In four years the previous european champions have turned into a laughing stock. Peter Schimkat investigates the German malaise
Germany were neither the worst team at Euro 2000 (Denmark) nor the most boring one (Norway), though it has to be admitted that we ran both of them pretty close. What’s more, it was clear to everyone that this was not an isolated failure. Following the defeat by England, nobody gave a damn about that match. Everyone was far more interested in discussing what had gone so horribly wrong in the last couple of years.
There were one or two reasons to look on the bright side. Our mauling by Portugal’s B-team emphatically dispelled the eternal accusation that a German national side always favours ruthless efficiency over entertainment value. And the events of recent weeks will hopefully ensure that Lothar Matthäus never becomes national team manager.
Yet it still feels like the laws of nature have suddenly been turned upside down. Even looking for a scapegoat has proved to be a thankless task. While no one questions the fact that Erich Ribbeck doesn’t have a clue about football, everybody had known this for years, and Ribbeck himself never tried particularly hard to hide it either. But while his almost equally hapless predecessor Berti Vogts at least made a valiant attempt to ride the storms and cling to his seat, Ribbeck resigned straight away.
Unfortunately, no investigation of Ribbeck’s employers – the geriatric inner circle of the DFB (German FA) – has yet got off the ground, though it is desperately needed. The reason for this is enshrined in the peculiar nature of the German football media. While there is a huge amount of infighting on the surface (Bild v the other tabloids, the tabloids v the quality press, Bayern Munich v Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern and Bayer v the rest of the Bundesliga, and Franz Beckenbauer v anybody whenever the mood hits), the people involved are actually all chums and go out of their way to make this known.
The personal links between the media and the DFB are ludicrously intimate as well, neatly emphasised by the fact that our premier football magazine, Kicker, is run by the former press officer of the DFB. Needless to say, what was once the German equivalent of France Football is now on a level alarmingly close to Shoot.
Partly as a result of such incestuous relationships, it suits everyone to blame the current failings of German football on the lack of new talent. The average age of German squads has indeed been amazingly high, but our national media has been reluctant to look at the real explanations for this phenomenon.
It all started with Berti Vogts. Throughout his eight years in charge of the national team he declared himself keen to give the youngsters a chance. What this meant in practice was allowing them to rub shoulders with the established stars (though always publicly reminding them of their place) and then blaming the newcomers when things started to go wrong.
The first victim of the Vogts approach was the Frankfurt libero Manfred Binz, who, having been virtually ever present after the 1990 World Cup, was axed in the middle of Euro 92 and never recalled. Binz began a trend which outlasted Vogts’s reign, as Wolfsburg’s Zoltan Sebescen can testify. Introduced to the national side in the infamous pre-Euro 2000 defeat by Holland, he was singled out for ridicule by manager and media alike, and has not been picked since.
Even the few players who did get a foothold usually had to wait on the subs’ benches. Mario Basler may be a nutcase, but being asked to spend year after year watching the much less gifted Andreas Möller putting in a series of lame performance would have been testing to the most amiable of characters.
Oliver Bierhoff, first called up in the months before Euro 96, was clearly a class act, but Berti wasn’t convinced and later admitted that it was only at his wife’s insistence that Bierhoff made the squad. Not that Berti made much use of him in England either. Thanks to injuries and suspensions he was down to three fit subs for the final – guess who was the last one thrown in.
But while Vogts lost touch with reality only gradually, Ribbeck didn’t have any sensible ideas to start with. It was obvious he was to be employed for his considerable PR qualities, while the real work was done by his assistant, the tactically astute and very outspoken former international Uli Stielike, who tried very hard (but in vain) to hide his ever-rising suspicion that his boss was a complete prat. Shortly before Euro 2000, however, Ribbeck suddenly replaced Stielike with the remarkably unsuccessful Horst Hrubesch, who had been sacked by every one of his previous clubs.
The successful approach of the qualifiers, with two wide players and one central striker, was ditched. Winger Oliver Neuville (the type of player we supposedly don’t have any longer) was deemed surplus to requirements. Courtesy of Bierhoff’s injury, Bild’s preferred pairing of Carsten Jancker and Ulf Kirsten finally got the nod against England, with predictable results. Players were used out of position in a way even Graham Taylor wouldn’t have contemplated. Thomas Hässler was recalled for two matches but benched in the one where his technical skills might have made a difference. What Matthäus was doing there at all (apart from leaking stories to Bild) was completely beyond me.
While nobody denies that the team got exactly what it deserved, turning things around in time for a reasonable showing at Euro 2004 should not be too difficult for a decent manager. The World Cup is a trickier prospect. In fact, a number of senior football figures have suggested that it should not be taken that seriously at all, even at the risk of not qualifying. In its current mood, the nation might actually relish a break.
From WSC 162 August 2000. What was happening this month