Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Klinsmann's Germany: One Year and Counting

"Chin Up Lads! We'll get them next time," said the defiantly optimistic headline. "We'll meet again Brazil, on the 9th of July 2006 in Berlin," said another.

The host nation's exit on Saturday against an unarguably superior Brazil has needless to say provoked a round of never-say-die patriotism in the German press, but also a thinly-veiled admission that Germany badly needs to up its game in order to win next year's World Cup in front of their home fans with time running out.

"Yes Germany can win the World Cup next summer," said coach Jurgen Klinsmann to reporters after the game, but what else could he have said? Former coach Rudi Voller and current captain Michael Ballack echoed the 'We can do it, Deutschland!' cries and even wise old Franz Beckenbauer was made to stand up and be counted on TV this week. When asked who might win the Confederations Cup he answered cautiously that Brazil and Argentina would be tough nuts to crack. When the show's host continued to press him for a soundbite he obligingly replied "OK, Germany," to the delight of the studio audience but no doubt to his own regret. Media outlets are more loyal to their sales than to the facts and many feel they will lose readers if they appear even remotely unpatriotic at a time like this.

They can point to facts to justify their optimism: Losing 2-3 was one goal closer to the Brazilians than the Germans got in 2002 and the team did come back twice to equalise. Germany will surely not be lacking in such commitment and motivation next summer and the lesson of most World Cups is that the host nation, buoyed by the country's fervour, can ride on a sea of support and overachieve. South Korea's unexpected surge to the 2002 Semi-Final was only the latest example of this.

They will certainly need all the external factors they can muster to help them defeat Brazil next year. The World Champions can play lazily, can concede two to the Japanese and the Germans and even lose a game to Mexico but there they are in the Confederations Cup Final, favourites to win. In Kaka, Robinho, Adriano and skipper Ronaldinho they have four world-class performers, four fantasistas capable of coming up with moments of amazing skill to win games.

With the best will in the world, Germany's NationalMannschaft does not have such players, Ballack apart. Indeed the Bayern Munich star seems so key to the hosts' survival in next year's tournament they should watch him 24/7 in case he trips over anything in the house and gets injured.

Saturday's team that lost to Brazil will be improved with the return of the bold, though still fresh-faced attacking flair of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dortmund's centre-back Christoph Metzelder should provide more sturdy coverage in defense than Chelsea's Robert Huth, who was taken to the cleaners by Adriano, "one moment a giant in defence, the next a weakling" according to Germany's Express. In addition the return of Stuttgart's Philipp Lahm, one of the best full-backs in Europe who had an impressive Euro 2004, will reassure the less than comfortable looking back line.

Beyond them though, the menu looks meagre with no obvious young stars looking ready to make the grade. The attack looks particularly mediocre although the Germans will heed the lesson of France, who won in 1998 without a recognizable marksman of any quality. Lukas Podolski netted twice this tournament and should start up front with Kevin Kuranyi or Gerald Asamoah next summer but still looks far from exceptional. The only other recognizable striker Mike Hanke does not seem up to this level yet. Aston Villa's Stuttgart-bound Thomas Hitzlsperger is surely worth a look, with his long-range potshots a useful weapon, but disappointingly for him, he was used sparingly in this warm-up tournament.
Where have the German Strikers gone?

So, Klinsmann will be relying on old hands Torsten Frings and Bernt Schneider as defensive midfielders to get stuck in and regain possession whilst Sebastian Deisler will run his socks off at both ends of the field, whip dangerous crosses in to the strikers or feed Ballack and Schweinsteiger in the hope they can create a chance.

At the other end, for Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann read Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton before the 1982 World Cup. Bayern's veteran is still officially number one according to Klinsmann but he will continue to rotate the two, implying he is still to make up his mind whether to stay loyal to Kahn or employ the Arsenal keeper, who was more impressive this tournament.

Overall though, Germany is still living through a lean spell by their high standards. Since Klinsmann himself lifted the Euro '96 trophy, the country with the greatest record of reaching finals has been on the slide and another mediocre showing at Euro 2004 provided little hope for next year's World Cup. After a first-round exit in Portugal, the impressive achievement of reaching 2002's World Cup Final then looked less so, and rather due to an undeserved seeding that kept them away from the big boys and gave them the not so big Paraguay, the USA and South Korea to hurdle to reach the final.

The fact is that Germany have not defeated a major footballing nation for some time, their 1-0 win at Wembley in 2000. The last time they won the World Cup, at Italia '90, they possessed the superb left-back Andreas Brehme and his Inter colleagues Lothar Matthaus, one of the greatest ever midfield generals and Klinsmann himself to call upon. Their midfield, Matthaus apart, had the creative class of Thomas Hassler and the dribbling skills of Pierre Littbarski to call upon. The towering defence of Jurgen Kohler, Thomas Berthold, Guido Buchwald and Klaus Augenthaler looked a lot firmer than today's and in Rudi Voller and Karl-Heinz Riedle Germany had two more deadly, world-class strikers. In short, they were a world class team who looked likely winners from the start.

As they prepare for the 3rd place play off with Mexico by indulging in some beach volleyball and basketball, today's German squad should feel somewhat relaxed at not having disgraced themselves and knowing a year is still a long time in football. At the same time, though, they are a pale shadow of the last German World Cup-winning team that featured Klinsmann and with an envious eye on the wizardry of Kaka & co., will be pondering what they can do to combat the late FIFA President Stanley Rous' maxim that, "There is no substitute for skill."

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