Germany Stalling: Former winners haunted by ghosts of past

The hosts have reached seven finals in the World Cup and won three of them, but most of their fans do not believe a fourth title awaits - even on home turf
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Forty years of hurt has its advantages, not least in lowering expectations. The alternative was described by Dietmar Hamann two years ago. Noting that Germany have reached seven finals, winning three, he said: "Anything less than the semi-finals [in 2006] will be a disappointment for the German people. Every time the tournament comes around, they expect us to win it. We reached the final in 2002 and while the reception when we came back was fantastic it faded and we did not get the credit we deserved."

With host nations having won six previous World Cups, including West Germany themselves in 1974, one would imagine those expectations are higher than ever as the nationalmannschaft opens its campaign against Costa Rica in Munich tonight. Instead, most Germans are merely hoping to achieve respectability. A year ago, after promising performances in the Confederations Cup, 45 per cent of Germans thought their team would win the World Cup. That dropped to 20 per cent after a 4-1 drubbing by Italy in March and by the time Jürgen Klinsmann named his squad last month it was down to seven per cent.

Klinsmann's admission yesterday that Michael Ballack, his team's only recognised world-class player, will be absent for the opening game with a calf injury adds to the nervousness about tonight's match. Costa Rica are a weak team but they have skilful individuals, not least Paulo Wanchope, who have the potential to cause problems. Senegal's shock defeat of France in the opening game four years ago is fresh in the memory, with Cameroon's 1990 opening game win over Argentina underlining the perils of first-night nerves.

As the captain himself said, no one is too sure how Germany will perform. Will it be the Germany who captivated the nation during the Confederations Cup campaign, scoring 16 goals in five games, including a brave 3-2 defeat to Brazil? Or will it be the Germany who crumbled in Florence and only salvaged a draw against Japan in their penultimate warm-up due to Jens Lehmann's goalkeeping?

"We don't have the choice of players we had in 1990 [World Cup winners] or 1996 [European Championship winners]," Ballack said. "As a result the team makes mistakes and I think there is a little uncertainty as we head into the tournament. The results and performance in the run-up show this team is not so stable."

Ballack also repeated his criticism of Klinsmann's attacking emphasis but that was part of the deal the DFB, the German Football Federation, signed up to when it appointed the former Tottenham striker in the wake of the team's dreadful performance at Euro 2004.

Having been rejected by Ottmar Hitzfeld, who decided he would rather stay in temporary retirement, Otto Rehhagel, who opted to continue coaching Greece (an error, they failed even to qualify), and Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who is instead here with Australia, the DFB gambled on Klinsmann. It was a big punt. He may be the only coach among the 32 at the finals to have won the competition as a player, but he is probably the least qualified as a coach - this is his first job, and he has even fewer diplomas than Gareth Southgate. He is certainly the only one to commute from a different continent.

Klinsmann's refusal to move his family from California has been unpopular and when the team faltered in Florence almost prompted his dismissal. A somewhat flattering 4-1 win over an understrength United States saved him and, for good or ill, Klinsmann will lead Germany tonight in, ironically, the city which is most at odds with his management. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, now a senior executive at Bayern Munich, said this week: "In 1974 we had seven players in the side that won the World Cup but Klinsmann feels critical towards Bayern - maybe because he played here. He wants to show his independence, but we had much better collaboration with other German managers."

Bayern completed back-to-back domestic doubles last May but only three of their players are likely to start tonight, one of whom, Lukas Podolski, has yet to play for the club, having just transferred from Cologne.

The most significant absentee is Oliver Kahn. A giant billboard picturing Kahn making a save bestrides the autobahn leading from Munich airport to the stadium, but if Lehmann stays fit the only action the 2002 player of the finals will see is in training. That decision, accompanied by Klinsmann's sacking of goalkeeping coach, and ex-Bayern legend Sepp Maier, was one of the coach's most controversial but it confirmed Hamann's comment, in 2004, that Klinsmann "was tougher than people think".

The Liverpool midfielder found that out the hard way when he, too, was axed as Klinsmann put his faith in youth. This is as unGerman as his commitment to attack. Footballers traditionally mature late in Germany - Ballack did not come to the fore until he was 25 - but in the aftermath of Euro 2004 Klinsmann must have felt he had little choice.

To general surprise he has unearthed some promising young players, notably Podolski, but also Philipp Lahm, the left-back, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Marcell Jansen. He has also had his Theo Walcott moment, picking the uncapped 22-year-old David Odonkor primarily, it seems, because, like Walcott, he is very, very, fast.

But young players are inconsistent and Klinsmann's other surprise choice in his final squad was Jens Nowotny, the 32-year-old Bayer Leverkusen defender who has spent much of the last four years injured. He is, though, that rare animal in the modern Bundesliga: a genuine sweeper.

German defending, noted Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger in his book Tor!, was based for generations on the principle of a sweeper who would order his co-defenders about and generally dictate play. But the production line which delivered Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Stielike and Matthias Sammer appears to have ended with Nowotny. Unfortunately, argued Hesse-Lichtenberger, there was not a concurrent rise in imagination from the other defenders, who continued to wait for instruction. An example is the Middlesbrough-bound Robert Huth, who could not get a game for Chelsea, yet would have started tonight but for injury. The defence has been Klinsmann's biggest problem: he has tried 20 different combinations. Thus the recall for the slow but intelligent Nowotny.

Outwardly, Klinsmann has been confident enough to talk about staying on after the finals, linking the possibility with an acknowledgement this would only be possible if Germany do well. Asked by Bild, Germany's equivalent of The Sun, to write his own headline for the day after the final, he suggested: "You did it".

He is a naturally sunny person and his American-style positivity may be catching on. While enthusiasm for the Weltmeisterschaft is growing, after some disillusionment about ticket distribution and the overweening commercialism of the tournament, in Munich, at least, there are few German flags on display - far more St George crosses are flying in England. This may, though, owe something to the mixed feelings many Germans hold about overt nationalism. When the team held a public training session at Dortmund's Westfalenstadion, 42,000 turned up creating an atmosphere more akin to a boy band pop concert.

"We have a good team, we're full of energy, we have the crowd behind us and we're playing in our home country," Klinsmann said. What, he might have added, if he were not far too savvy, can go wrong?

Germany's World Cup record


1930 - Did not enter

1934 - Third place

1938 - Round one

West Germany

1950 - Barred from entry

1954 - Champions

1958 - Fourth place

1962 - Quarter-finals

1966 - Runners-up

1970 - Third place

1974 - Champions

1978 - Round two

1982 - Runners-up

1986 - Runners-up

1990 - Champions


1994 - Quarter-finals

1998 - Quarter-finals

2002 - Runners-up