In world soccer, stereotypes of national style serve as crutches for casual observers. Spain's sultry short-passing game is soccer perfection. The English are full of derring-do but lack confidence. Argentina are rich with talent but too neurotic to win.
The Germans were long considered to be masters of joyless, mechanical soccer, with function not just dominating form, but leaving it for dead. Yet watching them over the last 18 months has been a revelation as they’ve lately, and quietly, broken with their mold: big wins over England (4-1) and Argentina (4-0) at the 2010 World Cup using a revamped formation and young, quick squad, finishing third; a perfect 10-0-0 in Euro 2012 qualification; and confident exhibition victories against Brazil (3-2) and Holland (3-0) with an even younger, more experimental team.
“Classic" Germany–the one defined by square-jawed, stoic demigods like Lothar Matthaus, Berti Vogts, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Michael Ballack, and the downright frightening Oliver Kahn–is dead, and pleasingly so. The spontaneous combustion of the new class–Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, and Lukas Podolski swarming in support of Miroslav Klose in the penalty area, with Mario Gotze unleashing his jet-heeled brilliance coming off the bench–seems wholly un-German compared to the controlled explosions of Ballack and Co. But when viewed in context of the system that created them, it feels natural. Compared to the natural ease of Spanish soccer or the fiery genetics of Brazil, the Germans solved their soccer stagnation at the turn of the 21st century with a typically left-brained Teutonic approach to a right-brain problem, the end result being a team drilled in the art of individualism. Where German teams used to collapse so predictably if their Plan A faltered, they’re now so well schooled in self-expression from an early age that their in-game possibilities seem limitless.
And yet, though Die Mannschaft seem comfortable favorites for next summer’s European Championships – maybe even the 2014 World Cup, too -- their stylistic revolution is largely lacking in media love or fawning Twitter hashtags. Is it because, next to Spain and Holland, they still seem comparatively uncool? (Though don’t deny swarthy Gerd Muller’s 70s sex appeal.) Or is it that the world is merely waiting to see it result in a trophy, seemingly the last criterion in the debate between good to great? Whatever the oversight, their evolution from a squad of humorless automatons to vibrant expressionists has taken nearly a decade to bloom and is arguably the most exciting show in world soccer today.
Let’s begin with the style. The first thing that leaps out when watching Germany is their speed. After several years of being seduced by Spain’s mellifluous, patient, pass-heavy approach that fatigues opponents and lulls them into mistakes, the rate at which Ozil glides downfield is an epiphany. Where Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez pressure and choke opponents, the Germans strike with dizzying, disorienting pace, a scorpion in a sport full of boa constrictors. Bastian Schweinsteiger, once an attacking fulcrum further downfield, is now a deep-lying general trusted with spraying passes and orchestrating movement. Mueller is the great x-factor, a two-footed, play-anywhere dynamo praised by everyone from Wayne Rooney to German captain Philipp Lahm (himself an intelligent, bombastic wing-back) for his versatility, pace, soccer instincts, and goalscoring nous.
Some of this dynamism traces back to Jurgen Klinsmann, who brought his SoCal-dwelling lateral thinking to the job in 2004. Klinsmann placed a premium on personalized fitness regimes and infusing speed of thought and motion to a team stuck in a rigid, slow-tempo style. In the years since, his former assistant, Joachim Low, has advanced this work since taking over in 2006 into its mesmerizing current form. Their formation has evolved over time, too, complementing their revamped style – a tectonic shift from a flat, boring 4-4-2 (soccer’s age-old default) to a more modern 4-2-3-1 in which four defenders and two holding midfielders cover D, allowing three quick, gifted attacking midfielders to service and support a striker– but despite that many teams now favor this shape, the German riff on it is pure fun, elevated by the motion of its front four. The fluid interplay and off-the-ball runs of Ozil , Mueller, Podolski, and Klose – constantly swapping positions and attacking responsibilities almost telepathically -- cause nightmares for defenders drilled in the art of guarding pre-defined space as opposed to specific players.
But the innovation never stops: in a November 11 game against Ukraine, Low debuted a fresh look: a 3-4-2-1, popularized by SSC Napoli, in which two “wing-backs” are responsible for defense and attack in wide positions, either cycling back to aid three central defenders or bombing forward to support the main striker (something Philipp Lahm manages with aplomb). Oh, and they doubled-down on razzle-dazzle with Gotze and Ozil side-by-side. Suddenly, Low had another formation he could deploy whether chasing or controlling a game.
Their freedom and tempo derives from the abundance of youth in their team (average age of their 2010 World Cup squad: a spritely 25). Yet the man trusted with finishing his teammates’ hard work up front is the elder statesman, Miroslav Klose, a 33-year-old bridge to the past who scores prolifically for club and country (8 in 13 for new club Lazio, and 63 in 113 for Die Mannschaft).
Such quirks aren’t confined to age gaps, either: defensive midfielder Sami Khedira is German-born with a Tunisian father; Podolski and Piotr Trochowski were born in Poland and moved to Germany as infants; wiry winger Marko Marin is a Bosnian-Serb; defenders Dennis Aogo and Jerome Boateng are German-Nigerian and German-Ghanaian; Ozil’s a third-generation Turkish-German, all of them bringing their own flourishes and diverse life experiences to a team schooled in playing aggressive, artful soccer from an early age. (Ozil even describes his qualities down ethnic lines: "My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game… The discipline, attitude and always-give-your-all is the German part.")
This mélange of Germanic power and multiethnic prowess derives from the soccer academy system, which was overhauled a decade ago to not just create finishing schools for talented teens, but as a means of integrating foreign styles and attitudes into German culture. In 2010, a survey estimated that roughly 80 nationalities or ethnic groups were represented throughout the German youth soccer system. It wasn’t always this harmonious, but the drafting of revised immigration laws in 2000 signaled a cultural shift that spread to soccer once foreign flair began to flood the academies.
None of these reforms could have happened without a wake-up call, though, and the roots of the German rebirth are familiar to many of the best sports reinventions: utter humiliation. Coach Erich Ribbeck took a squad in decline (average age: 30 years old) to the 2000 European Championships and got embarrassed in the opening round, finishing dead last in their group. Instead of flagellating themselves and pointing fingers, the Deutscher Fussball-Bund (German soccer's ruling body) found that the players weren’t the problem so much as the developmental system that birthed them.
The 2000 team wasn’t a side rich with verve and silky skill, but a rigid collective dominated by paint-by-numbers functionality and rendered utterly bamboozled by the deft skill and trickery of Portugal’s Rui Costa, Joao Pinto, and the divine on-the-ball wizardry of Luis Figo. Even the stodgy English had enough youth and trickery in David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Paul Scholes to glide past their storied rivals, whose ineffectual play had a simple cause: there were few good players ready to take over the national team.
The country internal structure helps explain. In the 1990s, German club teams were flush with money but blew it all on the ultimate unsustainable resource: flown-in, here-for-the-trophies-and-big-paydays foreign talent. With funding for specialized sports schools declining after 1990's World Cup win–Teutonic hubris, post-reunification–fewer German players were able to turn pro, their paths blocked by brand-name imports. From 1992 to 1997, the number of foreign players in the German domestic leagues (Bundesliga I. and II.) leapt from 17 percent to 34 percent, reaching a peak of 60 percent in 2002-03. (By comparison, the English Premier League, long regarded as the world’s best, still boasted 62-percent overseas players as of last weekend.)
With so much money being wasted on transfer fees, the DFB concluded that future generations were being squeezed out. Inspired by the French academy at Clairefontaine that led to Les Bleus winning the 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euros, the DFB drew up plans for 121 national talent centers across Germany–sizable investments at $15.6 million to build and run over five years–and required all 36 Bundesliga clubs to build their own grassroots youth academies, each mandated to follow strict guidelines (including squad size, number of fully-licensed coaches, and even the number of dedicated fields for academy use) to ensure structure, continuity, and success.
Though the academy system is nothing new–feeder clubs like Ajax's "De Toekomst" ("The Future") and Barcelona's La Masia have been in existence for decades, birthing steady streams of Messis, Xavis, Cruyffs, Bergkamps, and Sneijders–the scale of the DFB’s project means that many modern-day Bundesliga academies are now better-run and better-funded than most Major League Baseball farm systems. Stuttgart’s head of youth development oversees an annual budget of $5 million. Eintracht Frankfurt’s academy facility stretches over four square miles, including an apartment complex for talented, non-local players. Bayer Leverkusen's "Elite School of Sport" accommodates 160 boys (with a support staff of 80) from 8 to 19 years old, replete with weight-lifting rooms, round-the-clock physiotherapy facilities, and a fleet of buses takes the various youth teams across more than 600,000 miles per year to compete. Extrapolate that commitment across every pro team, and Germany has created mini-empires devoted to training up and honing impressionable youth into free-wheeling soccer excellence. In 2009-10 alone, the 36 pro clubs spent a combined $100m on youth development, "a higher proportion of income than any other league," which serves as an obvious, and justified, point of DFB pride.
All teams are cyclical in nature, but national squads differ from domestic clubs in that they can't simply buy talent and slot it in. As such, international soccer feels the generation gap more intensely. But the German plan is specifically designed to counter the natural ebb and flow between eras by acting as a machine that doesn’t produce just one bankable David Beckham, but entire squads. The blossoming of New Germany couldn’t be better timed, either, with their biggest European rivals struggling in different ways. England squandered their “Golden Generation” and has just Jack Wilshere to look forward to in the next decade. Spain’s dazzling midfield suffers a dearth of strikers after their number one, the elusive David Villa, suffered a broken leg in the Club World Cup, easily the world’s most extraneous tournament. France is still a disjointed, dysfunctional mess in the wake of their 2010 World Cup mutiny, the Dutch aren’t fully-formed, and Portugal is too reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo to build a defense.
Though early headlines about Euro 2012 have fixated on the negative–fears about travel infrastructure, the widespread culling of stray dogs to clean up Ukrainian streets, or FEMEN protests regarding reports that sex tourism and prostitution will be tacitly accepted when soccer fans descend on Kiev–Germany’s evolution serves as a rapturous, feel-good counterpoint, filled with the kind of artistry that will have commentators exhausting their platitudes in tribute all summer long.