Once, Germany were Manchester United. They were not loved but they endured. They won and they won late. When they lost, knocked out by the Netherlands from their own European Championships in 1988 or beaten in the final by Denmark four years later, there was a gloating quality to the celebrations. For three decades they were the greatest tournament team that has existed. Between 1972 and 2002 they competed in 10 World Cup or European Championship finals.
Now, under Joachim Löw, they have become Arsenal: a team of young, intelligent men who play beautiful football, lose when it absolutely matters and whose defeats are a matter for regret. Löw’s contract to manage Germany runs until 2016, when Arsène Wenger’s time at the Emirates might have come to a natural conclusion. He would be an obvious heir.
Even the headlines that greeted his appointment as manager of Stuttgart, whom he took to the 1998 European Cup-Winners’ Cup final, have echoes of “Arsène Who?” You do not need much German to translate “Experiment mit dem Nobody”.
Should he return to club football, as no Germany coach but Franz Beckenbauer has done successfully, England would suit him better than Milan or Madrid and not just because of his effortless command of the language.
If you asked Löw when and where he was unhappiest he would probably name his season in Istanbul in charge of Fenerbahce. He was given a chauffeur-driven Mercedes, a villa by the marina and a salary of £1m. They were no compensation for press conferences three times a week, transfer stories that appeared from nowhere and the relentless headlines that “proclaimed I was either living in heaven or hell”. In Barcelona these come as standard.
Wenger and Löw have met many times at the Arsenal training ground at London Colney, usually accompanied by the man who more than any other changed German football. The irony is that Urs Siegenthaler is from Switzerland. He once played for Basel, is a qualified architect and has made a deep study of Wenger’s methods.
One of Siegenthaler’s ideas was to present Jens Lehmann with a list of where every Argentina player would place their penalty just before the shoot-out in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final in Berlin. Lehmann stuffed the list into his sock and when Esteban Cambiasso went to take his spot-kick, the goalkeeper pulled out the piece of paper and read it while looking straight at the penalty-taker. Cambiasso’s name wasn’t on the list. He missed.
Siegenthaler’s philosophy, bestowed upon Löw when they first met at the Swiss Institute of Sport, is that the ball should always be moved forward by intelligent footballers – and he meant intelligent in every sense of the world.
The ball should never be moved backwards, sideways or out of play. The way to respond to pressure was to counter-attack. That was never better expressed than in the last World Cup, first against England at Bloemfontein and then in Cape Town, where a fearsome looking Argentina, pumped up in the dressing room by Diego Maradona, were dissected and humiliated.
In an interview with Die Zeit just before Euro 2012, Löw remarked that when he joined the national team as Jürgen Klinsmann’s assistant in 2004, it took 2.8 seconds for a player to release the ball after receiving it. Now it is a second and sometimes less. A biography of him is called Joachim Löw and the Dream of the Perfect Game.
Siegenthaler has long been part of Löw’s back-room staff, as has the team psychologist, Hans Dieter Hermann. They worked out that in Löw’s words: “Some players needed to be addressed on a more emotional level. Others, especially the defenders, wanted ‘clear, precise instructions’.” Mesut Özil, Lukas Podolski and Mario Götze, he said, preferred the rhetoric.
Like Wenger, Löw has sometimes been called “the professor” and in South Africa, when he took his players to Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island or on safari between matches, the World Cup campaign seemed like a university field trip.
In Gdansk, the Germans’ base for the last European Championship, Mats Hummels talked about the books he had brought for the tournament, while the German FA handed out copies of a work called Danzig Identities, containing stories from when the city was German, Polish and, in between, a self-governing free state.
Unlike Wenger, Löw’s interests extend far beyond sport. “I yearn to have conversations with friends outside of the game,” he said when asked how he spends his time at home in Freiburg. “I don’t want to be a prisoner of football.”
There are some who claim that, like the Arsenal manager, Löw has become a prisoner of his own football philosophy. Euro 2012 and the semi-final with Italy in Warsaw, decided brilliantly by Mario Balotelli, was when some of the glitter started to fall. This was the fifth time in a decade Germany had come close to winning a major tournament but this time there would be no celebrations by the Brandenburg Gate.
Löw was criticised for his tactics, most notably the selection of Toni Kroos, who failed entirely to stifle Andrea Pirlo. There were other questions. Why did Germany always seem to lose the critical game in a way they never used to? And more pertinently, where was the German Balotelli, where was their Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the difficult, awkward character who could inspire something out of the blue?
The team that will play at Wembley is full of nice lads, the kind any father would want as a son-in-law. No father would have been entirely comfortable with Lothar Matthäus around the dinner table, not least because his tendency to refer to himself in the third person would have made conversation difficult. When Matthäus was sacked by Rapid Vienna, his goalkeeper, Ladislav Maier, remarked: “Everyone is relieved he has gone, including the cleaning lady.”
However, on the pitch, Matthäus, like Oliver Kahn and Stefan Effenberg, drove teams to finals without caring too much whom they offended. The overriding aim of German football was to win. To celebrate second or third place would have seemed to them distinctly odd.
Michael Ballack was the last of that line. In 2002 he had driven an utterly mediocre German side to the World Cup final. Six years later in Basel he captained the side that snatched a last-minute winner against Turkey to reach the final of the European Championship.
Like Kahn and Matthäus, he said what he thought and some, including Podolski, found that hard to take. In the middle of a World Cup qualifier in Cardiff, irritated beyond measure by his captain’s latest critique, Podolski went up to him and slapped Ballack around the face.
A tackle in the 2010 FA Cup final effectively finished Ballack’s international career and it may be no coincidence that Löw remarked that this was the year he felt fully in control of his side. Ballack was replaced as captain by Philipp Lahm, who in his first press conference said: “It is not so important as it once was to have a single player that everyone else follows, who drags everyone else behind him.” In Warsaw they could have done with being dragged into the final.
Naturally, they qualified for the World Cup but there were some strange, un-German results. In one match against Sweden, they tossed away a four-goal lead to draw 4-4 (a scenario Wenger has experienced). In the other they recovered from two goals down to win 5-3. In the midst of it all there were reports of a split with the Borussia Dortmund players, angered by Hummels’s omission from fixtures with Austria and the Faroe Islands. Hummels remarked that the German FA no longer tolerated criticism.
For better or worse, Löw’s reputation will be settled in South America, where Germany will either resume their role as the world’s great tournament team or join the Brazil of Socrates, the Netherlands of Johan Cruyff and the Hungary of Ferenc Puskas in the ranks of the world’s most beautiful losers.