Football: Germany now in danger of becoming a nation of losers

Saturday's European Championship qualifier in Belfast will test Erich Ribbeck's side, writes Imre Karacs from Berlin
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The Independent Online
GERMANY EXPECTS. The national side is travelling to Belfast for Saturday's crucial European Championship qualifier against Northern Ireland.

The Ulstermen have been difficult opponents in the past, winning home and away against the star-studded West German team of the early 1980s. A home win in Belfast on Saturday would not be seen as an upset. The German nation expects to lose.

Losing has become something of a habit of late. After the 3-0 defeat to Croatia in the World Cup, the Germans went down 1-0 to Turkey in their first European qualifier. They struggled to beat Moldova in their second qualifier, with a flattering 3-1 scoreline. Then came the ill-fated trip to Florida, where the national team lost 3-0 to the United States, and made hard work of a 3-3 draw against a poor Colombia.

The omens for Saturday are not good. The players, those that are still prepared to put their boots on for their country, are unhappy. The coach, Erich Ribbeck, is the most unpopular man in Germany, and he has been in his job for less than seven months. The big clubs hate him, too, and 70 per cent of professional footballers recently polled by Kicker magazine have declared him "unfit" for his job.

Ribbeck has this uncanny ability to bring the worst out of his players. Take Oliver Kahn, the Bayern Munich goalkeeper who has just set a new German record of 723 minutes without conceding a goal. At club level, that is. In international matches Kahn's reflexes are sloth-like and his fingers turn to butter. Others do not even bother to turn up. Bayern's playmaker Stefan Effenberg, regarded as the player of the season, will not don the national jersey because of an ancient row with the fans.

Even Ribbeck's worst enemies admit that he is not to blame for all the ills that have afflicted German football. He inherited a Dad's Army in retreat just as Germany was confronted with a barren generation. Perhaps there are no natural successors to the likes of Lothar Matthaus, who, at 38, might well be the only player to shine on Belfast's turf on Saturday.

Germans argue whether their country is becoming or has already become a second-rate football power. So deep is the sense of crisis that influential insiders are calling on Ribbeck to sack his entire squad and start building anew. "It is better to make a radical cut and take the chance that we'll miss one or two World Cups," suggests Paul Breitner, the man who thinks he should be Germany's coach. Breitner is bitter, because he was overlooked for the post when Berti Vogts walked out last September. Ribbeck was the third candidate, after the first two approached by the German federation turned down the honour.

Breitner will probably never be appointed, because he is too critical of the bureaucrats who run German football. He accuses them of causing the current malaise by failing to nurture young talent. Hence his proposal to pack the national team with players fresh out of their teens, come what may.

"Are we supposed to field the Under-21 team in future?" - Ribbeck retorts. He is damned if he does, and damned if he does not. Caught between the pressure to succeed and the clamour for young players to be given a chance, the coach is trying to do both. Two youngsters are included in Saturday's squad: midfielders Michael Ballack and Marco Reich. Great things are expected of the two lads from Kaiserslautern, though maybe not this time. Rising talents tested out in previous games have sunk without a trace.

And that, say the experts, is the problem. The youngsters are lacking match practice not only at the national level, but also within the Bundesliga. Every week, the German equivalents of Michael Owen are competing for a place with seasoned internationals from Croatia or Poland, not to mention the truly world-class boys from Brazil. Stuttgart's starting line-up last Saturday against Monchengladbach, for instance, included eight foreign players.

With so much time spent sitting on the benches, it is not surprising that the novices disappoint in the international matches. But maybe their time will come. There is a team consisting almost entirely of natives, and they are not doing that badly. All but two of Bayern's players are Germans, many under 25.

Yet this most German of teams is 14 points ahead of the rest in the league, and has just beaten second-placed Kaiserslautern in the European Cup quarter- finals with an aggregate score of 6-0. Bayern may well go all the way by playing - now here is a shock - attractive, attacking football. The coming semi-final with Dynamo Kiev promises to be a joy to behold.

But the healthy state of affairs in Munich may be part of the cause of Germany's ailment. The domestic championship this season has been one- sided from the outset, with Bayern losing only two matches so far. They have been able to do this partly by hoarding promising young players, thus, say the critics, preventing them from developing their potential.

Ballack and Reich, for instance, are rumoured to be heading for Munich next season for astronomical sums. But, however good they are, they will be lucky to get a game every other Saturday. Only three members of the present Bayern squad have what could be described as an assured place.