Is Germany Too Nice to Win the World Cup?

The stadium scene.
June 11 2014 2:24 PM

Is Germany Too Nice to Win the World Cup?

The 2014 squad is missing its Klaus Kinski.

German head coach Joachim Löw, left, stands with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer at a public training session in Mainz, Germany, on June 5, 2014.
German head coach Joachim Löw, left, stands with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer at a public training session in Mainz, Germany, on June 5, 2014.

Photo by Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images

Unlike some other European countries, Germany has no great history of expeditions to South America.

The last time a German World Cup team played here was in 1978, in Argentina. West Germany came as world champions and went home after the second round. The most memorable moment of the team’s campaign came in the match against the Netherlands. West Germany was leading 2–1 when Dutch winger René van de Kerkhof broke through and shot past German keeper Sepp Maier. The blond German defender Rolf Rüssmann flung himself full length and tried to punch the ball clear, but he couldn’t quite stop it going into the net. That German side wasn’t quite good enough to win the World Cup, but Rüssmann had at least proved that they wouldn’t think twice about doing what had to be done to win it. He had shown their hearts were in the right place.

Germany’s most successful forays into South America in the 1970s were made not by their footballers but by their filmmakers. In 1972, director Werner Herzog led a cast and crew that hailed from 16 different nations on a five-week shoot in the Amazon rainforest. The resulting film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, starred Klaus Kinski as the eponymous Aguirre, a mad conquistador obsessed with finding El Dorado. Aguirre was arguably more psychologically stable than the man who played him. Kinski, the most famous German actor of the 1970s, was a maniac whose frequent tantrums made him almost impossible to work with.

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Keeping him on the set took all of Herzog’s resourcefulness. He once threatened to shoot his star if he followed through on one of his threats to quit. One of their confrontations was recorded by a sound engineer without Kinski or Herzog knowing it. Herzog had presumed to advise Kinski on some matter pertaining to the scene. Kinski didn’t like this. 

“Don’t give me stage directions! I can’t stand that! I can do it by myself! If you think you’re better, why don’t you do the acting!” Kinski was working himself up into a rage. “You’re always for half-measures. You’re scared shitless of the consequences! If you want someone to be excited then let him get excited! I’ll act it the way I want to!” 

Herzog interjected: “OK, but we have to …” 

“Keep your half-baked advice to yourself! You’re no director! You have to learn from me! You’re a beginner! A dwarf’s director, not a director for me!” 

“Now, don’t insult me …” 

“Insult you?! You couldn’t insult me more than by trying to direct me!” 

And so on. 

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Courtesy of Werner Herzog Filmproduktion/Shout! Factory

Herzog later explained: “I ought to say that all the hysteria that Kinski introduced was turned to productive ends. Maybe that’s the main point. Of course it sounds embarrassing for him, or embarrassing for me, it depends. But whenever Kinski really got going, hysterical as hell, we tried to start shooting quickly, and he gave it something that perhaps no one else in the world could have put into a scene. I think that’s what counts.”

The world has grown more polite since the 1970s. When Luis Suarez pulled a (successful) Rüssmann in the World Cup four years ago, he was condemned by half the world. And if Christopher Nolan ever threatened to shoot Christian Bale, Bale probably wouldn’t believe him. But even today, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of creative tension, and a certain ruthlessness.

* * *

The 2014 German World Cup squad goes to South America far better equipped than either Helmut Schön’s 1978 team or Herzog’s crew in 1972. With Europe’s most impressive suite of corporate sponsors, Germany could afford to build its own bespoke World Cup training base on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. The team’s slogan is Bereit wie nie! Ready like never before!

The Germans’ 54-year-old coach, Joachim Löw, has become one of the most recognizable figures in international football, with his carefully curated touchline outfits and shiny helmet of lustrous black hair. His youthful looks are a godsend for national team sponsor Nivea, which uses Löw in several commercials. “It’s a long time since men’s cosmetics were considered uncool,” he said in a recent interview with Nivea Men.

It’s not every day that a leading international coach is expected to give quotes to a leading cosmetics brand, but in the weeks leading up to a World Cup a man in Löw’s position has to do a hell of a lot of interviews. 

Germany’s biggest tabloid, Bild, devised a feature in which 50 German world champions from various disciplines each put a question to Löw.

Most of the questions were predictably innocuous. Pole-vaulter Raphael Holzdeppe wanted to know the riskiest thing Löw had ever done (climbing Kilimanjaro) while canoeist Ronald Verch wanted to know what Löw would have been if he hadn’t become a football manager (he dreamed of being a pilot). 1990 World Cup winner and victim of male pattern baldness Jürgen Kohler asked Löw how a man of his age got to have such enviably full, dark hair (sorry Jürgen: it’s just good genes). 

It was left to former world middleweight champion Felix Sturm to pose a somewhat more awkward question. 

“In boxing, it’s always all or nothing. Would you see anything other than winning the World Cup in Brazil as a defeat?”

“Not necessarily,” said Löw.  

Löw told Sturm that in football, you need both skill and luck. You could, for instance, play well, then lose on penalties. “We could end up disappointed, but that doesn’t mean we will have disappointed,” he explained.

The coach knows that such Jesuitical distinctions are unlikely to appease a football nation that is hungry for its first tournament win since 1996. Maybe that’s why he has seemed unusually downbeat at times during this buildup.

“We have a chance to win the tournament,” he told Stern, “and likewise, so do several other teams—but nobody wants to hear this.”

Indeed, the German public rates the squad very highly. It’s not unusual to hear the claim that this is the most-talented squad any German coach has taken to a World Cup.

It’s no use for Löw to argue that injuries have left them some way short of full strength, that torn ankle ligaments have robbed him of a brilliant talent in Marco Reus, that key players like Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Sami Khedira are still short of full fitness with the opening game days away. 

These are just the normal problems any World Cup coach has to deal with. The tournament is full of wounded warriors. Stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, and Yaya Touré are all struggling with injuries. Their coaches don’t have as much talent in reserve as Löw does.

Germany has won three World Cups and yet many Germans think this is their best ever squad. If this squad fails, what would that say about Löw?

“When you win,” Löw told Stern, “you’re celebrated as a messiah, the savior of the whole nation. And when you lose, you’re public enemy No. 1.”

In any case, Löw says, his legacy will not be defined by success or failure in any given tournament. You need to take account of the bigger picture. 

“My salvation doesn’t depend on these days in Brazil. One win more, one defeat more. There are other important things: family, friendship, values … and I think we have evolved football enormously,” he says. 

But since Germany used to win tournaments all the time, and now they don’t, some are asking whether it’s been the right kind of evolution.

* * *

These days, international coaches tend to work in a two- or at most four-year cycle. Löw has been on the national team staff for 10 years and has been the head coach for eight.

He has had four major tournaments with Germany—the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and the 2008 and 2012 European Championships—one as assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann and three as head coach. There are two ways to look at his record. 

One view is that his team has reached three semifinals and one final, winning acclaim for its style and new admirers around the world. The other view is that it’s a four-time loser.

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