World Cup 2014: Can German teamwork beat Ronaldo individuality?
Euro 2012 semi-finalists will rely on integrated system to triumph in Brazil
Sunday 08 December 2013
It was in the middle of Euro 2012, as Germany were on another of their magnificent runs, that Joachim Löw felt assured enough to offer what may become a defining statement. His team, the manager effectively declared, were the future.
At that point, it was difficult to disagree. With the side in scintillating form going into the semi-finals, Löw gushed about the strength of the player their structure was producing, the way so many youngsters were being introduced to the team and how the country "benefited from the 'scientification' of football".
The only problem was that the formula was incomplete, as Italy's 2-1 semi-final win showed. The future was delayed.
One of the questions regarding what is undeniably the most alluring group of the 2014 World Cup is whether this pool will also cause Germany problems, or whether it will prove a stepping stone towards fulfilling what Löw clearly sees as their destiny.
Group G, comprising Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the United States, does appear to distil one of the grand divisions in modern international football.
On one side is that Germany team. Like Spain and to a lesser extent Holland, they have revolutionised their football infrastructure to the point where their fundamental principle is to build an international squad with the cohesion of a club team.
On the other side is Cristiano Ronaldo, who is one of a number of individuals who want to make this World Cup his own and effectively personifies the other defining trait of the international game.
Because of the growth of club football, and the all-consuming demands of the Champions' League, national commitments have become secondary for many players. At the very least, it is hugely difficult for international managers to develop anything like an integrated system. The best they can do is try and fit something together quickly and hope for individual magic to have an effect. An under-achieving and disjointed Portugal are perhaps the ultimate example of this. As Roy Keane put it at the 2002 World Cup, the majority of top international squads are "collections of stars" rather than true teams.
The curiosity, however, is that it is many years since single players have defined tournaments. Whereas Zinedine Zidane dominated Euro 2000, Roberto Baggio USA 94 and obviously Diego Maradona 1986, it is more difficult to so readily associate any of the last decade's competitions with one player.
Individuals have tended to be engulfed by teams, as was illustrated by the fact that Spain have eliminated Ronaldo's Portugal in the last two tournaments and Germany eviscerated Leo Messi's Argentina in the 2010 quarter-finals. But there are signs that this is starting to change, and it is probably no surprise that this has coincided with the rise of the Ballon D'Or as such a media event. Messi has started to show his Barcelona form for Argentina, Luis Suarez has remained ridiculously consistent for Uruguay, Radamel Falcao has been decisive for Colombia and Ronaldo offered a real statement performance in the play-off against Sweden. Anything close to a similar display from the Real Madrid No 7 in the opening game in Salvador could badly trouble a suspect German defence which has already been undone by the individual class of Balotelli.
The one big question surrounding Löw's side is not whether they have the quality to win a tournament, but the character to handle the later-stage pressure. This group will provide a variety of early anxieties. Aside from the extensive demands of the travel schedule, there is a different challenge posed by each match. With Portugal, it's the extraordinary individual class of Ronaldo. With Ghana, it's a team that have also grown together. With USA, it's a tight, technical outfit – but which also has the insider knowledge of a former manager and hero.
Not even someone as detached as Löw could disguise his enthusiasm about greeting Jürgen Klinsmann again in that final group game. "Meeting old acquaintances with USA in the group is very special," he said. "We know [Klinsmann] has raised football in the United States recently to a new level." He has helped do the same for Germany, as Per Mertesacker gushed. "Klinsmann is the person who has inspired a generation," said the defender.
That 2006 World Cup, in which the former striker managed Germany with Löw's assistance, was essential for the new national team in striking out from the past. This group could bring it all full circle – unless Ronaldo strikes out for a defining statement of his own.,
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