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Maracana stadium, Rio de Janeiro, July 2014. In one smooth, deft movement a footballer called Mario Götze took a cross from the left on to his chest, turned and volleyed the ball into the net. Germany 1, Argentina 0. Seven minutes left. Back home, the inventor Christian Güttler began receiving text messages, congratulating him on having helped Germany win the World Cup.
At his club, Borussia Dortmund, Götze had become slightly obsessed with a machine built by Güttler called the Footbonaut, which helped players perfect the art of taking the ball, turning and volleying it in one smooth, deft movement – as beautifully replicated by Götze in the World Cup final. It was just one example of the relentless, no-stone-unturned search for perfection, and the attendant attention to detail, that made Germany champions of the world.
Last year in Brazil, English fans may recall – if they haven't managed to suppress the memory – that the national side lamely exited the World Cup at the end of the group stage, before the knock-out rounds, the party over before it had really got going. Cue brief whinging epidemic in the sports pages, but little else. No master plan, no long-term scheme to rise above perennially under-achieving mediocrity.
Compare that with what happened when Germany did the same in the 2000 European Championship (when an ignominious defeat against England helped seal their group-stage elimination). Thanks largely to the indefatigable efforts of a few visionary individuals, a massive overhaul of the country's scouting and coaching system was carried out, money was spent, coaches recruited, an extensive network of academies established, reaching even the remotest areas of the country – all the available footballing resources of a hugely resourceful nation brought into play. Fifteen years later Germany were World Cup winners.
It's impossible not to compare and contrast England and Germany, with their footballing rivalry that goes back 50 years, without invoking the concept of national character. As Raphael Honigstein points out in this often mesmerising account of one country's struggle for sporting excellence, last year's World Cup win was seen as a validation of the German way of life, "It's not a coincidence that Germany are strong [in football]," says Jürgen Klinsmann, one of the visionary individuals who wrought the transformation. "The players grow up in ... a society that spurs them on to achieve things."
There were other factors in the resurgence of the German team: the Kirch media conglomerate, cash cow for the country's national football league, the Bundesliga, collapsed, forcing clubs to make economies and rely on homegrown players more than expensive imports. And though the whole rebuilding process took a huge effort by the footballing authorities, Honigstein is careful to underline the crucial contributions made by individuals, often in the face of official intransigence. There was Klinsmann, for example, who as Germany manager from 2004-2006 brooked no resistance in radically overhauling the national set-up; another coach, Ralf Rangnick, a former astrophysics student who preached a tactical system to beat the world; Oliver Bierhoff, general manager of the national team who made sure every detail was just right. All their efforts came together in one glorious football revolution.
In the process German football, hitherto mostly renowned for its ruthless efficiency and mental toughness, began to combine those admirable, if unlovable, qualities with a new sensibility. It became exciting, adventurous, fun.
Honigstein tells the story with panache and exactly the same kind of eye for detail he's writing about. Is it too much to hope that the football authorities over here may read this book and be inspired to try something similar? I think we all know the answer to that one.
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