Mourinho’s white flag: Robert Huth
1. They’re too home-based
Most of the world’s best footballers earn their living in one of three domestic leagues: Spain’s La Liga; Italy’s Seria A; and the English Premiership. In other words, Germany’s Bundesliga is not one of them. Today you don’t expect the likes of Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund or Bayer Leverkeusen to be there in the final four of the European Champion’s League, never mind win the thing. So what’s this got to do with the World Cup?
Well, if you compare the current squads of the last tournament’s finalists, you’ll notice that pretty much of all of the Brazilian squad plays in one of those three leagues (perhaps one or two Bundesliga and Dutch Eredivisie players will make the cut). By contrast only two of the current German squad play outside of the Bundesliga — second-choice goalkeeper Jens Lehmann of Arsenal, and Chelsea clogger Robert Huth (who is like Jose Mourinho’s equivalent of the boxing coach’s towell, tossed into the game as a late substitute when he knows he’s beaten). If Coach Klinsmann has the sense to pick Liverpool’s own Didi Hamman, which currently seems unlikely, that would make three. And the only Bundesliga player attracting a major bid from the Big Leagues now is Michael Ballack, who on his day can be a midfield match winner but somehow lacks the majesty of a Lothar Matthaus (who, incidentally, at his peak was earning his wage at Italy’s Inter Milan, along with legendary striker Karl-Heinz Rummenige). Carsten Ramelow? Torsten Frings? Sebastian Deisler? Germany today simply doesn’t have the players that strike fear into their opponents. It’s a long-term trend. (More on this below.)
2. They Haven’t Been Tested in Real Competition
As hosts, they didn’t have to qualify for the tournament, so for the past four years they have been playing only friendlies, which these days are a bit of a joke. And frankly, they were fortunate to make the final last time around; they hardly looked like world beaters in Korea.
3. They Don’t Have a Serious Coach
Jurgen Klinsmann was a useful striker (although he was no Rummenige), but he’s never coached at club level. He’s taken on the German national team while continuing to live in sunny California. It’s hard to imagine him inspiring the sort of respect from the players that your typical Bundesliga authoritarian, such as a Otmar Hitzfeld or even some of the more established names of German football such as Beckenbauer, could command.
4. Yes, They’re at Home, But…
So are the Dutch. And the French. And Italians. And Poles. Hell, even the English will feel at home: Europe is very, very small, and all the European teams can expect masses of support in the stadium every time they play.
5. Where’s the Hunger?
This is the long-term effect I was referring to above. By way of illustration, consider the fact that Sebastian Deisler spent most of last season out injured, depriving Bayern of the services of the most exciting young prospect in German football. His ailment? Depression. I have a feeling that depression, when it strikes Brazilian footballers at all, usually sets in only after they’re rich and famous and fat, and their careers are going off the boil as the tabloids pile on.
Call me essentialist, if you like, but I tend to think that there’s a certain class context to the production of soccer talent. Sure, great players can emerge from any class, but the general trend is that the combination of skill, strength, hunger and imagination that it takes to become a professional at the highest level is more prevalent among the more disenfranchised elements of society. A route out of povery, like boxing or basketball.
Watching kids start playing soccer here in the U.S. I’ve been struck by the fact that every kid brings their own ball. I’m pretty sure that when Ronaldinho was a kid in the favela, there was only ever one ball. And so when he managed to knick it off the feet of some rival, he quickly honed his abilities — the trickery, guile, exquisite ball control and the strength to ride out even the most brutal of playground tackles — to make sure he was going to keep that ball. Wait, we’re getting side tracked here.
My basic point being that Germany today is a kind of depressive middle class society, and its half century at the top of the global game may be coming to a close.