Old habits

Karsten Blaas & Phil Ball recount how Germany's veterans ran out of steam and argue that Spain's failure was a consequence of their reverting to type

Germany July 4th is a very special day for German football. On that day in 1954 they turned the world upside down by beating the seemingly invincible Hungarians and winning their first World Cup. That victory ushered in a long period of continuous success, including 11 major international finals, two more world titles and three European Championship victories. On the very same day 44 years later this era seems to have come to an end.

XGermany’s 3-0 quarter-final defeat against Croatia was perhaps the hardest setback for this country’s football since the war. It wasn’t just the result – the biggest margin of defeat in 12 years – it was the fact that the German team was outclassed in every possible way. Croatia’s flexible defensive strategy exposed the predictability of German tactics and, what’s more, every Croatian player was technically, physically and mentally superior to his adversary.

Curiously enough, all of this leaves team manager Berti Vogts in a relatively secure position. Unlike four years ago, when he was crucified by the press after the quarter-final defeat against Bulgaria, the serious German media are now concentrating on the obvious problems of German football rather than urging him to leave.

At first sight, this disastrous defeat seems to be due to the high average age of the German team, but this is only half true. Vogts didn’t pick 37-year-old Matthäus, 33-year-old Klinsmann or 32-year-old Kohler because he mistrusted younger players. Vogts went for the “Jurassic Park option”, as the French media put it, simply because there are hardly any youngsters of international quality in German football, and none, probably, who would have done better than the dinosaurs.

And although Vogts’s tactical approach looked extremely limited, old-fashioned and unattractive when compared to the Brazilians, the Dutch or, as it turned out, the Croats, you cannot put all the blame on him either. Despite his utterly boring appearance and his clumsy rhetoric, Vogts is an expert in his field. “German footballers don’t get a good education,” he has been quoted as saying. “I would love to let them play a more modern game, but it wouldn’t work.”

Even before France 98 the writing was on the wall. Germany’s shaky 4-3 home win over Albania in the decisive qualifying match had already revealed many of the team’s problems. Ball control will probably always remain a mystery to some of the men in white, and the traditional 3-5-2 system, with stubborn man-marking and under-developed wing play, is elsewhere only to be found in a museum. The number of successful one-twos during Germany’s five matches in France is still argued about. Some say it was three, others go for four.

The uninspired performances of the team have finally demonstrated that there is something wrong in the structure of German football. The DFB, Germany’s FA, took the national side’s two major titles in the 1990s and various European club victories as proof that Germany was still among the strongest football nations in the world. Blinded by this conviction, they chose to ignore modern tactics or the latest methods of scouting and youth training. While Scandinavian, Dutch and British talents are integrated into a system that gives them a good preparation for top-level football, in Germany a lot is left to chance and luck.

One basic problem is that German youth coaches are often inexperienced or incompetent. In a recent survey it was found out that some 40 per cent of those who train Under-8s or Under-10s haven’t even played football themselves. Well-educated coaches prefer to work with senior teams, not least because they can make a bit of money. PE in schools is traditionally dominated by gymnastics and athletics.

Local and regional youth selectors look for immediate success by picking physically strong rather than technically gifted kids, since in this age group physique mostly beats skill. And they overwhelmingly ignored Berti Vogts’s wish to teach young players modern attacking football. His plan to overcome the old sweeper system and reintroduce wingers was turned down by the employees of his own association.

Those who finally make it into First or Second Division squads are confronted with one major obstacle: the Bosman ruling often makes clubs take the easy option and sign experienced foreign players instead of bringing on youngsters. A Polish or Danish international with over 100 league games can be fitted in immediately, whereas a 19-year-old home-grown player takes time to develop. Consequently, only very few young players make it into the first team.

It is not surprising, then, that Germany’s Under-21 side has failed to make an impact in the past decade. They failed to qualify for the Olympics in Atlanta and were eliminated from the recent European Championships in Romania at the group stage. Oddly, many clubs refused to let their players take part, despite the fact that they didn’t get to play at home either.

It is this generation of players, however, that is supposed to replace the old stars in the next few years. The national side hasn’t changed very much since 1990, but after the disappointing end to France 98 there will be a rash of retirements. At least eight players from Germany’s squad are expected to announce the end of their international careers in the coming weeks.

The future looks uncertain. Vogts was in charge of Germany’s junior teams for 11 years before taking over from Beckenbauer in 1990 and therefore knows the business of recruiting young players. He will be left with the difficult task of forming an entirely new team within a couple of months. Germany’s campaign for Euro 2000 starts in October with games in Armenia and Turkey.  As Vogts said a few weeks ago, “It is quite possible that we might not be able to qualify.” Karsten Blaas


Spain The group of death eventually managed to live up to its title. The Spanish never recovered from Zubizarreta’s error against Nigeria – shades of Arconada against France in 1984. And as Johan Cruyff, writing a daily column in the Madrid-based tabloid Marca so correctly observed, it’s not a question of a lack of quality so much as a lack of psychological strength with the Spanish side.

The Spanish press were reasonably merciful after the Nigeria defeat, since Spain had not played so badly, but were less sympathetic after the Paraguay game. Manager Clemente fielded the willing but immobile Pizzi up front, who, for all his popularity as an honest workaday striker, was never in the same class as Morientes, a point proved too late during the Bulgaria game. Marca once again promulgated its age-old thesis that Clemente deliberately fielded line-ups to annoy the journalists – whatever they (or the country) suggested, the stubborn little Basque would do the opposite, just to stick up the finger. And, for once, it began to look as though there was some substance in the argument. After the Nigeria game Clemente, in a gesture of solidarity with his ageing mate, told journalists that against Paraguay the team would be Zubizarreta plus another ten.

Certain key players just failed to do the business. Raúl, after a poor season with Real Madrid, continued to look out of sorts, Exteberría never quite seemed to fire on all cylinders, and the side lacked invention in midfield, a fact recognised by every bar-stool manager from Coruña to Cádiz, but ignored by the manager. Without Barcelona’s Guardiola the side lacked organization, despite Hierro’s obvious qualities, and Spain’s Gascoigne parallel, the exclusion from the squad of Ivan de la Peña, began to look like a distinctly dodgy decision as the team struggled in vain to break down “plucky” Paraguay.

The writer Jan Morris’s observation that the Spanish, for all their strengths “are not a clever people” and that they are fatally “destined to acts of cruelty against their own kind” fits the post-elimination reaction of the country like a glove. Morris did not mean that the Spanish lacked intelligence, but rather that they have no time for shades of grey. It’s either euphoria or despair here. They are impatient with ambiguity and indecision, and someone has to take the rap. There is little sense of collective responsibility in the Spanish psyche.

Nice though the press tried to be to Zubizarreta, they will never forget his slip, just as the defeat at the hands of Italy in 1994 was the fault of Julio Salinas’s indecision in a one-against-one with the keeper and Arconada’s slip in1984 deprived them of the European crown.

And so it goes on – somebody must be to blame, and luck was not on their side. Raúl’s bluster before the Nigeria game that “Me veo campeón del mundo” (I see myself as a world champion) was an ill-timed phrase that has returned to haunt him horribly. The feeling remains here that the side did not do itself justice. The way Spain swiped aside Bulgaria showed what they were truly capable of, but in the end, the press preferred to dwell on the rumour that Nigeria’s keeper Peter Rufai was bought off, confirming yet again the nation’s inability to come to terms with its own failures and to learn constructively for the future. Phil HallX

From WSC 138 August 1998. What was happening this month