Twenty-five years ago this week, the Germany team was staying in a London hotel, preparing for the final of Euro 96. In those days, such a situation was the norm: Germany had reached the final of most World Cups and European Championships since 1972.
The mood in the camp was soothing. The players, fresh from beating England in the semi final, enjoyed singing the unofficial new English anthem “Three Lions” in their team bus.
I had beers in the bar one evening with team officials and camp followers, including Bert Trautmann, the onetime German prisoner-of-war who had become Manchester City’s goalkeeper. Eventually I asked the big question: why did Germany always win at football?
The officials looked polite but uncomprehending. Trautmann took some more nuts. They did not understand the question. Germany had not won a tournament since 1990. No, things were not going well — the younger generation did not want to work, they grumbled. I left it there. In the final against the Czechs at Wembley that Sunday, almost the entire stadium jeered when Oliver Bierhoff scored Germany’s winning goal.
Germany has since experienced a fall, a reinvention and another decline. It should overcome Hungary in Munich on Wednesday to reach the second round of Euro 2020, but its erstwhile dominance is gone. Where has the last quarter of a century left the team?
With hindsight, 1996 marked the end of the era of national styles. Until then, Italians defended, the English played long balls and the Germans had the qualities described by Berti Vogts, the national side’s coach at the time, as “German virtues”: power, pace and stamina, concentration at decisive moments and goalscoring centre-forwards. Their football was usually ugly — Germans “dance like refrigerators”, lamented Vogts later — but they slayed the beautiful teams.
But in 1996, Europe’s footballing borders dissolved. After the European Court of Justice’s “Bosman ruling” of the year before, suddenly any player with an EU passport could play anywhere in the bloc. National leagues internationalised and, as the Champions League expanded, Europe’s best teams copied each other. National styles faded. Other countries acquired German virtues. Greece, under German coach Otto Rehhagel, won Euro 2004 with them.
That is when German football went on its quest of reinvention, led by the national team’s coach Jürgen Klinsmann and his successor as “Teamchef”, Joachim Löw. They borrowed the best from the leading nations and, for a decade from 2006, Germany frequently played beautiful football. When the team won the World Cup in 2014, hardly anybody jeered.
But the moment a country lifts that trophy, decadence sets in. Löw, with his tight sweaters and shoulder-length hair, has always resembled a film director pursuing a vision more than a football manager trying to win matches. He dreamt of reimagining the game, for instance by turning the goalkeeper into a regular defender who happened to wear gloves. Löw grew fixated on high-technique possession football. “I wanted to take that to the maximum, to perfect it. I was almost arrogant,” he later admitted.
At the World Cup in 2018, a slow team denuded of German virtues fell in the first round. Meanwhile, other nations such as Italy, Belgium and even England and Scotland launched their own quests to absorb the latest in cutting-edge international football thinking.
Last November, Germany lost 6-0 to Spain and this March lost 2-1 at home to North Macedonia. When Germany started the Euro with a 1-0 defeat to France, there were few flags in German windows.
Even after Saturday’s 4-2 victory over Portugal, national team shirts are still selling at discounts, and a certain nostalgia remains for German virtues. Bierhoff, now general manager of Germany’s football federation, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the country overproduces ball-playing midfielders and lacks the kind of “ox up front” that he himself was.
Germany’s two refined central midfielders, Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gündogan, are not brimming with power or pace. On the other hand, there is now a high-tempo front three of Kai Havertz, Thomas Müller and Serge Gnabry, while the team’s revelation, Dutch-German left-half Robin Gosens, makes up in German virtues what he lacks in touch.
Löw, only Germany’s tenth manager since 1926, and the one who has coached the most games, steps down after the Euros. The irresistible parallel is with chancellor and football fan Angela Merkel, who resigns in September. Both took power within months of each other in 2005-2006. Both have governed in an understated, unemotional, wonkish manner. Löw says that when the two recently chatted, they agreed that “after such an intensive time, a certain emptiness probably is coming at us”.
For all their achievements, both leave their successors a task of renewal in a fast-changing world. Just as Merkel’s Germany is ageing, Löw’s starting 11 against France and Portugal had an average age of nearly 29, the highest for any Germany team at a tournament since 2000. But they may have one last push left in them.