Masters of style and guile

Vision of Sammer makes impact; Stan Hey assesses the specialist skills of the Dresden dynamo
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When the television camera tracks along the line of German players during the pre-game national anthems at Old Trafford this afternoon, you might expect it to come back for a double-take on Matthias Sammer. For among the (natural) blond locks sported by his more famous team-mates such as Jurgen Klinsmann and Thomas Hassler, Sammer looks like a Celtic intruder with his neatly cropped ginger hair.

Sammer's otherness does indeed have some credence, as he was born, raised and nurtured as a footballer in the former East Germany, before becoming the first player from that Communist time capsule to be awarded international honours by a unified Germany in December 1990.

But though the ginger top may be the first noticeable item about Sammer, once the game gets going his influential role as the sweeper for Berti Vogts' tournament favourites will be among the truly eye-catching business of the day.

Such is Sammer's impact on the German team that even its most high-profile member, Klinsmann, the captain, has urged the public to look out for his colleague. "He is the real star of this side, not me," Klinsmann stressed before the championships. "He is probably the best sweeper in world football."

Successive Player of the Year awards for Sammer have confirmed that Klinsmann's opinion is shared by a majority in the Bundesliga where Sammer's blend of high-class defending married to astute forward movement, has brought great achievements for his club, Borussia Dortmund, the German champions in the past two seasons.

Sammer's link with success is not a recent phenomenon. As a player in his home town team, Dynamo Dresden, he twice won the East German championship, and represented his country 23 times. Once the Berlin Wall was down, Sammer was recruited to the West, rewarding VfB Stuttgart's investment with a title in 1992. His success there prompted Internazionale to come shopping again, but unlike with their earlier purchase from Stuttgart, Klinsmann, things didn't work out either for the Italians or for Sammer. He played in only 11 games for the Milanese club before being released to join Dortmund.

It was said that the cultural journey Sammer had undertaken, from being a lowly paid semi-professional in the German Democratic Republic, who had maintained his work as a qualified tool-maker, to the glamorous but notoriously bitchy Inter, proved too much to handle.

But since settling in Dortmund, Sammer has proved his worldliness to both club and country, and has undergone a further demanding transition, changing from an all-round midfielder to the specific task of sweeping behind the defence. In this process he has supplanted his country's former captain Lothar Matthaus who had made a claim to that position over the past three years. It is a distinguished lineage, beginning after the 1970 World Cup in Mexico when the German manager Helmut Schoen repositioned his favourite son Franz Beckenbauer, to sweeper, and then watched this move contribute dramatically to West Germany's 1972 European Championship and their 1974 World Cup win over Holland.

This refinement of the sweeper position, not just using another defender but a creative midfielder, has been with Germany ever since, with the likes of Uli Stielike, Matthaus and now Sammer bringing a visionary dimension to defending. Sammer, with his squared-off shoulders and front-on stance, looks a lot like a toy soldier, but there was nothing wooden in his movements against the Czech Republic last Sunday. In a dangerous first 15 minutes, the Germans had to cope with the loss of their most experienced defender, Jurgen Kohler, while the Czechs launched an initial wave of attacks. In the midst of all this, Sammer stood calm, forcing the Czechs' main striker Pavel Kuka to stay wide, while also bedding in the substitute defender Markus Babbel. "I just went straight on to the pitch and my colleagues around me helped me to settle," Babbel said. Sammer apparently rates quite highly on the Schmeichel-scale of defensive bellowing.

With the defence secured, Sammer then brought his midfield experience into play, advancing into space, spreading passes, linking up with the attack, even appearing in the Czech area himself at one point. His tackling, too, was forceful but neat, a vital element with a referee waving yellow cards to please his masters.

Of the six Germans booked, three were Sammer's co- defenders, Babbel, Stefan Reuter and Christian Ziege, and with Kohler now out of the tournament, Sammer, who is capable of destructive tackling in his own right, will need both restraint and luck on his side.

But Vogts is unlikely to react cautiously today, continuing the pressing game which Sammer's play exemplifies, in the knowledge that a win will take them into the quarter-finals. The Germans also know that the Russians need a result to stay in the tournament, so it will be ironic if Sammer, the Dresden dynamo, can dispatch his former Eastern Bloc comrades on a day when Russia may return a Communist in its Presidential elections.