Germany always does well at major football tournaments, especially the World Cup. It’s not just something everyone thinks – it’s an undeniable fact. Check the history books.
There is even an expression in German for such a team – Turniermannschaft – or ‘tournament team.’ Every couple of years the term gets wheeled out by pundits and public alike when the European championship and World Cup roll around.
Just before Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup, Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement to quell the cacophony of pessimism about the state of the team at the time. “Why don’t we just wait and see what we’re made of,” she said. “Let us not forget that Germany have always been a tournament team.”
Over 16 World Cup tournaments Germany have lifted the famous trophy three times, finished runners up on four occasions and have not failed to reach at least the last eight since 1938. It’s a remarkable record and one which has been achieved regardless of pre-tournament form, a lack of individual flair or the performances at the finals themselves.
But why does Germany always rise to the occasion? What is it about the so-called German ‘efficiency’ and ‘mentality’ that sees them come to the fore on the biggest football stage of all?
According to German football writer and historian Uli Hesse, author of “Tor! The Story of German Football,” the national side owes its incredible consistency at World Cups to a combination of factors.
“Certainly success breeds success, meaning our teams have the confidence they will do well because of their track record,” says Hesse. “Another (factor) is that success breeds respect. Opposing teams subconsciously fear the unwritten rule that Germany always, somehow, go through.”
For Hesse, and virtually all German football fans, the national side’s epiphany occurred in dramatic circumstances on a rainy summer day in Berne in 1954 when Sepp Herberger’s rank underdogs recovered from two goals down to defeat Ferenc Puskas’s imperious Hungary 3-2 in the World Cup final.
“The 1954 side delivered the blueprint for how to approach a tournament, how to play and even how to build a team,” says Hesse. “Ever since then, we have placed a premium on team effort and spirit rather than individual class.”
Herberger was well-known for the doughty attitude he instilled in his players and his homespun philosophies came to define the spirit of German football that still resonates over half a century later.
“You can see how almost every national coach we’ve had since 1954 still follows Sepp Herberger’s example of going with men you trust rather than the men who rack up good numbers,” Hesse says.
This perhaps explains why current national coach Joachim Löw left free-scoring striker Kevin Kuranyi at home and chose instead to take first-choice hitman Miroslav Klose to South Africa.
Despite a misfiring season in which he mustered a meagre three league goals for Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, only Gerd Müller has scored more goals than Klose in Germany’s national black-and-white and, with five goals in each of his last two World Cup finals, he is only six strikes away from overtaking Ronaldo as the tournament’s all-time highest scorer. Löw trusts him and he was rewarded with a Klose goal in Germany’s opener against Australia on Sunday.
The view from abroad is that Germany always somehow manages to defy predictions and march through to the latter stages of big tournaments. Gary Lineker, the former England striker, once said: Soccer is a game where 22 people run around, play the ball…and in the end Germany always wins.’
Expectations at home, however, have varied widely from one World Cup to the next. Germany may be the third most successful country in international football but try telling that to your average fan of the national side. With Germany’s track record you’d think they’d have learned to take all this success for granted, but they’re still more likely to be amazed by it.
“We are more realistic and less stuck-up than people think we are. Sometimes we expect the team to challenge for the title and sometimes we just hope that the team doesn’t embarrass the country,” says Uli Hesse.
Indeed, even the great Franz Beckenbauer, who has captained and coached his country to World Cup glory, can be left amazed by the indefatigable nature of even the most mediocre Turniermannschaft. Two days before the 1986 final in Mexico City, the Kaiser burst out laughing while talking to a bemused reporter from Der Spiegel and said: “God, can you believe we reached the final of a World Cup with these players?”
But what of the Class of 2010? Can they follow in a long tradition of successful German sides and prove themselves worthy of the tournament team reputation?
Not since the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan has a Germany squad been blighted with so many pre-tournament injuries: the long list of experienced absentees include talismanic captain Michael Ballack and first-choice goalkeeper Rene Adler.
However, a host of talented youngsters – the team’s average age is 25 – have already shown they are prepared to step up, including the highly-rated Werder Bremen playmaker Mesut Özil and Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller. Meanwhile Bayern’s Bastian Schweinsteiger and Stuttgart’s athletic midfielder Sami Khedira appear able to fill out Ballack’s substantial boots just fine.
And after Germany’s 4-0 domination of Australia, it would appear the youth of this year’s squad has helped forge it into a Turniermannschaft capable of playing attractive and effective football that might even win the country its fourth World Cup.