After Germany’s impressive performances at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Löw could have left to manage a major club side, but he stuck with it because he was sure his team was on the cusp of winning something big.
Germany’s long wait for a title was really supposed to end two years ago, in the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. Germany beat Portugal, the Netherlands, and Denmark in the group stage and crushed Greece in the quarterfinal. Their eyes were on the final against Spain, the team that had beaten them in the final of Euro 2008 and in the semifinal of the 2010 World Cup. This time it was going to be different.
Except Germany ran straight into an Italian sucker punch in the semifinal. Italy had the craft and cunning of Antonio Cassano and Andrea Pirlo, the stubbly ruthlessness of Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon, the explosive speed and power of Mario Balotelli. They made Germany look like a bunch of college kids.
A nation struggled to come to terms with defeat. How could this have happened? Where was the guile? Where was the power? And a familiar theme began to emerge: Where were the leaders? Where were the Real Men?
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The question of why Germany no longer wins has many answers. The simplest explanation is that other teams, such as Spain and Italy, have been better. (Particularly Spain. Germany might have dodged a bullet or four by losing that 2012 semifinal. Spain had been saving its best for the final. It was Italy’s worst defeat in 55 years.)
As an answer, “Spain is just better” might be correct, but it’s too simple to be satisfying. So a debate has developed around the personal qualities of this generation of German players as compared with the serial winners of the past. As Lothar Matthäus recently told World Soccer magazine: “[T]he only thing we lack is the nasty characters.”
When Matthäus talks about nasty characters, he means guys like him. Someone who is prepared to do what it takes. Most of all, someone who is prepared to lead. There is a special vocabulary for this. The usual German word for “leader,” Führer, isn’t used much in this context. Instead, people complain about the lack of a Führungsspieler (leader-player), Führungsfigur (leader-figure), and sometimes even Leitwolf—literally “lead wolf.”
Germany once drew on an apparently inexhaustible supply of Leitwolfs. The 1982 squad alone had men like Matthäus, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Felix Magath, Uli Stielike, and Paul Breitner, any one of whom would probably have been the captain and undisputed alpha male in any other squad. The center-forward was Horst Hrubesch, whose mere name sounded like it would probably beat you in an arm-wrestling contest. Hrubesch’s nickname was “the Header Monster.”
The difference between the old-school German teams and the team of today is best summed up by the contrast between someone like Hrubesch and Mesut Özil, the skillful Turkish-German playmaker who would have been prevented from representing the sides Hrubesch played in by the old German nationality laws.
Özil is so gifted that everything he does on the field looks absolutely effortless. This is both his blessing and his curse. When things are going against his team, some fans have a tendency to become irritated by the fact that Özil, with his drooping eyelids and slouching shoulders, looks like he doesn’t care enough. Özil’s Körpersprache—his body language—has become the focus of national debate.
In May, Löw told Kicker magazine that Özil needed to work on that body language. Then the former national team captain Michael Ballack chimed in, repeating that Özil needed to massively improve his body language.
Nobody had ever questioned Ballack’s body language. But then Ballack is more in the traditional Leitwolf mold: 6 feet, 2 inches with a highlight reel full of 30-yard shots and massive leaping headers. His shoulders were probably physically incapable of slouching at an Özil-ian angle.
The current German captain, Philipp Lahm, has taken issue with the principle that every good team needs a Leitwolf. The German team that failed at Euro 2004 had two: Michael Ballack and Oliver Kahn (a Kinski-like figure who can easily be imagined in a steel helmet, tossing a monkey into a river).
Analyzing Germany’s 2004 group stage exit, Lahm wrote in his 2011 autobiography that their failure had demonstrated the bankruptcy of the principle of the “so-called Führungsspieler.” The problem, according to Lahm, was that if all the authority was bound up with the coach and the on-field Leitwolf, the other players were not encouraged to step up and take responsibility. “It’s becoming apparent that a new way of thinking, a commitment to collective responsibility, to flatter hierarchies, is necessary in order to be successful in modern football.”
The problem is that so far, flatter hierarchies haven’t won any trophies for Germany. Annoying as it is for Lahm to have to listen to the old-timers grumbling that he and his teammates aren’t mean enough (meaning man enough) to do it, the only way to shut them up is to win the World Cup.
Löw is also a flat-hierarchies man. Asked by those great chroniclers of the German World Cup adventure, Nivea Men, whether he assessed candidates for his squad purely on footballing ability, he gave a thoughtful response:
Of course, that’s very important. Can the player implement what the coach is looking for? But when you’re at a tournament like the World Cup, you also ask: Which players can give us energy? Which players are tolerant of frustration, if they sometimes don’t play? Which players can promote competition, which players can withstand it? And: Which players are perhaps a little too egotistical? We are away with a big group for several weeks. … For this team, there are certain values to be considered: respect, tolerance, discipline, reliability, integrity, humility, ability to concentrate. If a player has flaws in these areas, the group suffers.
You wonder whether Löw is quite sure what he’s looking for. On the one hand, Özil has been criticized for not strutting about the field like a Leitwolf. On the other hand, the coach says he’s looking for sociable, well-adjusted types who won’t kick up any trouble during five weeks on the road.
If Werner Herzog had cast his movies according to the Löw rulebook, Klaus Kinski would plainly have been the last man on earth he’d have hired. And quite possibly nobody outside the German-speaking world would ever have watched Aguirre.
It’s not as though there’s an actual footballing Kinski out there who’s been excluded by Löw for being unable to get on with his teammates. It’s more the romantic ideal of what Kinski represents—the ungovernable passion, the untrammeled egotism, the demonic energy—that feels like it’s been forgotten about.
All these qualities were evident in the Germanies of Breitner, Rummenigge, Matthäus, even Klinsmann. They have not yet shone through in the Germany of Lahm, Özil, Schweinsteiger, and Mertesacker.
The ongoing preoccupation with the Führungsspieler and the Leitwolf reflects a widespread suspicion among Germans that their team is simply too nice. Can Löw solve the problem by getting them to be even nicer?