Monday 19 February 2018

Hold the Back Page: Germany world-beaters in every way

Trust in home-grown talent, like Mario Goetze, accounts for the most frightening feature of Germany 2014 which is that they are only getting started. Photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Staples
Trust in home-grown talent, like Mario Goetze, accounts for the most frightening feature of Germany 2014 which is that they are only getting started. Photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Staples

Eamonn Sweeney

There have been few more deserving, impressive and encouraging winners of the World Cup than the German team which lifted the trophy this day last week.

For starters, the feat of Germany in becoming the first European team to win the tournament in the Americas has only one historical analogue, Brazil's victory in the 1958 tournament in Sweden. The victories of Brazil in Asia in 2002 and Spain in Africa in 2010 aren't as meaningful because on neither occasion did the home continent have a viable contender for the trophy.

South America, on the other hand, was bristling with them and Germany had to beat the big two, Brazil and Argentina, in succession to win the tournament. The duo had been the ante-post favourites and few pundits would have predicted that a European team would be able to overcome them both. But Germany did and the final two games weren't the only tricky obstacles which Jogi Löw's team had to surmount.

In the quarter-final they faced a France team which had been impressive enough to enter the match neck and neck with Germany in the betting. There might have been only a single goal in it but it was as comprehensive a 1-0 victory as you're ever likely to see. Earlier on, they'd defeated perhaps the two most dangerous dark horses in a tournament full of them, Algeria and the USA. And in their first game they ensured that a very strong dark horse, Portugal, wouldn't get into its gallop by overwhelming them to such an extent Cristiano Ronaldo and Co never recovered.

Even their least impressive performance produced one of the best games of the tournament, the 2-2 thriller with Ghana, which showed how clearly the current German side diverges from the misguided popular notion of a football culture which is physically powerful, highly efficient and more than a tad dull.

Because this time around Die Mannschaft did it in style. Their total of 18 goals has not been exceeded since the peerless Brazilian team of 1970 scored 19. And it's only been equalled on one occasion since 1970, by Brazil in 2002. It's a far cry from 2010 when Spain scored just eight goals en route to victory or 2006 when Italy managed a mere dozen. Yet it merely confirms a seachange in German football which began with Jurgen Klinsmann's unexpectedly thrilling team of 2006 when Löw was his assistant. Germany have now been top scorers at three World Cup finals in a row. No other country has even managed two in a row.

In all that time it's unlikely Germany faced a sterner foe than the Argentinian defensive unit which they met in the final, a unit so extraordinarily impermeable that it came within seven minutes of equalling Spain's 2010 record of not conceding in the knockout stages. Argentina's achievement would have been the greater as Spain's record owed a great deal to the ability of their midfield to retain possession for long spells. Argentina, on the other hand, had to do an awful lot of backs-to-the-wall defending. And whereas Spain went to extra-time just once in 2010, Argentina ended up there in all of their last four games.

By the time Andre Schurrle set off down the left wing and Mario Goetze headed for the penalty box, it was almost nine hours since Sergio Romero had picked the ball out of the net in the group game against Nigeria. Romero, Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Martin De Michelis and Marcos Rojo were beginning to look like one of the best back fives in finals history. To make assurance doubly sure, they had Javier Mascherano playing the football of his life in front of them. At a certain stage in the semi-final Holland seemed simply to despair of creating a serious opportunity never mind scoring against them. The Germans, on the other hand, kept believing at a time in the game when most teams resign themselves to penalties and think of avoiding a late winner rather than scoring one. They received the ultimate reward for doing things the right way.

Germany do it the right way not just at international but also at national level. The Bundesliga has the highest average attendance of any football league in the world, almost 6,000 per game more than the Premier League, over 16,000 more than La Liga. Six of the 10 best-supported teams in Europe: Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Schalke 04, Hertha Berlin, Borussia Moenchengladbach and Hamburger SV, come from the league. The seventh best-supported team in the Bundesliga, VfB Stuttgart, gets 3,500 more fans per home game than Manchester City. Number 10 on the list, Hanover 96, pulls more supporters than Chelsea and Liverpool. Only American Football's NFL attracts more fans per game than the Bundesliga.

That's partly because the Bundesliga hasn't followed La Liga and the Premier League in pricing ordinary fans out of the game. In the words of Bayern's former general manager Uli Hoeness, "Fans are not cows who are there to be milked. Football has got to be accessible to everybody. That's the difference between us and England." A seated season ticket for Bayern Munich will cost you €340. The equivalent at Arsenal will cost you £985. A season at Borussia Dortmund will set you back €372, less than half of what Spurs and Liverpool, who both go over the £700 mark, charge for their cheapest season ticket. Last season it was cheaper to buy a Dortmund terrace ticket than it was to watch Guiseley FC in Conference North.

Perhaps the main reason for this is fan ownership of the German clubs. The 50 plus 1 rule states that over 50 per cent of any club must be owned by the members, something which prevents the clubs becoming the playthings of billionaires. It may sound odd to the kind of Premier League fans who protest furiously when the latest plutocrat to take control doesn't spend the hundreds of millions judged necessary for success, but supporter control has resulted in financial stability. Borussia Dortmund reached the Champions League final with about a quarter of the wage bill of the Manchester City squad who haven't come within an ass's roar of success in the competition. QPR actually spent more money on winning promotion back to the Premier League than Dortmund did in making that decider.

We've become so brainwashed into thinking that the Premier League model is the only way to go that the Bundesliga alternative seems somehow unnatural. So it's sometimes suggested the German league's fan appeal and financial good sense comes at the expense of quality. Yet it's getting harder to keep believing this. You had the all-Bundesliga Champions League final two seasons ago and last season the Champions League performances of the two leagues were pretty similar, the Germans getting one team into the semis and three into the last 16 while the league next door managed four in the last 16 and none in the semis.

Ah yes, say the sceptics, what about the way Bayern Munich walked all over domestic opposition in last season's Bundesliga? That wouldn't happen in the Premier League. To which the answer can only be: it would if that Bayern Munich team were playing in it. You can't seriously argue that any of the Premier League's top teams would have given Bayern a run for their money.

In any case the idea that the Premier League is a hotbed of competition is a bit of a canard. Arsenal make the top four every year while frequently seeming in disarray, while a distinctly limited Liverpool team almost won the title last season. There have been four different Bundesliga champions;Bayern, Borussia, Stuttgart and Wolfsburg in the past decade. There have been three different winners of the Premier League in the same period. The Bundesliga has now moved past Serie A to rank third in the UEFA rankings and is closing the gap on the Premier League which may soon learn the same lesson as its Italian counterpart about the perils of unsustainable development. Because perhaps the most telling statistic is that while German players accounted for half of minutes played in the Bundesliga last season, English players accounted for 32 per cent played in the Premier League.

This trust in home-grown talent accounts for the most frightening feature of Germany 2014 which is that they're only getting started. Goetze is 22, Schurrle 23, Kroos and Müller 24, özil, Hummels and Boateng 25 as is Marco Reus, perhaps their most exciting attacking talent, who missed the finals through injury. Schweinsteiger, Neuer and Khedira haven't reached 30 yet, Lahm did so a few months back. Midfield wunderkind Julian Draxler, the target of half the clubs in Europe, is only 20. Yet Kroos has already topped the 50-cap mark while Goetze and Schurrle have 74 between them. The young Germans can be blooded at international level because they've been given their start in the Bundesliga by managers who prefer to develop young talent than lash out on foreign signings.

Turns out that the German model isn't just ethically correct, it's pragmatically correct as well. And now there's no excuse not to learn from it.

Vorsprung Durch Fussball.

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