Tuesday 14 August 2018

Loew bidding to steady ship amid political storm

Casemiro puts his best foot forward against Stefan Lainer during yesterday’s friendly between Brazil and Austria in Vienna. Photo: Reuters
Casemiro puts his best foot forward against Stefan Lainer during yesterday’s friendly between Brazil and Austria in Vienna. Photo: Reuters

Jeremy Wilson

The boos that rang around the BayArena on Friday night and were still being vigorously debated across Germany all weekend were certainly an unusual send-off for a team attempting to become the first in more than 50 years to successfully defend their World Cup crown.

A 2-1 win against Saudi Arabia might have ended a rare five-match winless run but the surprisingly laboured recent wider form also raised doubts about whether the defending champions are ready to begin their Russian campaign against Mexico on Sunday with their usual statement of intent.

Low: “The fact that a national player is booed like that helps nobody.” Photo: Reuters
Low: “The fact that a national player is booed like that helps nobody.” Photo: Reuters

In the six major tournaments in which manager Joachim Loew has been seated on the bench, Germany have not only always reached at least the semi-finals but begun with an emphatic win that set the tone for a positive campaign.

Controversy

An aggregate 17-2 scoreline in those six matches underlines Loew's attention to starting a tournament with momentum and so his agitation on Friday night at the ongoing controversy surrounding Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil felt significant.

"The fact that a national player is booed like that helps nobody," said Loew. "What should Ilkay do now? The topic has to be ticked off."

The topic that evidently had not yet been ticked off was the political storm caused last month when Gundogan and Ozil met Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has faced criticism in Germany for his crackdown on political dissent following a failed coup.

The families of both players are of Turkish origin and, with Gundogan referring to Erdogan as "my president" amid the current election campaign, they were accused by the German Football Association of letting "themselves be exploited".

Ozil and Gundogan duly met with German FA president Frank-Walter Steinmeier to clarify the situation.

It is a strange sideshow but the depth of feeling was underlined on Friday when Gundogan was booed.

"It is a bizarre situation and has been a big story," said Lars Walrodt, head of sport at Bild Am Sonntag.

There are also unanswered on-field questions, even if Germany will arrive at their base just outside Moscow this week as Fifa's top-ranked nation despite recent defeats against Brazil and Austria.

Ozil has been suffering with back and knee injuries but should be available next Sunday, while goalkeeper Manuel Neuer returned to action only last week following a broken foot that has meant him missing virtually the entire season for Bayern Munich.

Although Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen represents formidable back-up, Neuer remains Loew's clear first choice in a team that is likely still to contain at least the core of the squad that triumphed four years ago.

Some, including former striker Rudi Voller, contend that Germany are stronger now than in Brazil in 2014.

That assessment is largely inspired by 22-year-old Leipzig striker Timo Werner, who has scored eight goals in his 14 internationals, including a Golden Boot performance when a youthful German team won the Confederations Cup last summer.

The absence of a world-class striker had been an obvious weakness in recent years and, while it is early to put that description on Werner, he certainly has the potential.

With his pace, he offers a rather different sort of option to the more direct but still reliable Mario Gomez. Miroslav Klose, who became the World Cup's all-time record goalscorer in helping Germany win in Brazil is now retired, but on Loew's coaching staff.

"You need a forward in there, whether it's a fast one like Timo Werner, or a big one like Mario Gomez, because you know you have a lot on the wings, and you need one who knocks the ball in," said Klose.

Momentum

"Werner is young and he can eventually become world class because he has this momentum."

The availability of Marco Reus after he missed the last two tournaments with injury has felt like having a new player for Loew.

There are also high hopes that Julian Draxler and Joshua Kimmich, who has replaced Philipp Lahm at right-back, can emerge strongly.

Germany won the European U-21 championship last year and there is still huge faith in the conveyor-belt of quality that German football has produced since the academy system was overhauled in 2000.

Experience and continuity also remains through the team's spine, especially in the form of Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Ozil and Thomas Muller, but above all Loew himself.

A curiosity of this World Cup is how the superstar managers of world football are now largely found in the club game but, having just signed a new contract until 2022, Loew remains the big exception.

He would have been a leading contender for both the Real Madrid and Arsenal jobs this summer had he chosen to make himself available but, after 12 years as Germany manager, appears as enthusiastic about his role as ever.

His record - 107 wins in 161 matches - is phenomenal and his authority such that he did not hesitate before taking what was also a very controversial decision in Germany by leaving Leroy Sane out of the squad.

Michael Ballack was one leading former Germany player who found the preference for Julian Brandt above Sane inexplicable.

"Sane was at a bigger club, with bigger expectations, with better players," said Ballack.

The prevailing sense is that Sane was left out because he was not first choice in the wider areas above Muller or Reus and, in selecting the rest of his squad, team harmony and spirit was the main priority for Loew.

It was believed to have been a similar calculation with Bayern Munich striker Sandro Wagner, who announced his retirement from international football, at the age only of 30 after not being included in Loew's 23-man group.

Fairly or not, there was a feeling, according to one source, that Sane can be perceived "as a little bit arrogant" and might not fit into a substitutes' role as easily as some others.

Lukas Podolski, for example, was always trusted by Loew even in the later years of his career partly for his humour around the camp and general sense that he would be an asset even if he was not playing.

Disastrously

As for Loew himself, Germany would need to perform fairly disastrously in the next two tournaments for him not to be the man still leading them in Qatar four years from now. He would still then be only 62.

"To work with the best players in Germany, then develop them and to make them better, to form a team that sets the highest goals, this is what drives me and still gives me joy," says Loew.

Walrodt, who was with the Germany team in Brazil for the Die Welt newspaper in 2014, believes that Loew is perfectly suited both to the rhythms and demands of international management.

"It is just ideal for him - I think he could choose between just about every club but he is not a guy who needs to be stood on the training game every day," he says.

Loew had the German team staying at a remote, tropical and purpose-built camp in Brazil where they could cycle to training and take walks on the beach. They will again be well isolated in Russia at a resort around 30 miles outside Moscow in a newly built hotel complex.

Some perspective about their recent wobble can also be found in a perfect record of 10 straight wins in qualifying and 22 matches unbeaten before the Brazil defeat.

The challenge for Germany, though, is certainly now greater than four years ago.

From Spain and Brazil to France, England and Belgium, just about every other favourite looks better equipped this time.

World Cup history also suggests that it is only the immortals who successfully defend this crown.

As Loew himself recently observed: "We are now the hunted." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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