James Lawton: Always the Germans

A combination of pragmatism, dedication and steel makes them masters of major tournaments and big favourites tonight, writes James Lawton at Euro 2008
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Of all the stories of Euro 2008 the one most girded in the epic is surely Turkey's. They keep losing players through injury and suspension – the latest to go down is the striker Nihat Kahveci – but if their game is not so easy on the eye, the spirit of it is worthy of Saladin, the great slayer of infidels. So why, as the hot streets here fill with ever more crescent flags, do you have to believe that tonight it becomes a crusade without a prayer?

It is because of Germany, Turkey's opponents in the semi-final in Basle. It is because of the most pragmatic football nation in the world. It is because Germany can break your heart as easily as they might snap a dried-out twig. They do it as a matter of course. Sometimes it seems almost the equivalent of taking a breath.

Ask Argentina, the spell-binding masters of the last World Cup, we thought, until they ran into Germany, and felt their life-blood draining away. The Germans started as a laughing stock and finished in third place, their coach Jürgen Klinsmann and his successor Joachim Löw installed as national football icons alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller and the late Fritz Walter because they had shown the most valued talent in the football of the Fatherland – they showed that however unpromising the circumstances, they could make extraordinary things happen.

This is the history and the here and now of the German game the Turks confront tonight.

It is the football of pragmatism, yes, but also of steel. It is football which dwarfs that of all rivals except Brazil and Italy. It has brought them three World Cups and three European Championships against England's one World Cup – and even that solitary triumph for the English will always be questioned by Germans, many of whom swear as passionately today as they did in 1966 that Geoff Hurst's third goal didn't cross the line and that his fourth was made illegal by fans running on to the pitch.

You have to be dour and resilient in your football to nourish such pain, especially when it is surrounded by so much success, but it is just another source of strength.

You can run a thread – though better a line of steel – through the German game and what you find is not so much of the exquisite outpouring of natural-born footballers like Pele and Garrincha, Di Stefano and Maradona, but teams who have made a glory of overcoming their own shortcomings. They don't always succeed but almost invariably they drive the greatest of their opposition to their very limits.

The classic example came in the 1986 World Cup final at the Azteca in Mexico City, when Maradona had already announced to the world that he was unplayable. The Germans sacrificed their best player, Lothar Matthäus, coach Franz Beckenbauer saying that he didn't have the players to compete. Matthäus shadowed Maradona brilliantly for 85 minutes, a marking achievement that would have ranked alongside Nobby Stiles' shutting down of Eusebio in the 1966 semi-final, until the maestro found one chink of light and served the killing pass to Jorge Burruchaga. The Germans had fought back from two goals down and made their eternal point: if any one year they are not the best, they are the team the best have to beat.

The story of German glory is entrenched in extraordinary fortitude and even if recent years have seen a growth of doubt about the very foundation of it, the 1954 World Cup triumph in Switzerland and the astounding victory over the best team some claimed to have ever seen, the Hungary of Puskas and Hidegkuti, there is no question about the relentless gathering of achievement.

The question mark against 1954 surrounds suspicion that Walter's heroes, who included his younger brother Ottmar, were drug-enhanced, a theory which has grown out of claims, long after the event, by a stadium attendant that syringes were found in the drains of the German dressing room, Puskas's report that he saw several of his opponents vomiting after the game, and that a number went down with serious cases of jaundice in subsequent months. The truth will almost certainly remain lodged in those days before even the most perfunctory of drug tests, but then there is no argument about some utterly remarkable aspects of that foundation stone of a superb competitive record over the decades. Germany were banned from international football for five years after the Second World War and had played fewer than 20 internationals when they brought down the team which had beaten the England of Billy Wright and Alf Ramsey 6-3 at Wembley, and then won the return 7-1 in the Nep Stadium in Budapest.

Walter, a prisoner of war, was saved from a Russian gulag by a Slovakian guard who admired him as a footballer and respected him as a man. On the eve of games he was known to shudder from the effects of malaria contracted in the swampy ground of a prison camp.

Such are the undisputed origins of a team who have once again proved that they can never be discounted at the highest level of international competition.

You can wallow in German statistics which speak of astonishing consistency – they last missed a shoot-out penalty-kick in 1976 (Uli Hoeness against Czechoslovakia in the final of the European Championship) and have twice broken English hearts in the discipline (World Cup and Euro semi-finals in 1990 and 1996), but more compelling is the raw memory of those days when the Germans have shown quite how much they detest the idea of defeat.

In Mexico in 1970 they caught England in their quarter-final in Leon after Ramsey replaced Bobby Charlton (to rest him for the semi-final) and then lost 4-3 to Italy in a semi-final still celebrated in both countries, the full-back Karl-Heinz Schnellinger scoring in injury time.

Four years after yielding to Maradona in Mexico, they beat him in Rome in a repeat World Cup final. In Rome, as in the Azteca, Maradona's challenge was virtually to beat Germany on his own. They were the last team in the world to whom you could do it twice. For Turkey tonight the most oppressive comparison is with South Korea in the 2002 World Cup.

Under the leadership of Guus Hiddink, the Svengali of Russia in Vienna tomorrow night when they meet Spain, the South Koreans seemed willing to run for ever as Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain fell in their wake. But in the semi-final they were stopped, quite dead, by Germany and the man who leads them tonight, Michael Ballack.

For the Turks, in their belief that they are equal to any challenge, this may not be so much a cautionary tale as a particle of history. Unfortunately, though, it weighs approximately a ton.

Ballack has been huge in this tournament, as he was in the Premier League season, and his perfectly timed thrusts are the most threatening accompaniment to the force of Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose at the front. Two years ago the strikers were among generally despised immigrant blood, mere scampering Polish-born wanderers after fortune. Now they are fully integrated national heroes. They have proved their right to a place in one of football's most formidable traditions – the one which indeed surely grants Turkey not a single prayer.

'Ballack persuaded me to change tactics' admits Löw

The Germany coach, Joachim Löw, yesterday admitted he was persuaded to change tactics by Michael Ballack ahead of the Portugal quarter-final after two disappointing group games – the loss to Croatia and the narrow win over Poland. Germany had been playing a rigid 4-4-2 but, against Portugal, on Ballack's direction, they played with two holding midfielders, which allowed the Chelsea midfielder to play in the hole behind the two strikers.

Löw, asked if he had been persuaded by Ballack to change tactics, replied: "Of course. I would not be a good coach if I didn't listen to them. But my players listen to me too. One cannot pass from one system to another by just doing it. It has to be an agreement, a discussion, even if it is me who takes the final decision."

But he refused to disclose which formation Germany would use against Turkey, and nor would Ballack. "We have practised all the formations, all the possibilities," Ballack said. "It was a good decision to play 4-5-1, but of course we will not tell what we will play.

"Everyone is talking about [Turkish] injuries and suspensions," Ballack added, "and Germany being the favourite, but it's a semi-final so it's always 50-50. OK, they have some players out, but it's their special power that they can adjust to the opposition and they never admit defeat."

Germany can choose from a full complement of players, with the midfielder Torsten Frings back in training.