12 July ~ When Nottingham Forest's 42-game unbeaten League run came to an end with a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool in November 1978, Forest manager Brian Clough stood at the Anfield tunnel and applauded the players off the field. In a post-match interview, he was praised by the BBC reporter for his sporting attitude towards the victorious Liverpool side. Clough chastised the reporter for his erroneous assumption. "I wasn't applauding Liverpool," is approximately what I remember him saying. "I was applauding my lads. They just went unbeaten for a year, don't you think they deserve it?"
There's no such generous praise for the German's women team in their domestic media after their 12-year unbeaten record in the Women's World Cup came to an end with a quarter-final defeat against Japan at the weekend. There's little or no tribute to the fact that they won the World Cup twice in succession, and that they've been European champions now a total of seven times. You're only as good as your last win in Germany, and its football media has fully exercised its freedom to criticise, just as it relentlessly flails the men's team for anything that approaches an under-par performance.
Harsh as the critiques may be, Germany's fervently free press never fails to throw up worthwhile points of discussion, as though to make up for all its past epochs of censorship. With only one gutter rag on the market (Bild), the quality regional papers boast a wide array of football writers who would never expect to be ostracised by a club for, say, asking awkward questions or writing critical columns. That environment of hard, realistic analysis has been reflected in the lack of sentimentality at Germany's unexpected exit.
Peter Ahrens of Spiegel Online blamed the German defeat partly on the German FA's relentless hype. "The DFB wanted to have its cake and eat it: it wanted to perfectly market the players and the tournament, and at the same time have the maximum sporting success." But when it came to winning the most important game, "long balls were smacked into the box again and again, gambling on the physical inferiority of the Japanese combined with our superior strength in the air. When that didn't work, a great vacuum opened up: there was no Plan B." Ahrens questioned the wisdom of having extended coach Silvia Neid's contract to 2016 just four days before the start of the tournament.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung retrospectively found that all-pervasive complacency was at the root of Germany's exit. "This World Cup was supposed to lift women's football [in Germany] to new dimensions," wrote Michael Horeni. "The triumph was already scripted into the production, and was constituent to the success of the whole plan. And this plan contained no scenario excluding Germany from the final." Germany's failure, he went on, illustrated how much the norms have shifted in women's football, and that the show had become bigger than the actors who thought they were in the starring roles.
Markus Völker in the Tageszeitung expanded on that theme, noting: "There are no more hopeless outsiders, the underdogs are baring their teeth." That, he said, was the new order, and rightly so. "We're watching the best Women's World Cup ever. That is, above all, football. At last! Because football is also about not knowing how the game will end. Women's football has become more unpredictable." Claudio Catuogno echoed that in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: "That the world champions are not Germany every time shows how competitive women's football has become. All disappointment aside, it's proof of a new quality."
But before we get too touchy-feely, here was Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online with the knives out for Neid. The coach had the team available for three months of preparation, something men's coach Joachim Löw "can only dream of. Such a long time in the barracks demands clever leadership. Yet Neid is seen as over-strict, mistrustful, and cultivating a climate of control, even of fear. Creativity has to fight its way out. Did any single player show any further development at this World Cup?"
It's sometimes hard to read the German sports press without thinking they're a bunch of hyper-critical whiners who just don't know how lucky they are. All those World Cups and European championships, for both women's and men teams, and they're still never happy. But the kind of heavily introspective, forward-looking, free-thinking football writing rarely attained by most British papers, with the notable exception of the Guardian, is crucial to a vibrant and constructive discourse about the nation's biggest sport, and nothing but beneficial to the game. It's only one factor behind Germany's ongoing success at the top level, but any fondness for dwelling on past triumphs will always be usurped by the desire for continued progress. As legendary German coach Sepp Herberger's deceptively simplistic truism famously stated: "After the game is before the game." Ian Plenderleith