History Hangs on
German football coach Joachim Löw believes Germany
are not among the favourites to win Euro 2020.
Just before Euro 1980 in Italy, no pundit ever risked putting pennies on West Germany’s Jupp Derwall’s young men who then went on to win it in style. With hooliganism, racism and post-Brexit politics very much on the menu this time around, this June’s tournament might just as well be a reminiscent of that year.
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The tournament has often been the platform for the continent’s smaller nations to humble more traditional powers. From Denmark in 1992 to Greece in 2004, the competition’s history is graced with fairytale-like stories of underdogs punching above their weight.
Before the European Championship in Italy in 1980, for instance, Belgium had won just two matches in international tournaments. Qualification often seemed a challenge in itself, until a golden generation of players evolved into a team able to compete with the very best.
Looking at the tournament’s history purely through the prism of European football — or even of the rise of possession football — misses a lot of the nuances of what has happened in German football (or Fußball in Germany). And this year’s big show is no exception either, particularly for a never-out-of-favour footballing nation — at least not for their big football fan, Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose conservative Christian Democratic Union party is currently facing a crisis management.
However, there is still one field in which Germans don’t excel: in global politics, the country is a secondary power. Its army is far smaller than that of France and Britain, and shows little interest in changing that. In June 2018, just days after America admonished Europeans for not doing enough on global security, the German parliament voted to cut its defence budget by around €800 million (over $800 million).
So will Germany’s win at Euro 2020 alter our reluctance to take the lead?
Footballing success does not, of course, have much to do with either economic performance or political clout. Just look at Spain, whose team dominated world football during one of the worst crises of their history. Brazil, despite some woeful performances this year, are still the most successful international team but they have not exactly been a political giant for most of their existence. But football does have the power to change a country’s self-perception and, consequently, the way it conducts itself on the world stage. The relaxed and inclusive patriotism on show at the joyous 2006 World Cup in Germany took observers — including many Germans — by surprise, and ushered in a new image of the country that was not dominated by Auschwitz and SS uniforms. For the first time, foreigners didn’t ask awkward questions about the war, but complimented them on their hospitality and the beauty of their cities.
Still, hosting or even winning a major tournament will — rightly — not banish the guilt of the Holocaust or the memory of two lost world wars. These experiences have made the Germans politically risk-averse and explain why down-to-earth (some would say downright boring) politicians, such as Mrs. Merkel and Helmut Kohl, have prevailed. What’s more, with an economy driven by exports, it has a vested interest in not offending nations who buy from them, and strong leaders will commonly upset. So, because of its history and out-of-sheer self-interest, Germany is unlikely to step up and become a global leader. This is a good thing, for both Germany and the world.
Mrs. Merkel herself is a team player who abhors grandstanding. Solitary actions, such as David Cameron’s doomed attempts to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as European commission president, are alien to her. And while the British press likes to paint Mrs. Merkel as Europe’s ‘iron Frau’, she is not an all-powerful leader, irrespective of Germany’s economic power. As in modern football, there is no longer a place for solitary leaders in today’s global order, with China, India and Brazil emerging as new powers. Germany, which lost the title of Exportweltmeister (world champion exporter) to China in 2009, is particularly aware of this.
As the Iraq war disaster has shown, nothing good ever comes from a country overestimating its resources, influence and leadership. Today’s world lacks not leadership, but good team work. It may be less inspiring than one mighty nation dominating the field, but ultimately, like the squads built around Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, such orders and the political deals they create are fragile constructs. The team will always be stronger.
This year, although ‘team tournament’ (an old football commentators’ cliché) Germany might have finished top of their qualifying group and lost only once in 2019, they are not going to give anything for granted next summer. Given that the team is in the first stages of a new cycle of development, this is exactly where Germany should be.
Both Coach Joachim Löw (fondly nicknamed ‘Jogi’ back home) and Germany, which have already three trophies under their belt since 1972, have recovered somewhat from the debacle in Russia two years ago. An under-pressure Löw, who was put to the sword by the local media, then forced to make changes to the faces in the squad and the style of play, and as the 24-team tournament looms, it is clear this new Germany have taken that first step in their rebuild.
Löw’s attempt to get Germany playing more transitional football rather than the heavy, possession-based approach that cost them so dearly in Russia is gradually paying off. The recent swatting away of weaker opposition is important for team unity and pushes the wobbles from early in the year further from memory.
Nevertheless, the team’s evolution remains in its early stages. Injuries have hampered Löw’s ability to develop more than a core, and it takes time to get a new group playing a new style of football — especially after such a tumultuous 18 months.
The pre-tournament test matches against Spain and Italy in March will serve as a key building block towards Germany’s chances of challenging for the 16th European Championship, when Löw — or whoever heads the national team then — will look to have a group of players at their peak. Until then, Germany are short of quality in defence and still developing their ability to -play a new style of football. Individual talent could lead them to a spot in the final — much to the surprise of pundits — as they did so in 1980.
And yet Löw, who walks five kilometres every morning, insists his team will not be one of the tournament favourites, such under-statements have always been the genetic part of every coach in Germany. Yet, with his team virtually qualified for Euro 2020, marathon man Löw already knows the pressure to perform at a major tournament will only get greater — but the coach is trying to keep expectations low.
Although it feels like ‘Jogi’ has been the football manager for eternity, that hasn’t been the case exactly. Like all other coaches, he was once a player himself and had won four caps for the German U-21 side. He played for many clubs including Eintracht Frankfurt, FC Schaffhausen and VfB Stuttgart and is the top-scorer in the history of second-division club SC Freiburg.
With Euro 2020 fast-approaching, time and his long coaching career are not a luxury on the side of the 60-year-old as he looks to try and turn Germany more of a finished product and less a work in progress. Facing more pressure to deliver now than he when he first took the role in 2006, the Black Forest native’s legacy is on the line and 2020 is set to be a defining year.
The writer is a London-based freelance writer focusing on politics, feminism, fashion, cinema and sport. She can be reached at