James Lawton: Why it's hard not to like Germany
Published 28/06/2012 | 11:30
How wonderful to be a football nation that every two years does not arrive at a major tournament as a psychological basket case.
Better still, one that carries down a virtual guarantee that if they do not win they will be seriously competitive. Certainly it will not be so fragile that the players have to be given lodgings in such congenial surroundings that for quite a bit of the time they can forget they are on some of the most serious business of their professional lives while they walk about a city filled with tourists and no one cares that this places them in another country and slightly less than 1,000 miles away from where they are due to play at least two and maybe three pivotal matches in 12 days.
How splendid, also, that your coach does not have to talk up the inspirational powers of a player who missed the first two formative games not because of some unfortunate injury but because in his last competitive match he hacked down from behind an opponent who had done nothing more provocative than win the ball – and one who, incidentally, played his last significant international football eight years ago.
Maybe, though, it is time to cut from the chase for excuses and revisionism so familiar in England to the one that is still running towards Sunday's European Championship final here and say how wonderful it must be to be Germany.
Jawohl, Germany – the team who ever since losing at Wembley in 1966 have been setting standards, evolving teams, replacing one major player with another of similar quality, beyond the dreams, well, certainly the competence, of their conquerors.
It seemed that the nadir for England came in Bloemfontein two years ago in the World Cup round of 16 when a new, young Germany – responding brilliantly to the fact that in the previous World Cup and European Championship they had merely finished, respectively, semi-finalists and runners up – seemed to be playing an entirely different and infinitely superior game.
Here these last few days, though, the division has looked still wider with Germany dropping key players – including the tournament's joint top scorer Mario Gomez – and eventually blasting four goals past Greece on their way to tonight's semi-final with Italy.
Though it's true Germany have never beaten Italy in a major tournament, coach Joachim Löw brushes this away as though it is the smallest particle of dust. "Football," he says, "is not about what happened in the past – it is about today and tomorrow. I don't have a problem with our record against Italy, it is irrelevant to this next match and I don't have a problem with changing winning teams. My job is picking the best players at a certain moment."
When he says that, you are obliged to flinch at the memory of the certainties enjoyed by England's "golden generation" – as Sven Goran Eriksson ran them in the fashion of a celebrity club of virtually irrevocable membership – and the concerted campaign to deliver a 100th cap to David Beckham even after he had decamped for his sweetheart deal in minor league football with the Major Soccer League. A somewhat bemused Fabio Capello was asked if an Italian coach would have come under similar pressure if a Paolo Maldini or Franco Baresi was scratching for a century of caps. He said: "Never in a million years."
It's not bad being Italy, either, when you think about it – and give or take the odd match-fixing controversy. Whatever their troubles, Italy reminded us last Sunday night that they can generally find a way to play serious football at a serious level. It helps, of course, if a player like Andrea Pirlo is around to illustrate the value of possession and skill on the ball and also a vibrantly working intelligence.
Yet for all the wiles he imposed on England, it is hard to imagine that Pirlo will get much more than a breath of such opportunity against Germany in Warsaw tonight. All the evidence suggests that Germany, with the ramrod Bastian Schweinsteiger fit again and Mesut Ozil playing the football of his young life, will be too strong, too fast and simply too good for the Italians who so dominated England in all but the matter of scoring goals.
The conviction before this tournament was that Germany had indeed moved beyond the promise they displayed so strikingly while outplaying both England and Argentina before falling to Spain in the World Cup semi-final, and nothing seen here has weakened the pre-tournament claim of Löw that his team had become strong to the point where they performed their most vital tasks automatically.
In the process they have produced a quality of football that has brought fresh ridicule on the mythical idea that Germany's extraordinary record in major tournaments – three World Cup wins, four times runners-up, three European titles and three second places – has been the product of not much than joyless efficiency.
The impression goes back to the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, when the beautifully rounded – and elementally tough – Netherlands were seen to throw away, in arrogance, their chance of a first triumph. It is right that the Dutch sought not only to beat their bitter rivals but also embarrass them on their own soil. There was no doubt that their ambition was supported by a superb cast of players that included Johan Cruyff, Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol and Willem van Hanegem.
But then you look at the winners' column and you see names like Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Brietner, Wolfgang Overath and Gerd Müller.
These were not the dull beneficiaries of Dutch football madness, no more than the team which cruised past Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder the other day. They were master players laying down the foundation of a tradition superb not only in its achievements but also in a relentless desire to improve, to build one point of strength upon another. The truth is that if you have not come to admire and envy Germany over the last few weeks, and even like them more than a little, you might want to check what international football is supposed to be all about.