A slow beginning
On the 28th of January 1900, the German Football Association (Deutscher Fußball-Bund, or DFB) was founded in the city of Leipzig by the representatives of 86 domestic clubs. The new association set about organising the complex national club league structure, and joined FIFA in 1904 as the global body’s eighth founding member.
On the 5th of April 1908, an amateur game took place in the Swiss city of Basel between Switzerland and Germany – the first official fixture in what is now over a century in history of German football. The opening goal of the game was scored by Germany’s Fritz Becker, but the home side went on to win the game by five goals to three. It was a somewhat harsh baptism – in the six years between their first match and the beginning of the First World War in 1914 the German national team played a total of 30 matches, winning only six, drawing five and losing nineteen.
The team’s return to international football after the war was once more against Switzerland in June 1920 in Zürich, with the result being much the same as the encounter in 1908 with the Swiss running out 4-1 winners. After seeing only two wins from six matches in 1920 and 1921, the win-draw-loss balance appeared to change: in 1922 as the team went through the year unbeaten in three matches, and after that results slowly began to improve. This probably had much to do with the appointment of a dedicated coach in 1926, with Mannheim schoolteacher Dr. Otto Nerz taking on a role that had previously been filled by a DFB committee.
Between Dr. Nerz’s appointment in July 1926 and the beginning of the qualification rounds for the 1934 FIFA World Cup, the Nationalmannschaft won 20 out of 42 games; in just under ten years, the team had been transformed into one of Europe’s more weaker sides into one that could hope to compete at the top level.
Having missed out on the 1930 World Cup on account of the great depression, Germany’s first tournament appearance in Italy in 1934 showed just how much the team had improved: after demolishing Belgium 5-2 and defeating Sweden 2-1, they reached the semi-finals where they finally succumbed 3-1 to Czechoslovakia. They then defeated neighbours and rivals Austria in the third-place play-off, ripping up the form book against a side that only three years earlier dished out six and five-nil thrashings.
Sepp Herberger and the Breslauer Elf
The success of 1934 gave way to failure in the Olympic tournament at home, where a defeat to unheralded Norway saw the replacement of Nerz with Sepp Herberger. The new Reichstrainer had inherited a team with plenty of potential, and by late 1936 Herberger had assembled a squad that was truly starting to look like world-beaters. After a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands in January 1937, the team went the rest of the year unbeaten, winning ten successive games and scoring 34 goals. After an 8-0 demolition of Denmark in Breslau, the team – led by the excellent Fritz Szepan – was dubbed Die Breslauer Elf – “the Breslau eleven”.
With the 1938 World Cup fast approaching, Herberger clearly looked to better the third place that had been achieved four years previouly, but little was to prepare him for the political interference that would get in the way of team selection and bring about a hasty demise of the Breslauer Elf – and with it Germany’s chances.
The annexation of Austria in March 1938 had led to a number of leading Austrian players being pencilled into a new-look German squad: as Austria had been one of Europe’s strongest sides at the time things looked good on paper, but on the field things were far from that. Following a 1-1 first phase draw with Switzerland, Herberger’s team were soundly dispatched in the replay as the Swiss ran out 4-2 winners. It was Germany’s worst ever display in the World Cup, a competition that they would participate in for another sixteen years.
As the Second World War engulfed most of Europe, Sepp Herberger fought tooth and nail to keep his team together: between September 1939 and the end of 1942 they played thirty-five friendly matches against a range of neutral and pro-Axis countries, but by 1943 playing football matches in such far-flung places as Sofia and Bucharest had become untenable, as was the idea of keeping footballers from their duties at the front. Herberger retained the post of national coach, but there was more football until 1950, when the first postwar German side beat Switzerland 1-0 in Stuttgart.
Der Wunder von Bern and the professional era
Having been excluded from the first postwar World Cup tournament in Brazil, Herberger’s team qualified for the 1954 World cup finals – to be played in the country that had done much to assist in the rehabilitation of German football, Switzerland. By the time the tournament had ended, German football – and some would argue Germany itself – found itself firmly on the path away from the sorrow and depression created by years of conflict. In what soon become known as Der Wunder von Bern – “the miracle of Berne” – Herberger’s team of amateurs came back from two goals down to defeat a seemingly invincible Hungarian team – the famous “magical Magyars” – and claim their first World Cup victory.
Herberger’s side had lost 8-3 to the Hungarians earlier in the tournament, and had not been expected to trouble a team that had been unbeaten and completely dominant for four years. Hungary dominated the opening moments of the game, and when they went 2-0 up inside eight minutes even the most optimistic German supporter must have been praying for a miracle. It looked as though the writing was on the wall for the Mannschaft, but on this rainy July day in Berne those prayers were answered: within ten minutes Germany were level. The second half saw Herberger’s team put under relentless pressure, but with six minutes left Helmut Rahn found the back of the net and created one of those unforgettable sporting moments – a moment that was captured by the emotional commentary of Herbert Zimmermann. When the final whistle blew, the miracle was complete.
The unexpected victory in 1954 was followed by a third-place finish in 1958 in Sweden, before a disappointing quarter-final exit at the hands of Yugoslavia in 1962 signalled the beginning of the end of the amateur era. By the time of the 1966 tournament in England much had changed: after 28 years at the helm Sepp Herberger had resigned in 1964 to be replaced by his assistant Helmut Schön, and Germany finally stepped in line with the rest of Europe in welcoming professionalism and setting up a professional league, the Bundesliga.
With the professional game finally starting to take off in Germany, the national team once more had started to work its way back to the top of the pile. The 1966 World Cup saw them reach their second final, where they fell to a 4-2 defeat to the hosts in extra-time. It was game that will forever be remembered for England’s controversial third goal, where Geoff Hurst’s shot was ruled to be over the line by Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov – known in Germany as the Wembley-Tor. The German team featured a number of up and coming players, including a certain Franz Beckenbauer – a name that would dominate European football for much of the following decade.
1968 was to see Germany’s first attempt at qualifying for the European Championship finals – an attempt that came unstuck at the hands of Yugoslavia courtesy of a goalless draw in Albania: it was the last time the German senior side would fail to qualify for the finals of a major international tournament.
By 1970 Schön’s side had overtaken England in the international pecking order and was fast starting catch up with the likes of Brazil and Italy; after coming from two goals down to defeat the defending champions in quarter-final, the semi-final encounter against the Italians in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca was to see witness what has since been described as the Jahrhundertspiel – the “game of the century” – as the Italians hacked and clawed their way to a 4-3 victory against a heroic German side. Schön’s side went on to claim their second successive podium finish by defeating Uruguay 1-0, and also claimed the tournament’s top goalscorer with Der Bomber Gerd Müller scoring ten goals in five matches.
Helmut Schön’s Supermannschaft of the 1970s
The third-place finish in 1970 was the taster for what would be the finest period in the history of German football. All of the remaining pieces had been put into place, and the team that charged to victory in the 1972 European Championship was arguably the finest German team to walk onto a football pitch. The Soviet Union were swept aside 3-0 in a final that was probably one of the most one-sided in the tournament’s history, but the game that has long been seen as the Nationalmannschaft’s finest display was the first leg of the quarter-final against England at Wembley, where the home side were bossed by Beckenbauer, mesmerised by Netzer and ultimately destroyed by Müller.
Two years later Schön’s squad overcame an uncomfortable start both on and off the pitch to win their second World Cup on home soil, improving with every game and defeating a much-fêted Dutch side in the final after they had fallen behind in the opening minute. Much has been said about the Dutch, but by simply watching the game rather than reading the rather myopic English-language reports one quickly realises that man for man the Germans were just as good as the Oranje if not better, and could easily have won by a larger margin. In little more than a decade after the professional game had taken hold in Germany, the Nationalmannschaft were now World and European champions.
Germany’s dominance could not last forever however. In the 1976 European Championship final against Czechoslovakia the defending champions had once more managed to find their way back into a game they should long since have lost, but after clawing back level from two goals down they succumbed to the Czechs in a penalty shootout – the killing blow coming courtesy of Antonín Panenka’s cheeky chip over Sepp Maier. However even in defeat Germany took something away from the game – they have not lost in a penalty shootout since.
The World Cup in 1978 in Argentina was to see a disappointing end for Helmut Schön, who had planned to retire on a high note. In what was a bizarre second phase qualifying system the Germans had drawn 0-0 with Italy and then 2-2 against the Netherlands after holding a 2-1 lead; with other results going against them, they needed a series of miracles – and a massive win against Austria – to reach the final. In the end they couldn’t even make the third-place play-off, as the Austrians won the game 3-2.
Although Germany’s chances of reaching the final were remote to start with, the defeat was met with derision in Germany, with the match being described as Der Schmach von Córdoba – “the disgrace of Córdoba”. The Austrians meanwhile made the most of their moment of glory, even though they themselves were also heading back home.
Shame, Scandal and the Second Coming of der Kaiser
The defeat in Argentina was to signal the end of an era, and the side that regathered in the autumn 1978 under the stewardship of Jupp Derwall had a completely different look to it. Derwall was more of a pure tactician than his predecessor, and was in a large part responsible for introducing the style of negative style of play that impressed and infuriated in equal measure. Derwall’s side concentrated less on playing sparkling football and more on getting results – a tactic that clearly paid off as Germany went more than two years without defeat, picking up their second European title in the process in 1980 with football that could at the very best be described as functional.
While the results went Derwall’s way the fans were satiated, but when things started to unravel in the early 1980s the path was not so smooth. Derwall’s nadir came during the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where despite taking the team to yet another final both he and his side won few friends with their negative tactics – an approach epitomised by the disgraceful on-pitch “agreement” with Austria – the so-called Schande von Gijón – and the coach’s coldly flippant dismissal of all subsequent criticism. The attitude was much the same following the semi-final against France, a fantastic game of football stained by Harald Schumacher’s clattering of Patrick Battiston.
Any support that the Nationaltrainer had among the fan base had long since evaporated, and when his site were eliminated by a last-minute Spanish goal in the first phase of Euro 1984 the writing was on the wall. Derwall – and his coaching team – were unceremoniously swept out of office.
The departure of Jupp Derwall opened the path to a complete change in approach, with the tried and tested professional coach being replaced by a former player – albeit a great one – with no formal coaching qualifications. When Franz Beckenbauer was appointed Nationaltrainer in the autumn of 1984 a number of establishment and media eyebrows were sharply raised, but by the time he had finished his spell in charge all of those who had dared to break convention had found themselves clearly vindicated. Over the course of six years, Der Kaiser was to transform the team from tournament also-rans into world champions.
Beckenbauer had taken a solid but fairly limited squad to Mexico in 1986, where they slowly improved as the tournament went on. After sleepwalking through the group stages and scoring a last-minute winner against Morocco in the second phase, they defeated the hosts 4-1 on penalties in the quarter-finals before reaching a record sixth final with an excellent 2-0 semi-final victory against France. The final itself saw their best performance of the tournament, where they came back from 2-0 down against red-hot favourites Argentina only to be hit on the break with seven minutes left.
The brave performance in Mexico was followed by an equally heroic failure at home in Euro 1988 when they fell victim to a last-gasp semi-final defeat against the Netherlands, but by the turn of the decade Der Kaiser had finally begun to put the finishing touches to a talented squad.
By the time of the World Cup in Italy in 1990 the Mannschaft were back among the favourites, and kicked off the tournament in blistering style. After scoring ten goals in their three opening group games two more were enough to eliminate arch-rivals the Netherlands in an unforgettable encounter in Milan; a solid quarter-final victory over Czechoslovakia gave way to yet another classic encounter against England which went to the drama of a penalty shootout, before a disappointing final against Argentina that was ultimately settled by Andy Brehme’s 85th minute penalty.
In the end the nature of the final victory mattered little: there was next to no doubt that Beckenbauer’s side – top scorers in the tournament – deserved their third world crown. Beckenbauer thus became the first man to win the World Cup as both a player and coach, and the only man to win the tournament as both captain and coach.
With Franz Beckenbauer departing on the crest of a wave, the baton was passed to his assistant Berti Vogts – as had been the case more than a decade earlier when the same two players had exchanged the captain’s armband. The pressure on Vogts was immense – not only was he inheriting a World Cup winning squad, he also now had the untapped resources from the former GDR at his disposal. Like Beckenbauer, Vogts was widely respected for his time as a player; unlike his predecessor however, he was not happy in front of the press and was at times distant, aloof and standoffish.
Despite taking his team to the runners-up spot at Euro 1992 where they lost to unfancied Denmark, criticism was almost always lurking close behind; the shock quarter-final defeat in the 1994 World Cup by tournament dark horses Bulgaria may well have claimed lesser men, but the man known as Der Terrier fiercely clung on.
Vogts applied the same approach to coaching as he had done as a player – producing the best results when under pressure. Seemingly on his last legs prior to the 1996 European Championship, he masterfully guided the team through the tournament and a third European triumph – overcoming hosts England in the semi-final with yet another memorable penalty shootout and then the Czech Republic in the final courtesy of substitute Oliver Bierhoff’s extra-time golden goal. The heroes of the campaign were defender Dieter Eilts – a man in the Vogts mould – and striker Bierhoff, who repaid the coach’s faith in him by scoring both German goals in the final.
The Euro ’96 victory had set Battleship Berti back on the right course again, to the point where he almost survived yet another World Cup quarter-final catastrophe when his 10-man team were beaten 3-0 by another lot of Balkan dark horses, Croatia. Vogts survived the vote of confidence and actually made it past the finals into the following season, but after a disappointing couple of friendly matches against Malta and Romania he finally decided that enough was enough.
Deutschland in Decline
Berti Vogts may well have bowed out on a sour note, but nothing could have prepared the German public for what followed. Taking on a job that nobody else wanted and inheriting a squad that was almost creaking from old age, Jupp Derwall’s one-time assistant Erich Ribbeck took the helm. With six wins from eight games Germany finished two points clear at top of their qualifying group for Euro 2000, but this was in itself slightly deceptive: in the two games against closest rivals Turkey Ribbeck’s side had claimed only a single point, only to be saved from the play-offs on account of the Turks throwing points away against the group’s weaker teams.
In what was a frightening preview of things to come, Germany’s first outing in the FIFA Federations Cup in 1999 – for which they had qualified as reigning European Champions – was an unmitigated disaster. Fielding a squad full of has-beens, also-rans and journeymen, Ribbeck’s side found themselves on the end of a 4-0 thrashing by Brazil and a first-time defeat to the United States. Their only victory was a workmanlike 2-0 win over minnows New Zealand as they were eliminated in the group phase.
Germany’s European Championship campaign the following year in Belgium and the Netherlands began with a 1-1 draw against Romania – though the opposition could very easily have scored half a dozen had they decided not to fluff almost every opportunity they had in front of goal. This was followed by a dreary encounter against England and a 1-0 defeat, setting up the scene for a catastrophic 3-0 thrashing at the hands of a reserve Portuguese side that had already secured a berth in the quarter-finals. It was perhaps the worst tournament performance by any German side in living memory, and the unfortunate Ribbeck was left to carry the can.
With German football at its lowest ebb for decades, things would would get considerably darker when Christoph Daum – the man who had been lined up as the next Nationaltrainer, found himself caught in the mire of a drugs scandal. It appeared that things could not get any worse: with their long-held place in the world’s footballing elite under serious threat after the woeful display in Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany were slowly turning into something of a laughing stock off the field as well.
The soothing balm of Tante Käthe
Into this void stepped Rudi Völler.
One of the most popular players of his generation, Völler had initially taken a caretaker role as Nationaltrainer, but saw the appointment made permanent after a series of encouraging results. The qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup had begun well: the defeat against England a few months earlier was quickly avenged as the Mannschaft won in what was the last game at the old Wembley stadium, and with six games played Völler’s side were five points clear of the old rivals with two home games to play.
Germany just needed a draw against England in the return fixture in München’s Olympiastadion, but after taking an early lead found themselves being swept aside by a rampant England side that ran in five goals. The 5-1 defeat was the Mannschaft’s biggest reverse at home, and their seemingly guaranteed place at the finals was under threat.
With England beating Albania in an earlier game and scoring a dramatic last-minute equaliser against Greece, Völler’s side found themselves in the play-offs after a miserable goalless draw at home against Finland. It was if the ghosts of the previous year had returned: the team were whistled off the pitch by an angry Gelsenkirchen crowd, and they were once more on the brink. A mere two months earlier Germany had been cruising towards the World Cup finals; they now found themselves facing a two-legged play-off, and the very real threat of missing out on the World Cup altogether. Standing in their way were the Ukraine, a side that was clearly no pushover.
In late 1999 Germany had avoided the play-offs and floated aimlessly into the Euro 2000 finals; two years on, they found themselves two matches away from possible catastrophe. The disaster was not to be: the very real threat of being the first German side to ever miss out on World Cup qualification served as a powerful catalyst as Völler’s side played out a creditable 1-1 draw in the away leg in Kyiv before putting the Ukrainians to the sword in Dortmund. Following a resounding 4-1 win – 5-2 on aggregate – they were on their way to South Korea and Japan.
The 2002 World Cup would see one of the most miraculous German tournament campaigns, as the side that had been destroyed by England and almost embarrassed by Finland somehow made their way through to a seventh World Cup final. After eleven goals in their three group games – including eight against Saudi Arabia – Germany eked out 1-0 wins against Paraguay, the United States and hosts South Korea to set up their first-ever World Cup encounter with favourites Brazil. For much of the game they held their own, only for goalkeeper Oliver Kahn – ironically, the man who had almost single-handedly kept the Mannschaft in the tournament – parried a Rivaldo shot straight into the path of Ronaldo. When Ronaldo scored his second it was all over, but Germany had once more fought their way back to the top.
The qualification campaign for Euro 2004 saw Rudi Völler’s team finish unbeaten and four points clear at the top of their group, but even then things were far from easy. Following media criticism after a disappointing 0-0 draw in Iceland, the Nationaltrainer finally snapped in a live interview. While the media appeared to be sharpening their knives, the former striker – affectionately known as Tante Käthe or “Aunty Katie” on account of his curly grey hair – remained popular with the fans.
After an unlucky opening game in the Euro 2004 finals against the Netherlands which saw the Dutch score an arguably undeserved late equaliser, Germany were held to a goalless draw by a negative Latvia – leaving them having to beat the Czech Republic in their final game to qualify for the quarter-finals. Things looked bright after Michael Ballack had thumped in a stunning opener, but when the Czechs equalised everything was back in the balance. In attempting to chase the game Völler’s side threw everything forward, and were caught on the break by a fast Czech break and Milan Baroš’ clinical finish.
With two points from their three games Germany had been eliminated at the group stage for the second European Championship in a row, and had not won a tournament finals match since the golden goal win in 1996; however the performance was far more encouraging than it had been four years earlier. While in 2000 the team were clearly short of skill, youth and commitment, the 2004 side were if anything short of luck. Rudi Völler was asked to stay on, but felt that his time was up.
The Road to Recovery: The Klinsmann Era
The build-up to the World Cup in 2006 – which would be played in Germany – was to see dramatic changes in the management of German football. Having failed in their attempts to lure the likes of Otto Rehhagel and Ottmar Hitzfeld to take up the post of Nationaltrainer, the DFB then took a completely different path in appointing Rudi Völler’s former strike partner during the late 1980s and 1990s, Jürgen Klinsmann. Like Völler before him – and Franz Beckenbauer in the 1980s – Klinsmann had next to no coaching experience, and was reliant on little more than the respect he had garnered during what had been a stellar career as a player.
What Klinsmann may have lacked in coaching experience was made up by the appointment of the universally respected Joachim Löw as his assistant; While Löw was tasked with team tactics, the charismatic and popular Klinsmann focussed on dealing with the media as well as the implementation of innovative techniques and modern man-management.
While Klinsmann had a clear set of objectives, many of his ideas – from the employment of team psychologists through to the adoption of a red change shirt – caused more than a ruffle of irritation in the corridors of power, and when results started to go against him the knives were quickly drawn.
An encouraging display in the 2005 FIFA Federations Cup was followed by a series of poor performances and results – culminating in a woeful 4-1 defeat in Italy that had put the Nationaltrainer one match away from dismissal. Victory by the same score in the following friendly against the United States would provide Klinsmann with a stay of execution, and subsequently proved to be the turning point in the former Stuttgart man’s short but ultimately successful spell in charge of the Nationalelf.
As the finals approached the home side were given little hope, but within four weeks Klinsmann had been transformed from some crazy guy with his his head in the clouds and one foot in the United States into a national hero. Momentum had started to build as Germany scored eight goals in winning all three of its group games, and continued to gather speed as Sweden were beaten in the second phase and old rivals Argentina were dispatched in a dramatic quarter-final Elfmeterschiessen.
All that stood between the Mannschaft and an incredible eighth World Cup final appearance were perennial tournament bugbears Italy – and it was here that the dream ended with a heartbreaking defeat in extra time. The hard work had been done however, and when Portugal were beaten 3-1 in the third-place play-off German football was something to be proud of again. The memories of the trauma of Rotterdam 2000 and the shock of München 2001 had almost in an instant been washed away.
The DFB tried to persuade Klinsmann to continue with his ongoing work – suddenly, all faith in him had been completely restored – but he chose what was for him the right time to pass things onto the man he himself regarded as the real force behind the team’s success: his assistant Joachim “Jogi” Löw.
Löw aims high
Joachim Löw had never achieved the same heights as a player as his immediate predecessors, but his coaching and man-management abilities had been noted for a long time. Picking up where Jürgen Klinsmann left off, Löw pressed ahead with his plans of reveloping the team – with much of the emphasis being placed on the players working their way through the youth system. Having orchestrated a smooth qualification campaign for Euro 2008, Löw led the team to a fine runners-up spot, coming up short against a Spanish side that was undoubtedly the best team of the tournament.
After the first-round failures in 2000 and 2004 where the team had failed to win a game, the 2-0 win in the opening fixture against Poland was the Mannschaft’s first Euro finals victory for twelve years.
Bouyed by the successful campaign in Austria and Switzerland, Löw and his hand-picked management team continued in their ambition to build for the future. What might have been a testing qualifying group was overcome with a fine unbeaten campaign, though as the finals approached injuries started to take their toll. While previous coaches would have almost certainly looked to names from the past to shore up the squad, Löw instead gambled on the future by picking what was the youngest-ever German squad to play at a major international tournament.
Hungry for success and the polar opposite of the jaded bunch of geriatrics that had threatened to derail the very reputation of German football a decade earlier, Löw’s young team almost achieved the impossible – racking up stunning knockout victories over England and Argentina to set up a semi-final meeting with Spain. Once more the impressive Spanish side proved to be the better team on the day as the Nationalmannschaft once more fell to a single goal, but victory against Uruguay and another podium finish provided the ultimate proof that Löw’s plans were starting to bear fruit.
In 2006 a reinvigorated German nation had fallen in love all over again with their national team; in 2010, the entire world found itself being captivated by this dynamic, refreshing yet truly professional young side. By the turn of 2012, things had got even better with yet further development of the pool of talented young players playing what has been described by some as the new brand of “Total Football” – a combination of solid German professional values spiced with a sense of style usually associated with the great Brazilian and Dutch sides of the 1970s.
Having stormed through their qualifying group with ten wins from their ten fixtures at more than three goals per game, the Nationalmannschaft were hotly tipped to secure a fourth European crown at the 2012 European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine, only for the campaign to end in failure at the semi-final stage once again. Having won all three group fixtures for the first time and dispatching Greece with an entertaining display in the quarter-finals, Löw’s side would fall short against arch nemesis Italy.
Many other nations might have seen three successive podium finishes as a success, but not Germany. Following the semi-final exit in Warsaw in 2012 the pressure was on the German Nationaltrainer to deliver at the FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014 – eighteen years after the country’s last major tournament victory at Euro ’96. The last time Germany had to wait this long would be between their maiden World Cup win in 1954 and their first European Championship title in 1972.
The Circle is Complete: The Fourth Star
Ten years after the ignominious group stage at Euro 2004, the DFB’s plan to take German football back to the summit was complete. On July 13th 2014 at the famous Estádio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, the dream of every German supporter finally come true. After the near-misses of 2006 and 2010 Joachim Löw’s side would triumph in Brazil, and the painful near misses could finally be consigned to the dustbin of history. The road to Rio had presented the occasional bump along the way, but a highly motivated team and a coach who had finally learned to trust his players had finally earned their reward.
Once again Germany had walked through their qualifying group – a bizarre 4-4 draw at home to Sweden being the only real talking point – and would set up camp in Brazil as one of the favourites – but with the likes of holders Spain and South American giants Brazil and Argentina in their way. A 4-0 thrashing of a highly-rated Portugal was followed by a chaotic 2-2 draw against Ghana, and a workmanlike 1-0 win over the United States – where coach Löw would take on his old boss Jürgen Klinsmann – would see the Nationalelf through to the knockout phase.
A tight 2-1 win in extra time over an energetic Algeria helped exorcise some of the demons from three decades earlier, but nobody was overly optimistic ahead of the quarter-final against a French side that had scored ten goals in their four previous games. But it was here that the team, and the coach, finally flicked the power switch. Unlike in 2012, Löw reverted back to a tried and tested method to see off the French by a single goal – before powering past the hosts and pre-tournament favourites Brazil in a match that would forever be remembered by every German supporter.
When Thomas Müller score to give the Mannschaft an early lead, the fire had been lit. Then a second, which saw Miroslav Klose overtake Brazilian Ronaldo as the leading all-time scorer in World Cup final tournaments. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth. Kroos, Kroos, Khedira. By half-time the contest was all but over, but André Schürrle followed this with numbers six and seven in the second half. Brazil had been destroyed on their home turf and it could have even been eight, but in the end Jogi Löw’s team had to settle for a 7-1 win.
Ultimately there was still a final match to go, but that semi-final in Belo Horizonte would quickly become the stuff of legend. It was truly a night to remember, and one of the greatest moments in the long history of German football. It is something can be watched on a loop, again and again and again.
In the same way as older Germans could recall the Wunder von Bern and West Germany’s win over the Magical Magyars in 1954, fifty years from now people will still be talking about how the German team would put put seven past Brazil on their own turf, including an incredible four goals in the space of just six minutes.
The final against Argentina – a repeat of Mexico City in 1986 and Rome in 1990 – was an altogether more cagey affair, but no less dramatic. With the game heading inexorably to the dreaded penalty shootout, twenty-two year old Mario Götze would score a goal fit for the occasion and give the Nationalmannschaft their fourth title – and with it, a fourth star to wear on the Nationaltrikot. After all the near misses, this golden generation and coach Jogi Löw had finally delivered.
The European Championship finals two years later in France saw Löw’s side again eliminated in the semi-finals, finally coming unstuck against hosts France after a solid if slightly unspectacular campaign. Injuries, suspensions and a crucial dose of bad luck more than played their part; while the team of 2016 were admittedly nowhere near the standard of two years earlier, one could only feel that with a little more fortune they would have added a fourth European crown to their long list of titles.
Confederations Cup triumph
In the summer of 2017, Germany added an eighth international title to their four World Cups and three European titles. Leaving all of his experienced players at home, Jogi Löw would take a young squad to the Confederations Cup in Russia, with the primary aim of giving them valuable tournament experience. In what was another highly successful campaign, the young squad would exceed all expectations, defeating a number of more seasoned outfits before overcoming South American champions Chile in St. Petersburg to lift the (slightly smaller) golden trophy for the first time.
It was a continuation of Löw’s remarkable record, where he has led the team to a last four finish or better in every tournament since his becoming Nationaltrainer in 2006. Euro finalists in 2008, World Cup third place in 2010, Euro semi-finalists in 2012, World Cup Winners in 2014, Euro semi-finalists in 2016 and Confederations Cup winners in 2017.
At the time, in terms of pure statistics, Joachim Löw was the most successful Nationaltrainer in the history of the DFB.
Russia 2018: An unexpected nadir
In 2017, German football had climbed right to the very top. The reigning world champions had claimed the Confederations Cup with a squad infused with the next generation of up and coming players, the Under-21 team under Euro 1996 winner Stefan Kuntz had claimed the European crown with a victory over close rivals Spain, and in 2016 Germany had been narrowly denied the gold medal at the Olympics in Rio, falling short in a penalty shootout against hosts Brazil. Effebctively, Germany had the making of not just one but three world-beating squads.
As the clock ticked towards the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, there was a genuine belief that Germany could have been the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil recaptured the Jules Rimet trophy in Chile in 1962.
It was not to be, as German football suffered its most catastrophic year in recent memory.
Nobody could have predicted such a collapse, which spread off the pitch too. Back at the turn of the millennium, German football was in the doldrums – though there were plenty of reasons for that. At the start of 2018, one could not feel anything but optimistic.
Jogi Löw’s team had qualified for the tournament with a perfect record – ten wins from ten matches, dispatching their rivals with ease and netting a total of 43 goals. They were undefeated since the Euro 2016 semi-final loss against France, a run of 22 matches that had equalled the record set by Jupp Derwall’s side in the early 1980s. When this run came to an end with a one-goal defeat in Berlin against Brazil, nobody thought much of it.
What was thought to be a blip was in fact that start of an horrific and sudden decline, but time again again the signs were ignored. Germany had always been a tournament team, and nobody had taken much from pre-tournament warmup games. A first defeat in more than thirty years against Austria was followed by an insipid 2:1 win against Saudi Arabia, and there was a strange vibe about the squad – a complete contrast to the cohesiveness that had defined the successful campaign in Brazil.
The chickens would come to roost in Russia. The reigning champions were unable to switch to their usual tournament mode in their opening match against Mexico, falling to a one-goal defeat. Again, the optimists among us tried to brush this poor form aside. After all, Germany had a reputation of gathering steam in major tournaments, and a group stage defeat was not a rare thing. A tough game against Sweden followed, with Toni Kroos’s dramatic injury-time free-kick seemingly putting the team back on track.
To clinch a place in the last sixteen, Germany would have to see off already eliminated South Korea. Despite the struggle and talk of unrest among the squad, nobody could see anything else but a win. After all, the World Cup is Germany’s tournament: no German team had failed to get out of the group phase for 80 years.
Löw’s men, once again, had left their shooting boots behind. The confidence that we had witness just a year before had gone, and it was like watching a completely different team. With Sweden beating Mexico in the other game the Germans had to win, and as the clocked ticked by they became increasingly desperate. It opened things up for the Koreans, who scored three minutes into additional time to seal the Mannschaft’s fate. Three minutes after that, a desperate foray forward by Manuel Neuer created an opportunity for Son Heung-Min – known to aall Bundesliga fans for his time at Bayer Leverkusen – to run salt into the gaping German wound.
It was hard to comprehend, but Germany were out. The world champions, who had been earmarked to defend their crown and match Brazil’s haul of five tournament wins, had suffered their worst World Cup since that infamous elimination by Switzerland in 1938.
A spiral of despair
The recriminations came thick and fast. Stories of a split in the squad, players having broadband connections cut for playing computer games late into the night, and the ongoing rumblings over the conduct of 2014 hero Mesut Özil following his foolish decision to be photographed with controversial Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the weeks leading up the tournament. It was a toxic mix which German football neither wanted nor needed.
This nonsense continued to rumble on long after German team had arrived back home. Accusations of racism by Özil was followed by his retirement from international football, and the team were unable to counter this on the pitch as the poor run of results continued. The inaugural UEFA Nations League campaign was a disaster, with the Germans finishing at the bottom of their group.
If the results were not bad enough, the coach then decided to ramp things up another notch. Following the 2-2 draw with the Netherlands in Gelsenkirchen – where his team managed to blow a two-goal lead – Löw made the unprecedented decision to effectively end the international careers of three of the stalwarts of 2014: Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller. Two of the FC Bayern München trio had just passed their 30th birthdays, while Müller, leading scorer in the previous two World Cups and a folk hero to many fans, was barely 29.
While it had always been the prerogative of the Nationaltrainer to swap sqaud members around and blood new talent, the decision to jettison three of of the team’s most experienced players was nothing short of bizarre. It mirrored his equally shoddy treatment of Michael Ballack almost a decade previously.
Turning the corner?
Everybody concerned with or for the German national team – administrators, players and fans alike – were glad to see the back of 2018, which had been an unprecedented annus horribilis.
Form would pick up markedly in 2019, as the Nationalelf did enough to secure top spot in their Euro 2020 qualifying group where they edged out their old rivals from the Netherlands.
It was not all plain sailing however, and that meltdown moment was never far away. An encouraging 3-2 win against the Oranje in Amsterdam was undone by a 4-2 defeat in the return fixture in Hamburg, but their were plenty of bright moments too. A move to FC Bayern had done striker Serge Gnabry a world of good, and it was the youngster who would lead a new-look German attack as they looked towards the cross-continental tournament in 2020.
Of course, the Euro 2020 tournament would never happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing Germany have not stepped out onto the pitch since November 2019, when a Gnabry hat-trick spearheaded the team to a 6-1 win over Northern Ireland in Frankfurt.