Wednesday 24 October 2018

Aidan O'Hara: German dominance will again be all in the mind

From toddlers learning their sport to World Cup winners, it's not about taking part - it's about winning

Germany’s players go through their warm
up in Moscow ahead of their opening game
of the World Cup against Mexico tomorrow Photo: Reuters
Germany’s players go through their warm up in Moscow ahead of their opening game of the World Cup against Mexico tomorrow Photo: Reuters
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Paul Breitner stares into the camera and speaks with the sort of authority that would probably convey his message even without the English subtitles. Gone is the mop of black hair seen when he scored in the 1974 and 1982 World Cup finals, replaced by a tight, neat grey haircut and beard which only adds to his intensity as hand gestures and a gruff accent ram home his point.

"In Germany, every child begins a sport at two, three or four years old," he explains. "Every child in Germany, whether a girl or a boy, doesn't learn this sport so that the child has fun or enjoys it. No!

"Parents in Germany let their children learn sport so that the child learns to win. To win! Only then when I win sometimes, or when I win more often than I lose, does sport become fun and enjoyable."

In terms of explaining Germany's mindset and success in major tournaments, Breitner's tour de force in The History Channel's recent 'Seven Goals That Shocked The World' documentary takes some beating. Although there are several contenders:

"Often it is a case that a boxer stumbles and it is almost a knock-out and then he has a lucky punch and it is you who hits the floor. You have to be mindful of that in football and you can't shift down a gear or two because of pity." - Karl-Heinz Rummenigge

"They (Brazil) always cried when they won. They always cried. They cried during the national anthem, When they lost they cried. I always see tears in the Brazilian players' eyes. I don't understand it at all." - Lothar Matthaus

"Germany has always been one of the favourites. I believe that is completely normal." - Andreas Moeller

The documentary is, obviously, a look back at the 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the World Cup semi-final in Belo Horizonte four years ago but in terms of this tournament, which they start against Mexico tomorrow, it re-enforces the bullet-proof belief which will be so difficult for any opponent to penetrate.

Mesut Ozil might be indulged at Arsenal where he is allowed to drift in and out of matches but in a culture where winning is endemic, he flourishes to the extent of being German Player of the Year five times in the last seven seasons.

Toni Kroos has won three consecutive Champions League medals at a club where team-mates are so focused on themselves that two of them spoke about leaving before they were out of their kit following last month's victory over Liverpool. The team ethic on international duty must come as a blessed relief.

"In 1954, Sepp Herberger, the coach, taught the nation that it's not the job of the national coach to select the best players, it's the job of the national coach to get the best team," says Uli Hesse, author of 'Tor! The Story of German Football'.

It's the sort of thought that might be of comfort to Leroy Sane.

Hesse charts that tournament as the basis for the country's success over the next 64 years of the World Cup in which they have been champions three times, runners-up four times, third three times, fourth once, and quarter-finalists four times. And yes, unlike the Basil Fawlty dancing around the subject, he, and Breitner, both mention the war.

"For non-Germans it's very hard to understand the massive importance that 1954 still has in Germany," says Hesse.

"It was nine years after the war, cities still hadn't been rebuilt and there were 30,000 Germans who were still prisoners in the Soviet Union."

"We Germans, at least until then, but also going forward, were ostracised by many people worldwide because we started the Second World War," adds Breitner.

"I know almost all of the world champions from 1954. They have told me about the significance of the World Cup win and their role at the time for the population, giving the people self-confidence and self-assurance through this triumph in order to say to people: 'Hello, we are back'."

In each of their four World Cup victories, it's difficult to believe that there were many neutrals on their side with Puskas, Cruyff, Maradona and Messi part of the four teams that were runners-up.

Even in modern times, the success of the national team and Bayern Munich hasn't manifested into global individual recognition.

It's 23 years since their last outfield player made the top three of the Ballon d'Or, when Jurgen Klinsmann came in second behind George Weah in 1995, and while Oliver Kahn and Manuel Neuer have finished on the podium since, they don't hand out awards for having a great mindset. In Germany, that's just part of the fabric.

"We are not as tactically skilled as the Italians, we are not as technically skilled as the Brazilians," agrees Rummenigge.

"We have a bit of something from everyone and Germany has probably always had the best resolve."

For a country with supreme and justified confidence in its own footballing ability, one of the cornerstones of success is not being arrogant enough to disrespect opponents with flamboyance which, as Rummenigge puts it, gives them a puncher's chance. They learned that lesson from their greatest rivals.

"After two minutes, you're 1-0 behind. What do you want then? Just to go home. You just want to go home to mummy. You are ashamed, you are miserable, you are finished!" is Breitner's colourful recall of the 1974 final against the Netherlands who scored from the penalty spot before Germany had touched the ball.

"The Dutch didn't understand the situation we were in, how easy it would have been to get a second, third, fourth goal.

"No, they wanted to show that they were much better than us. They wanted to make us look ridiculous. Between us there was this feeling , without much being said, that we won't be made to look ridiculous and we will fight back and we got better and better and better.

"Football punishes the teams who don't want to say, 'Hold on, now we'll finish you'."

Bludgeoning

Nowhere was this ruthlessness better illustrated than Belo Horizonte as the current generation made their peers proud with a bludgeoning of Brazil who were never given time to breathe and found themselves 5-0 down at half-time. Several of the goals were beautifully constructed but none of them will go down in World Cup folklore.

The History Channel also recently broadcast an excellent 'Return to Turin' documentary in which Terry Butcher, Gary Lineker and Paul Parker went back to the scene of England's penalty shoot-out defeat to Germany in 1990 and spoke nostalgically about how close they came.

Germans aren't particularly known for their sense of humour but the notion that reaching a World Cup semi-final would be deemed worthy of a documentary 28 years later would surely make the likes of Breitner laugh.

"I am one of only four footballers who scored a goal in two different World Cup finals," adds the 66-year-old Breitner. "Pele, Vava, Zidane and me.

"I had forgotten that I played a World Cup in 1982 and that I scored a goal in the final. Why? When you lose a World Cup final, forget it. Forget it! Forget the game, forget the goal. It is worth nothing, forget it.

"The German public, the German people, to put it simply, expects before every tournament that the German national team wins every tournament. That's the assumption. Anything else, there's no joy. Second, third, fourth, first loser? That means nothing."

For most countries, that level of pressure could prove overwhelming but when such expectation is ingrained in the team's psyche, it just becomes normal.

Tomorrow afternoon in the Luzhniki Stadium they will want the type of marker laid down by the 4-0 defeat of Portugal in 2014 or the 4-1 victory over Yugoslavia in 1990 which should help them top the group and earn a last-16 match against Switzerland, Costa Rica or Serbia.

For some teams, one win from six pre-tournament friendlies might be a concern but, when it comes to the crunch, it's history rather than form that forms the foundation.

"What sets us apart, and proves to be true every four years in big tournaments, in the World Cup or European Championships, is that we always have the mentality of being a side that performs particularly well in tournaments," is Rudi Voller's summation.

"And with 10 wins in qualifying and one defeat from their last 33 competitive games, there's no reason to think that's going to change now.

As German journalist Raphael Honigstein puts it, "a bad German team gets to the final, a good one wins it".

For the current group, retaining it would see them join the greats.

Irish Independent

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