Germany's vision now in full view
IBARAKI, June 5, 2002. The finest night of Robbie Keane's Irish career. Just another in Miroslav Klose's German education.
It was Klose who opened the scoring in that storied fixture which ended with a dramatic intervention from Tallaght's finest and, 10 years on, he is still going strong in Euro 2012.
Klose is 34 now, a senior figure in a dressing-room of youngsters, and the only survivor from Germany's adventure in Japan and Korea. If he appears in tonight's showdown with Italy in Warsaw, he will become the first man to appear in five major tournament semi-finals, a stat which is a tribute to his durability. There would be an extra poignancy given that he spent the first seven years of his life in Poland.
Add that to the fact that he plies his trade with Lazio, and the striker was a topical man to wheel out in front of the press this week. Inevitably, though, discussion quickly veered from the character of the Azzurri to the veteran's perspective on the revolution within his own national team's dressing-room, an overhaul that will become very relevant for Giovanni Trapattoni when the Germans arrive on our shores for a World Cup qualifier in just four months' time.
They are a different animal from 2002. In truth, that team punched above its weight by somehow managing to reach the final, an achievement which didn't breed delusion. Already, the powers-that-be were aware of their country's deficiencies. The evidence was there in front of them every week in the Bundesliga. Foreign players dominated, and the next generation lacked potential.
Furthermore, the collapse of a major TV deal later that year left the country's top clubs in a perilous financial state, which necessitated the release of overseas recruits who were commanding high wages. Without change and trust in youth, German football would plunge into recession.
Their fightback is a triumph for foresight. Back in 1999, the seeds were sown. With a successful bid to host the 2006 World Cup gathering pace, the Germans enviously looked at the manner in which then world champions France were producing players. So, a brains trust comprising Franz Beckenbauer, Bayer Leverkusen general manager Reiner Calmund and the German FA's head of youth development Dietrich Weise instigated a plan which involved the building of 121 talent centres across the country. They would develop players aged 10 to 17, with a pair of full-time coaches assigned to each facility.
On top of that, every club in the top two divisions were told they simply had to construct youth academies. It was a demand rather than a polite request.
Naturally, the innovation was accompanied by substantial investment. Bundesliga teams have spent €520m on the youth structure over the past 11 years. English Premier League clubs have ploughed in a similar amount over the same period, but the lack of a coherent centralised plan has failed to provide the same return.
"Ten years ago, it was all about strength and conditioning," reflected Germany manager Joachim Loew yesterday. "Now, we have technical players, and that is the product of many years of hard work."
The Germans had to be patient while that crop matured, and another key element was the integration of players from emigrant backgrounds into the system. The impressive party they hosted in 2006 came too soon. Jurgen Klinsmann's side advanced to the knockout stages without displaying any real flair or imagination. They fell short in the semi-final, an extra-time defeat to Italy.
Predictably, that game has been raised with tonight's favourites on several occasions this week. Do psychological scars linger? After all, Germany have never beaten Italy in a competitive fixture.
Both Klose and Loew-- then assistant to Klinsmann -- preached from the same hymn sheet. "We are a completely different team now," stressed Klose. "We didn't have the kind of dynamic, attacking players that we have now."
"For the generation of today, it has no relevance," added Loew. "It's just something they read about in the papers."
Nobody could disagree. Many key members of today's team were callow spectators in the summer of '06. Manuel Neuer, then 20, was only on the verge of a first-team debut at Schalke. Sami Khedira, Holger Badstuber, Thomas Mueller, Matts Hummel, Jerome Boateng and Mesut Ozil were teenagers. The last named, a majestic playmaker with a Turkish background, is the kind of player they badly missed in '06.
By 2009, the emerging group hinted at greatness by destroying England 4-0 in the final of the European U-21 Championships. Ozil collected the Man of the Match award and his victorious colleagues included Neuer, Khedira, Hummels and Boateng. Tournament success at U-17 and U-19 demonstrated that the next bunch provided equal cause for excitement. Fifteen members of Loew's squad here are less than 25 years old making it the youngest German major tournament squad since 1934.. Wide attackers Andre Schurrle (21) and Marco Reus (23) were thrown in for the quarter-final thrashing of Greece and made an impact.
The likes of Bayern Munich's Toni Kroos (22) and Borussia Dortmund's Mario Gotze (20) can't get a look-in at these finals, but also have burgeoning reputations. And there's plenty more to come. Over half of current Bundesliga players came through the academy system, and Loew ominously warned that we will be seeing another raft of fresh faces in the autumn.
"Constantly integrating these young players is part of our philosophy," he stressed, "and it's something we will continue to do post-Euro 2012. There are more to come. I don't subscribe to the theory that you should never change a winning team. The philosophy must remain the same, but it can involve different players. We have guys who don't take a lot of time to slot into a game."
The manner in which Schurrle and Reus seamlessly fitted into the Greek encounter illustrated that point. Conscious that the opponents would defend en masse, Loew selected a team with enough movement to foil that negative plan. He can draw on that experience when he visits Lansdowne Road in October. They could be European champions by then, of course, and Klose is unsure if he will be around. "For years, people complained there was nothing coming through," he mused. "Now, we have two or three players of the same quality in every attacking position."
He brought up the average age, but the Germans are still the youngest squad in this tournament. Ireland were the oldest. Indeed, the three eldest groups -- Trap's men, the Swedes and the Russians -- exited first. Italy's evergreen stars are defying age, but they will have to find new reserves of energy to repeat their '06 exploits.
From afar, another ageing Italian will watch and wonder how on earth his creaking team can deal with the juggernaut that is coming down the tracks.