If Spain’s 1-5 loss to the Netherlands in the group stage announced the end of the Spanish era, Germany’s 7-1 drubbing of Brazil in the World Cup semi-final has announced the beginning of a new era: Germany’s. Something quite remarkable has been happening in German domestic football, and the national squad reflects it, looking set to dominate international football in the near future regardless of what happens in the final of this World Cup.
Such a prediction, however, does not sit well with the widespread image of the German game. The football world is readily illustrated with a cultural shorthand, adorned with well-worn adjectives. Brazilian football is ‘beautiful’, a samba dance from a beach party moved on to the pitch. Italian football is overtly defensive – ‘catenaccio’ is the term often used. The English play a direct and physical game. And the Germans are efficient and mechanical, like those supremely well-engineered machines they keep selling – soulless.
True: Brazil’s squads of 1970 and 1982-86 played the kind of game that pleased the aesthete as well as the crowds. Also true: Beginning with Garrincha, Brazil has regularly produced players of almost ridiculous ability, down to Neymar Jr.
But this is true too: Brazil fouled and tackled and bored its way to World Cup victory in 1994, with two ultra defensive midfielders in Dunga and Mauro Silva, always looking to hit the opponents on the counter-attack. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Brazilian team managed by Dunga (who else?) was blamed for abandoning its heritage – most notably by Carlos Alberto Torres, scorer in 1970 of what some call the greatest team goal in a World Cup. And just to mix it up: at the same World Cup, legendary Italian defender Giuseppe Bergomi was asked in an interview which team had the most striking defence. He chose Brazil.
Even in the ongoing World Cup, apart from the second half of their last group game, Brazil haven’t produced football easy on the eye that a neutral viewer can enjoy, excepting a few moments of individual brilliance from Neymar, and one or two from Oscar and David Luiz. In the quarter-final against Colombia, the tone for the foul that injured Neymar was set by Brazil’s Fernandinho, who had arrived with the singular instruction of marking and mauling James Rodríguez, the runaway darling of this World Cup. Fernandinho had made his intentions quite clear before the game. How’s that for samba magic?
This is the second consecutive World Cup that Brazil have kept out from their squad the most creative and magical of players, Ronaldinho. After a few listless seasons in Europe, he has done well at Atlético Mineiro recently.
This is now a time when Brazil aims to win through organization and physicality, abandoning its heritage of fluid and positive football. And Germany, reputed for negative and result-oriented football, is going the other way. This transformation is now the cynosure of the football world.
Today the world is swooning over the array of attacking footballers Germany has lined up – many say Germany’s second eleven can compete internationally. How the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB), the German Football Association, revived football in Germany is a great story of the role of community and administration in sports.
The Teutonic stereotype
Even today, the cliché of the German “winning mentality” can be heard from former England ’keeper Peter Shilton (now a commentator on Sony Six in India). In the 1980s and the 1990s, German football deservingly picked up a reputation for winning ugly, especially through penalty shootouts. The most memorable comment on the Germans came from English striker Gary Lineker: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
After losing the 1986 World Cup final to Argentina, Germany won the next edition in 1990; in the European Championship, Germany was the runner-up in 1992 and the winner in 1996. But then arrived the trough.
The 0-3 loss to Croatia in the quarter-final of the 1998 World Cup was followed by a group stage exit at Euro 2000 (France won both the competitions). Two years later, at the 2002 World Cup, a below-average Germany reached the final against Brazil (what a boring tournament that was compared to this one!). But only on the strength of an incredible goalkeeper: the snarling and angry German captain Oliver Kahn became the first and only ’keeper to win the Golden Ball in 2002. At the Euro 2004, Germany again exited in the group stage.
German football had been ugly since the 1980s. Now it was also unsuccessful (sound like England, anyone?).
Faced with organizing the World Cup in 2006, Germany took a leap of faith and appointed as manager former striker Jürgen Klinsmann. He decided to give the national team a new identity. “We then announced that it was our intention to play a fast-paced game, an attacking game and a proactive game,” he wrote for the BBC. “That last term was something the Germans did not really like because they did not really understand what proactive meant. We just told them it meant we did not react to what our opponents did, we played the way that was right for us.”
A German philharmonic
Since then, Klinsmann has moved on to manage the US team. His then-assistant Joachim Loew, however, has continued his work as the new manager. Germany is yet to win a major trophy with this new approach, but the results have been promising. At Euro 2008, Germany was the runner-up, losing the final to Spain; it came third at Euro 2012. At the last two World Cups, it stood third, losing the semi-final to eventual winners (Spain in 2010 and Italy in 2006).
They may not have won any silverware, but this new German game has won hearts everywhere. After its young team’s emphatic 4-1 defeat of England’s overpaid superstars and 4-0 mauling of Argentina in 2010 (with Lionel Messi as captain and Diego Maradona as manager), the world stood up and applauded.
German football is now beautiful, with a charming hint of underachievement. How romantic is that? Such is nature of this revolution that when a former player uses old terms like ‘efficiency’, ‘organization’ and ‘arrangement’, it becomes a news story.
Had all this not happened in the golden era of Spanish football (and the inevitable reaction to its tiki-taka approach), perhaps more people would have noticed that the beautiful game has a new home. That German precision engineering is capable of sublime beauty. And there is good reason to believe that international success cannot be too far, whether or not Germany win the World Cup final this Sunday. Because the Germans have managed to create something unprecedented in football: an assembly line for generating talented, attacking players.
The real story of the German football renaissance lies in its domestic league, the Bundesliga. In fact, people had begun to notice the signs even back in 2006. For after the humiliating group-stage exit at Euro 2000, the DFB overhauled how the sport is administered across the country. With a far-sightedness befitting the German stereotype, the association created a new system focused on youth.
A fable, a fable
Once the DFB decided the sport needed reinvention, it sent scouts all over to learn the best practices. Notably, they drew from Europe’s most glorious youth development program: that of Ajax of Amsterdam, the influence of which is clear in the Spanish era, most notably through its most famous products, Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels.
It is one thing to collect ideas from across the world and quite another to execute them. The DFB is known to work closely with Germany’s major football clubs, whose administrators often switch positions. Matthias Sammer, a highly rated former footballer from the erstwhile East Germany and then unified Germany, was appointed DFB’s technical directorin 2006. Before this assignment, Sammer had been the manager of the club Borussia Dortmund in 2000, and then moved to VfB Stuttgart, also a top-flight club.
In 2012, Sammer moved on to join the largest German club Bayern Munich as its sporting director. He was replaced by Robin Dutt, who had previously managed three major clubs. Dutt resigned one year later and is now the manager of the Bundesliga side Werder Bremen, after the club sought DFB’s clearance and got it.
This leadership overlap makes for good communication between the biggest clubs and the association. It is also a stark contrast with, say, another big-ticket European footballing nation, England, where the Football Association (FA) has a dysfunctional relationship with the highly powerful clubs that play in the English Premier League (EPL). This friction in England means the project of developing young players for the national squad is left to the clubs, which are too focused on their bottom lines to care for developing young local players.
Not so in Germany. The new system, introduced in 2003, required all clubs in the top two leagues to create and run youth football academies. Several clubs did not have the coaches and the finances to make this happen. The association stepped in, created a system to provide the clubs coaches and money to run the football schools.
The DFB imposed a condition for its assistance: each club needed to coach and fast-track a minimum number of young players who had German citizenship or were qualified to represent their country. This is how the current crop of sparkling players – Müller and Özil and Kroos and Götze and Hummels – came through the ranks to play for their country.
The German clubs and the DFB have also created a coaching system that is the world's envy. Last year, there were 28,400 coaches at the primary level (England had 1,759); 5,500 coaches at the secondary level (England had 895); and 1,070 coaches with a pro licence to manage at the highest level of football (England had 115).
The curse of capitalism
The biggest difference between the Bundesliga and other major European leagues – particularly the EPL – is club ownership. The German clubs have repeatedly voted to retain what is called the ‘50 plus one’ rule, which requires the majority ownership remain with their supporters. (The only exceptions are Wolfsburg, owned by Volkswagen, and Bayer Leverkusen, owned by chemicals giant Bayer. These clubs were created by the two companies for the townships of their workers, so even there, the ownership is not corporate in nature. Even these clubs have voted to retain the ‘50 plus one’ rule.)
Up to 82 percent of the ownership of Bayern Munich, the richest and most powerful club in the Bundesliga, rests with its 130,000 members, who control critical decisions. The club sold 9 percent of its stake to Audi and Adidas to build its new Allianz Arena stadium, but the companies cannot control the club.
In England, by contrast, unbridled capitalism runs the game. The EPL was created in 1991 after a dispute between England’s FA and the biggest clubs over revenues from TV broadcast rights. The clubs went on their own, leaving the FA high and dry.
The largest English clubs are owned by foreign investors with little interest in local talent. They want the most marketable spectacles, so they pump in money to buy the most expensive international talent, which means there is little desire to groom local talent. Chelsea is owned by Russian tycoon and heavyweight Roman Abramovich, who hires and fires managers and players according to whim.
Manchester United, the outstanding success story of EPL-style sports marketing, is owned by the Glazer family of America, which has burdened the club with terrible debts raised for its takeover. Indian chicken company Venky’s owns the English club Blackburn Rovers. Manchester City has had a series of disreputable owners. In 2007, it was the exiled ex-prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, accused of human rights abuses. When the army froze his assets back home, the club went into the hands of Sheikh Mansour, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Thaksin’s profit from the sale: £90 million.
The EPL is an example of sports tailor-made for TV and international marketing, which is why that league is so popular in emerging markets in Asia. The most powerful English teams do not have too many English players. When the FA-appointed national manager calls England’s best players, the line-up is shorn of all the foreign talent that provides the entertainment. It is not entirely a coincidence that the England’s own national squad repeatedly disappoints in international tournaments.
The English press has been writing about the German football revival in fabular terms. They repeatedly point out the benefits of ownership being restricted to club members and the local community. This gets the local government and their institutions invested in their clubs, and they provide assistance that is sometimes not liked very much, especially not in the right-wing press in England.
The Guardian’s senior sports writer Barney Ronay was asked the reasons for English football’s dismal status a few days ago during a Webchat. He wrote: “It all goes back to Victorian capitalism and a country where squeezing the drops out of something, exploiting all your resources for financial gain has always been valued above anything else: in this case participation, home-grown talent, successful national team, clubs that represent their geographical roots and all the rest of it. Never mind all that: look at the bottom line!”
Bundesliga has also clamped down on ticket prices, allowing terraces where cheap tickets allow working class people to stand and watch (this is the historic reason for the game’s popularity in the industrial towns of Europe and Latin America). It is still possible in Germany to attend a Bundesliga game to stand and watch some of the most talented footballers for as little as є15. Compare this to an English club like Chelsea, where the cheapest ticket is £56, which is є70 at current exchange rates.
This has ensured that German clubs repeatedly show the highest attendance in stadiums – six of the top ten in Europe are from the Bundesliga. So, when you see Borussia Dortmund play and a wall of wildly cheering supporters with large yellow-black flags in the Südtribüne (the South Stand) of its stadium, remember that it is regulatory economics at work. The club has scripted a fairy tale that has wowed the world, returning from the brink of bankruptcy to thriving profit and exuberant football (helped by a loan in the darkest hour from its bitter rival Bayern).
The EPL may command the greatest revenue of any football league, but the Bundesliga is the most profitable. Even if the Bundesliga’s revenue from TV broadcast rights has increased consistently, rising to second position in Europe behind the EPL, it is only 29 percent of the league’s total revenue. So, while TV is doing very well for German football, the international spectacle does not control the sport.
Sports associations across the world send their scouts to Germany to learn a few tips and tricks, even if it seems highly unlikely that anybody can replicate the German revolution. The EPL, by contrast, is now a standard feature only of marketing lessons in business schools.
The difference is not just in how the two leading football-club countries approach the culture of sport. It is also in how they imagine their economics. And this is where the example of the Bundesliga club SC Freiburg stands out. The club is famous for insisting its young football talents do not give their school studies short shrift. So it is not surprising to see football coaches help out their wards with school homework.
Christian Streich, the club’s manager, told The Guardian the clubs have a moral obligation to think about what happens to those who fail to make the grade. “We give players the best chance to be a footballer but we give them two educations here. If 80 percent can’t go on to play in the professional team, we have to look out for them. The players that play here, the majority of them go on to higher education. And we need intelligent players on the pitch anyway.”
Such commitment and intelligence are signs that the German era is dawning. And it is a German variation on the beautiful game.