely upon.” It reflected what the Bundesliga had to offer: “There wasn’t much – apart from those virtues you can almost always count on in German football: fighting spirit and a solid defence.”
“Germany will do well in South Africa because they always do”
This, quite a few people outside of Germany will say, held true not only for 1986 but also applied to almost every major tournament played before and after. Germany always fielded a side that couldn’t honestly expect to make it far – and then did precisely that, against all odds and for no apparent reason.
This is, of course, a criminally sweeping generalisation. It’s also unfair because it disregards all those teams that did feature a lot of talent, from Beckenbauer and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to Lothar Matthaus and Matthias Sammer. Still, there’s more than just a grain of truth to the stereotype, and even the younger members of the current squad are quite aware of this aspect of the team’s history.
“You cannot really explain Germany’s track record rationally,” Per Mertesacker, Werder Bremen’s 25-year-old centre back, says, “but we sure want to keep our run of good showings alive.” He has been a regular since 2005, which is why he blithely adds: “After a third-place and a second-place finish at the last two tournaments, we’d now like to go one step further and win the thing.”
Winning the World Cup? If Mertesacker was representing any other country, people would take one look at his team’s starting XI and dismiss that hope as a pipe dream. Only one international, Michael Ballack, is consistently playing at the highest level and can be considered a star – and he’s injured. The others are players like Mertesacker himself – friendly and eager, but unassuming and a bit boring. Yet you have to take Mertesacker seriously, because he is German and the Germans, as football fans the world over know, always do well.
But why is that so? Mertesacker thinks the answer lies in teamwork. “Star players do not win you a tournament,” he points out. “What you need is a well-balanced team. Also, a good atmosphere is crucial during a long tournament. And we all get along fine, we enjoy meeting up with the other internationals.”
Germany’s national coaches have indeed always placed a premium on team spirit and never shied away from drastic measures to sustain it. Franz Beckenbauer sent home goalkeeper Uli Stein from the 1986 World Cup, Berti Vogts did the same with Stefan Effenberg in 1994. Two years later, the manager didn’t call Lothar Matthaus up to the Euro 96 squad because he was feuding with striker Jurgen Klinsmann.
Not pampering star players has, according to Mertesacker, another advantage: “There is a lot of pressure during a tournament like the World Cup, and it’s better to spread the load over many shoulders than to have a few stars on whom everything depends.”
There’s another key word right there – pressure. For some reason Germany seems to produce players who can cope with it extremely well, which brings up the highly elusive concept of “mentality”. Wynton Rufer, New Zealand’s greatest-ever footballer, has played in the Bundesliga for seven years and knows what he’s talking about. “Germany will do well in South Africa, because they always do,” he says emphatically. “They simply have a winning mentality. If we ever create this winning mentality in New Zealand, we’ve taken a giant step forward.”
“The pressure was inhuman”
Rufer is not alone in considering this mental aspect of the game more important than any other single factor. Some nine years ago, when Matthias Sammer was managing Borussia Dortmund, he once faced the press after a disappointing loss against Freiburg and said: “What we need is a winning mentality, because that’s worth more than footballing quality.”
Today Sammer is the German FA’s technical director and oversees the national youth teams. Last March, he instigated a debate about the guidelines for developing talent when he demanded the European Championship title of the under-17 team and then did the same with regard to the under-21s. He came under criticism for putting so much pressure on the youngsters, because there is a school of thought that says winning should not be the main focus in youth football. However, Sammer feels rather differently.
“The only way a player can aquire a winning mentality is by winning,” he says forcefully. “It’s not something you can teach. But if you get used to winning from an early age, you want to have this feeling again and again. That’s how you get the hunger.”
And by “winning”, Sammer does not merely mean individual matches. “I want our young players to realise that money is one thing in the professional game – but that the recognition you get for winning a title is more valuable,” he says, gesturing to underline every point. “If they learn it, they will live this winning mentality everywhere and carry it into club football.”
Evidently, both the Under-17s and the Under-21s managed to cope with the pressure Sammer had created, as they did win the titles he demanded. But there is another aspect to Sammer’s stance, because preparing German players for pressure situations may be not just desirable but a sheer necessity. Because while it’s tempting to say that success breeds successs – meaning the Germans win because they have history of winning – it is equally true that success breeds pressure.
Oliver Kahn, famous for his mental strength, says: “I wouldn’t wish games like the World Cup qualifying play-offs against the Ukraine in 2001 on my worst enemy. We all knew that no Germany team had ever failed to qualify for a World Cup. We didn’t want to be the first. The pressure was inhuman.”
“Germany have always been a tournament team”
Even a young player like Mertesacker is aware that a history of success is a double-edged sword. “You draw strength from past results,” he says slowly, “but the past can also be a burden. Which makes it even more important that you collect types who can handle pressure.”
Actually, Germans go one step further and seem to collect players who do better under pressure. Or, to put it slightly differently, perform at their top level when they have to. There is even a term in German for such a side –Turniermannschaft. Literally, it means a ‘tournament team’ and it is an expression you frequently hear every two years when Germany’s chances at a World Cup or the European Championships are discussed.
On the day after the Germans had eliminated a much-fancied Portuguese team from Euro 2008, Stern magazine’s headline simply read: ‘The Eternal Tournament Team’. They didn’t have to explain the meaning in the main text. The idea was: we have done it again, we have produced when the chips were down.
“Friendlies don’t mean anything,” Kahn said after Germany’s loss to Argentina in March. “We will be ready when we have to be. That’s the way it has always been.”
Indeed, with very few exceptions, (West) Germany’s most successful tournaments have opened inconspicuously. Sometimes there were humiliating debacles (versus Hungary in ’54), sometimes embarrassing losses (against Algeria in ’82), once there was even a politically unforgivable defeat (against East Germany in 1974). But the hallmark of a Turniermannschaft is that you lose when you can afford to, then you improve from round to round.
Every German knows this, even the Chancellor. Three months before the 2006 World Cup, Angela Merkel issued a statement to quieten the growing concern about the state of the team. It said: “Why don’t we just wait and see what we’re made of? Let us not forget that Germany have always been a tournament team.”
There is a man in Islington who will agree and tell you it won’t be any different this summer. Me, I’m still too sober to believe in all this voodoo. But I’ve been proved wrong before.