Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: From Malmo to the Maracana - this Germany side announced itself by thrashing England U-21s in 2009 and has developed through trust
What the German champions did was to provide the basis for these young stars to shine
Friday 11 July 2014
There are some matches, and moments within matches, on which the course of football as a whole seems to turn. There was Mark Robins’ header at the City Ground in 1990, keeping a 48-year-old Alex Ferguson in the Manchester United job. Or the night at White Hart Lane when a 21-year-old Gareth Bale shredded the European champions Internazionale and their colossal right-back Maicon.
These occurrences are often asked to bear excessive explanatory weight, as the necessary building blocks for those who construct narratives out of events. But when looking forward to tomorrow’s World Cup final, and to the Germany team who are likely to win it, it is impossible to avoid one night in Malmo, five years and two weeks ago.
Six of the Germany players likely to take the field tonight in the Maracana have already won a final together before. Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil were all there, in the newly opened Swedbank Stadion, to face Stuart Pearce’s England in the final of the 2009 European Under-21 Championship.
The outcome and the aftermath are well known. Özil ripped England to pieces, Germany won 4-0 and looked very much like a team preparing something serious and special.
But it is not the winning of the final – impressively as they played – that marked Germany out as much as what happened next. As youth coaches often say, the point of age-group tournaments is development, rather than to win for the sake of winning. Football is littered with youth-level champions who have not been able to stay at the top. The Under-21 Championship before that, in 2007, was won by a Netherlands side who – admittedly with Tim Krul and Ron Vlaar on the bench – have made little impression on the senior set-up whatsoever. Ryan Babel, after a spell with Liverpool, is now at Kasimpasa in Turkey; Royston Drenthe is with Reading.
What these German champions did, which is so important, and so difficult, was to provide the basis for their young stars to make the most of their obvious talent. It has become an English obsession to mimic the set-ups of those countries who do better than us, to try to create our own equivalent of this German generation that could be world champions tomorrow night.
The point is not so much to replicate the outcomes as the processes that deliver them. English football talks enthusiastically now of “pathways”, which is the right idea, but very difficult to implement. The Football Association commission’s plan for a new tier featuring Premier League B teams would certainly help to alleviate one of the major problems, at the cost of creating others.
But this is the nub of the issue. Much of the gulf that exists between the England and Germany teams now owes just as much to the quality gap between those Under-21 sides five years ago, as to the events of the intervening period.
The Wigan Athletic manager, Uwe Rösler – an East Germany international but fierce footballing Anglophile – told The Independent last season that the real difference between England and Germany was the lack of “competitive football” played by talented teenagers. “In England, they play development football, not competitive football,” he said. “In Germany they kick on.”
That is precisely what has happened. In the 2009-10 season, that crucial year between the Under-21 Championship in Sweden and the World Cup in South Africa, all of the Germany players were regulars not for B teams but for their Bundesliga sides: Özil for Werder Bremen, Neuer and Höwedes at Schalke 04, Khedira with Stuttgart, Boateng for Hamburg and Hummels at Borussia Dortmund. All of those players made an impression in their domestic leagues, all – except for Höwedes and Hummels – went to the World Cup the following summer.
What better pathway could you have than this? From age-group success, to experience at the top end of their domestic league – many were first-team regulars long before 2009 – to the biggest stage in the game. Neuer, Khedira, Boateng and Özil all played in South Africa – along with Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos, who missed out the year before. There, they won their group, and then destroyed England and Argentina with displays of the ruthless, incisive football that were precursors to their once-in-a-lifetime performance against Brazil in Belo Horizonte last Tuesday night.
England took just two of their 2009 Under-21 squad to South Africa that following summer; Joe Hart, who did not play, and James Milner.
But the German youngsters kept on improving and progressing along the path laid out for them. After the World Cup, Khedira and Özil left Germany to sign for Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, winning La Liga in 2012. In the summer of 2011 Neuer and Boateng joined Bayern Munich, where they formed the German spine of what is now arguably Europe’s finest club team.
If Euro 2012 was not exactly a triumph for Germany, it was still progress, as they reached the semi-finals before wilting under the pressure of Mario Balotelli’s early goals for Italy. Neuer, Boateng, Khedira and Özil continued their development, their assimilation of crucial tournament experience, so obviously valuable in Brazil, along with Hummels and Höwedes. Of England’s 2009 generation, they took Hart, Milner and Theo Walcott.
An explanation of how Germany reached the final, of all the structural and circumstantial factors, would fill a book. It is a triumph of planning but also of trust, of believing in their young players and giving them the opportunity to prove it. It is a pathway which has taken them to Maracana and most probably the World Cup itself, but one which took in Malmo on its way.
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