Saturday 25 October ~
There’s been something not quite right about the German team these past couple of years. It has nothing to do with its more positive, attacking approach and uncharacteristic outbreaks of flair during important games, all things to be welcomed by the discerning neutral. It’s been more the uncanny calm and harmony supposedly at play in the team camp ever since Jürgen Klinsmann introduced as part of his team preparations all kinds of Californian-influenced flam like psychologists and statues of Buddha. It was never a fully convincing fit for a country that has produced an endless stream of gifted but arrogant, outspoken and sometimes just plain unpleasant players who were never slow to criticise managers, team-mates or fans. The rhetorically hostile tradition of the likes of Stefan Effenberg, Lothar Matthäus, Andy Möller, Franz Beckenbauer and Günter Netzer could surely not be cast aside by lighting a few candles and murmuring the perceived wisdom of fake gurus.
Thanks goodness for team captain Michael Ballack, capped 89 times, who this week broke the unnaturally imposed silence to heavily criticise the selection policies of Klinsmann’s successor and former assistant, Joachim Löw. Ballack is an old-style German player who, despite his on-field gifts, does not naturally endear himself to either fans or team-mates. His beef with Löw follows a media-fuelled fight with Löw’s assistant Oliver Bierhoff that ran for several weeks this summer after Ballack objected to the latter’s order at the end of the Euro 2008 final to go over and thank the German fans. Ballack, who’s suffered a fair number of defeats in major finals, was not minded to, as Margaret Thatcher might once have put it.
As a Chelsea and former Bayern Munich player rarely associated with genial smiles and an accessible manner, Ballack may not enjoy widespread love. He was, however, articulate enough to state his case against Löw’s benching of friend and international midfield colleague Torsten Frings, and to show that he “well understood” the frustration of striker Kevin Kuranyi, who left the recent Germany v Russia game in a huff at half-time because he had not even been selected for the subs’ bench. Löw subsequently banned Kuranyi from the team, and even after a personal apology from the Schalke player said he would stick with his decision. In the face of Löw’s stated policy that he will only pick players on form, Ballack believes “respect and loyalty are the least that you can expect as an established national team player.” If past form at the highest level is no longer a criterion for selection, Ballack asked, “what direction are we heading in?”
The German FA didn’t react by addressing Ballack’s point, it merely condemned his having spoken out at all as “absolutely inappropriate,” in the words of president Theo Zwanziger. “In the interest of the success of the team, the authority of the national team coach must have the highest priority,” Zwanziger added. But where’s the fun in that? The German media has speculated all week that Löw will have little choice but to banish Ballack from the German team just as he did Kuranyi, and commentators have largely judged Ballack’s comments as a provocation. Latest reports signal that the two have talked on the phone to arrange a crisis meeting, which Löw has insisted must take place in Germany. Given the tone so far, compromise and unity seem a distant prospect.
And that is surely how it should be. Like their Dutch counterparts, German players boast a proud history of intra-team conflict that may not be ideal for communally holding hands at breakfast, but reflects a football culture that is vibrant, competitive and studded with brilliant individuals. While Löw would be well within his rights to push Ballack out in the interests of team harmony, he would be turning his back on the kind of dynamic that often drives successful teams. Any kind of harmony among 22 randomly selected grown men is in any case going to be spurious, but for the sake of the public you can always pretend it’s there. But you can’t get away with pretending that you have 22 footballers capable of performing at international level and winning the World Cup. Ian Plenderleith