Germans thrive when under pressure


"The World Cups of 20 and 16 years ago were garden parties compared to what is involved now, with the pressures that have developed. The increase in pressure seems continuous from one competition to the next. Now it is almost completely out of hand. In nearly all the countries of the world football is the most popular sport and today the media bring it to the masses and bring the feelings and demands of the masses back to those working in the game. It is my great fear that one day the World Cup will no longer be the sporting event [people] enjoy, it will become too big, too important, too hard on the people concerned, just impossible to go on with."

Which manager, of the 32 under siege at this World Cup, said these words? None of them, they were spoken by Helmet Schön, the coach of West Germany, in 1978.

It is said that pressure is a single-parent in a dead-end job struggling to put food on the table. That is true, but feeling the weight of a nation's hopes on young shoulders is pressure too, and if it was that bad then, and Schön had won the World Cup in 1974, what is it like now? A couple of contemporary coaches have provided clues.

Raymond Domenech, the departing manager of France, sought to excuse Nicolas Anelka's infamous outburst when he said: "People cannot imagine the pressure. We are in a dressing-room, the coach says something to a player who is already under pressure, he can react angrily, and with strong words." Domenech said if the incident had stayed in the dressing-room, he would have forgiven Anelka.

Marcello Lippi, after Italy's exit, took responsibility for sending out a team for "such an important game with terror in their heart and legs".

England looked like this against Algeria, and Germany struggled to play freely in their decisive match with Ghana. The factor which may decide today's showdown is who deals best with this pressure. Both should be more relaxed because going out in the group stages would have been as humiliating as it was for France and Italy.

Who is under the greatest pressure? Probably Germany, who last failed to make the quarter-finals in 1938. Their benchmark is a semi-final berth; in a poll by Kicker magazine almost everyone thought they would get that far.

Who are best at dealing with it? Germany again. They are used to winning and expect to. Players are chosen for their ability to handle pressure, which is put upon them at an early age.

Mathias Sammer, the sweeper in their Euro 96 winning team, is now technical director of the German FA. His brief includes their age-group teams and, unlike most youth coaches, he puts an emphasis on results.

"The only way a young player can acquire a winning mentality is by winning," he said. "It is not something you can teach. I want our young players to realise that the recognition you get for winning a title is more valuable than money."

Under Sammer, Germany have won the European Under-17 and Under-21 titles with several graduates from the latter team (who beat England 4-0 in the final) in South Africa. They include the gifted playmaker Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, who replaced Michael Ballack with aplomb, and Manuel Neuer, the 24-year-old who solved the goalkeeping problem.

Germany are also the younger side. Will that make a difference? "Young players know no fear," is a common mantra. Against that, older players have the experience to cope with changing circumstances.

What is beyond doubt is that elite sport is played between the ears as well as with the body and limbs.

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