independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Germany's reinvention may have come at cost

GERMANY. The name alone is enough to inspire fear and it's natural to presume that a squad featuring some of Europe's hottest prospects would add to the intimidation factor.

The group which lands in Dublin this morning for an eagerly anticipated World Cup qualifier is the most talented German side that Ireland will ever have faced in competitive action.

The nations first met in 1935 and, over the years, Irish sides secured a number of outstanding results against teams which were either coming from or on the way to achieving success at the peak of their profession.

However, the first meaningful clash came in 2002, when Robbie Keane's last-ditch strike rescued a point against a German side that was widely mocked yet somehow made it all the way to the final in Asia, where Brazil took care of them.

When Joachim Loew was appointed ahead of the Euro 2008 campaign, the draw dictated that he would encounter an Irish team managed by their new boss Steve Staunton.

BETTER

The Germans collected four points from two meetings without setting the world alight and they made it to the very last hurdle of that competition, too, confounding critics along the way.

The class of 2012 is far better on paper than either of those incarnations. And 'on paper' is the crucial clause in that sentence as far as the sceptics back home are concerned. They fear that Loew's men have a strong reputation, yet a shortage of the attributes that naturally made German sides so intimidating.

Effectively, they believe that the reinvention of German football has come at a cost.

The story of the resurgence is well told now. It was borne from a shortage of talent in the late 1990s, with foreign players taking over the Bundesliga and genuine fears that the hosts would be a second class proposition by the time the 2006 World Cup came around.

From the top, a strategy of investment in 121 regional centres was pursued, in tandem with a demand that every club in the top two divisions should construct a youth academy.

A project costing over €500 million has borne fruit. Now, Loew has an abundance of options, with the 2012 crop even more exciting than the 2010 bunch which announced themselves in South Africa.

The Champions League has allowed viewers in this part of the world to learn more about the likes of Dortmund duo Marco Reus and Mario Gotze, who were on the periphery during Euro 2012 while marginally older stars such as Mezut Ozil and Thomas Muller came up short.

They were the youngest squad in Poland and Ukraine; unsurprisingly, Ireland were the oldest. And, as far as Loew is concerned, the biggest problem is figuring out how to accommodate a group of talented youngsters who all have the self confidence to believe they should be playing.

That has led to suggestions that team spirit is weak. Bastian Schweinsteiger caused a storm in Germany by pointing out that players sitting on the subs bunch were slow to celebrate goals in the summer.

Detractors from outside the camp went a bit far, pointing to the fact that some players refused to sing the national anthem as evidence of half-hearted commitment.

A key aspect of the rebuild was integrating players from different ethnic backgrounds into the fold, and Loew didn't appreciate the tone of some comments about the anthem issue, hitting out angrily before the August friendly with Argentina.

"The reproach towards the players not singing the anthem (and) not being good Germans is fatal," he said. "Even if they do not sing the anthem they identify with the team and Germany. It is not like you play better when you sing the anthem."

Yet the most persistent -- and considerably less hyberbolic -- concern was aired by their former goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, an inspirational figure in the aforementioned charge to the edge of glory in Japan and Korea.

He wondered if the new generation had the bottle to deliver the goods, Martin Kaymer style, when it really mattered.

While they were forgiven the 2010 semi-final exit to Spain on the basis of their relative inexperience and the quality of the opponent, June's outpointing at the hands of Italy set the alarm bells ringing.

LINKED

It was linked with Bayern Munich's fluffing of lines in their home Champions League final with Chelsea. Loew could kick off with six Munich players at Lansdowne Road.

"We have to ask the question, why do we keep losing in the big games?," Kahn asked.

"I see a trend in recent years in German football: very important, central values that have distinguished us are now lost.

"But that's our identity. They are sometimes seen as antiquated and often ridiculed, but with them come a belief system that is above all others.

"It sounds more modern; false nines, inverted full-backs. But what is overlooked is that each system can only work if the players are enriched with certain virtues.

"When the battle is hard, there comes a time in football when will, passion, discipline, aggression and even some dirt is required.

"We seem to be convinced that we can solve everything through quality play.

"This is true, and important, but, in my view, the secret of success lies in the combination of these things."

Certainly, in a sport where national stereotypes are often perpetuated in press conferences, it's noticeable that Giovanni Trapattoni's squad have largely shied away from the usual guff about German efficiency.

Instead, it's the dynamism of the emerging playmakers that has filled discussion time, balanced against a suspicion that, perhaps, they have brittleness where before there was strength.

The loss of Philipp Lahm and Mats Hummels has deprived Loew of half his ideal back four, but some Irish comments made no reference to the casualties.

"We all know what happened in the Euros," says Jon Walters. "They made some mistakes and teams created chances against them. There were days when they were suspect at the back. They can be vulnerable, and that can be exploited on Friday."

The level of respect afforded to the illustrious visitors remains the same as a decade ago, but it now exists for very different reasons.

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