“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end the Germans always win.”
England striker Gary Lineker coined this soccer proverb in 1990, and it’s been true for about 30 years in either direction of its first utterance. Since shedding global pariah status and returning to international competition at the 1954 World Cup, Germany and its antecedent, West Germany, has qualified for 17 consecutive World Cups, advancing past the group stage 16 times, to the semifinals 12 times, and to the final eight times, where it’s won four times. At the European Championships, at which West Germany made its first appearance in 1972, Die Mannschaft has been similarly successful: 12 consecutive qualifications, nine semifinal appearances, three wins, and three silver medals.
The totality of postwar German soccer paints a picture of unrelenting dominance, methodical and consistent enough to invite the obvious national stereotypes. But there have been hiccups along the way. The last two have bookended the national team tenure of Joachim Löw, who’ll be leaving the national team setup after 17 years of service, 15 of them as manager. That makes him the longest-serving Germany manager since World War II.
International soccer is an unpredictable business. Club teams contest as many as four major competitions each season (five if you count the handful of teams that make the Club World Cup), all of them with months of run-up time to iron out awkward bounces, inconvenient injuries, and bad luck. National teams get one shot every two years—at best—and their major competitions last just seven games over one month. Squad composition is a volatile and inexact science, and player development is subservient to what goes on at the club level. Practice time is extremely limited, leaving no time to learn and drill complicated systems. Moreover, there’s no free agency or transfer market to fill in deficiencies as they emerge, and even a country as large and soccer-mad as Germany sometimes springs a hole in its roster.
So most major countries operate on a revolving door of managers, with the national team appointment serving mostly as a stopgap for a big-name coach who’s between jobs (like Antonio Conte with Italy at Euro 2016) or as a valedictory post for a successful older manager nearing retirement (like Vicente Del Bosque with Spain). Only rarely does a manager truly mold and shape the identity of his team in a lasting way.
Löw is one of the exceptions, a figure who kept Germany at the top of the pyramid for more than a decade and is now looking for one last high note to end on.
In 2004, Germany failed to advance out of the group stage of the European Championship. A similar failure in 2000 was leavened by an appearance in the 2002 World Cup final, though even that successful run (note: This is a necessary interjection for a partisan American fan) should have ended in the quarterfinals against the United States when Torsten Frings handled a ball on the goal line.
That kind of wobble is unheard of in Germany, whose national federation replaced manager Rudi Völler with his former international strike partner, Jürgen Klinsmann, after Euro 2004. At the time of his appointment, Klinsmann was just shy of his 40th birthday and had no senior coaching experience to speak of, but he was a popular former player, a European and World Cup champion, and he preached a doctrine of youth and attractive, attacking soccer.
With 15 years’ hindsight and the knowledge of subsequent performances at Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin, and the U.S. national team, Klinsmann’s since been exposed as something of a Teutonic Professor Harold Hill. But his act worked well in Germany for two years, in part because of his partnership with his top assistant: Löw.
Löw came to the German national team after a moderately successful decade as a head coach in Germany, Turkey, and Austria. Wherever the tanned, towheaded, and garrulous Klinsmann went on the sideline, he was followed by the gaunt, dour, brooding Löw, with his unmistakable black mop top. With Löw handling the tactics and Klinsmann handling the vibes, the two were like a latter-day (and admittedly less successful) Clough and Taylor.
Third-place finishes at the 2005 Confederations Cup and 2006 World Cup were well-received, as the pair transitioned successfully from one generation to the next. Previous mainstays, most notably legendary goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, were gently ushered out, while the likes of Frings, Miroslav Klose, and Michael Ballack served as a bridge to the generation that would make Löw famous in years to come. In 2006, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker, and Lukas Podolski—all 22 or younger at the time of the tournament—became integral members of Löw’s squad.
A last-minute semifinal defeat to Italy on home soil left something to be desired, but a 3-1 deconstruction of Portugal in the third-place game, keyed by two goals from Schweinsteiger, were an exclamation point on a clear step forward.
Klinsmann departed not long after, leaving Löw in charge of a burgeoning golden generation. Spain dominated the next several years of international competition under Luis Aragonés and Del Bosque, led by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona core, minus Lionel Messi, and supplemented by stars from Real Madrid and various English teams. The Spanish ran roughshod over the competition from 2008 to 2012, including cagey one-goal victories over Germany in the Euro 2008 final and 2010 World Cup semis.
Meanwhile, similar player development bonanzas were going on at clubs throughout Germany. Klinsmann and Löw wanted to make Die Mannschaft younger and more attacking, but given the composition of the national team’s player pool, they almost had no choice but to go in that direction. As Schweinsteiger, Lahm, and the others grew into their primes, Mario Gómez made his first major tournament squad at Euro 2008, followed by Sami Khedira, Jérôme Boateng, Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, and Toni Kroos in 2010. Ilkay Gündoğan, Mats Hummels, Mario Götze, and Marco Reus followed at Euro 2012, and the big German talent train was finally ready to depart the station.
From 2008 to 2016, Löw’s two biggest problems were the two best problems a manager can have: More world-class attacking players than he could put on the field at one time and more world-class center backs than he could put on the field at one time.
Löw was never as doctrinally inflexible as the best club managers; he played a 4-4-2 with Podolski and Klose as a traditional strike partnership, a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 with a center forward, and a 4-3-3 (or a 4-6-0) with Götze or Özil as a false nine. Within a broad, vague framework of attack-minded soccer, Löw played whatever tactical framework allowed him to get the best 11 players on the field at once. And even that framework is vague; against Del Bosque’s Spain or latter-day France, Löw’s been unafraid to back the box and try to hit his opponent on the counter.
Most of Germany’s attacking players—basically everyone except out-and-out center forwards like Gómez and Klose—played on the wing, through the middle, and up top at some point in their international careers under Löw. Schweinsteiger, who broke in as a winger, became a stalwart central midfielder as his career progressed. Lahm, a fullback by vocation, became a defensive midfielder at times, while in later years, Joshua Kimmich made the opposite transition as the squad’s makeup changed.
There was a time when a figure like Holland’s Rinus Michels or Italy’s Arrigo Sacchi could impose strict tactical doctrine on a national team, but by the time Löw was named Germany coach, that line of thinking was quickly becoming obsolete. The most successful contemporary international managers are, well, managers. How many puzzling lineups has Didier Deschamps—or Jill Ellis, for that matter—put to paper en route to World Cup domination? It doesn’t matter, as long as their superstars are motivated and organized.
The apotheosis of modern international soccer comes from Löw’s oeuvre, Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil, in Belo Horizonte, at the 2014 World Cup. Two teams of broadly equal talent took the field, but only one knew what it was doing.
Five days later, Germany squeaked past Messi’s Argentina in a completely different game, a 1-0 extra-time win in the final. After 88 minutes, Löw substituted Götze for Klose, admonishing the fireplug-shaped 22-year-old to “show the world you are better than Messi and can decide the World Cup.” It was a ludicrous comparison to make, even considering how white-hot Götze’s star was before illness derailed his career, but it was a great bit of motivation. Götze potted the tournament-winning goal in the 113th minute.
When considering Löw’s tenure, from 2008 to 2016, the top-line results are impressive, but pale in comparison to other dynastic runs: Germany had two major tournament final appearances and one victory, while Spain won three consecutive major tournaments from 2008 to 2012, Brazil appeared in three consecutive World Cup finals from 1994 to 2002, and France held the World Cup, the Euros, and Confederations Cup at the same time at the turn of the century.
But Germany’s five straight semifinal appearances—six, if you want to count 2006 under Klinsmann—must be taken in context. Over that time, every other major international power went completely to pieces at least once at an international tournament. England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. France suffered a humiliating group-stage exit in 2008 and followed it up with a squad mutiny at the World Cup in 2010. Argentina barely qualified for the 2010 World Cup, while Brazil advanced past the quarterfinals of a major tournament only twice from 2006 to 2018. One ended in victory at the 2007 Copa America; the other ended in total annihilation at the hands of Löw’s Germany. Even Del Bosque’s unbeatable Spain was knocked out after two games at Brazil 2014.
Löw went nearly 10 years without sitting on such a whoopee cushion, but even he couldn’t successfully pull off a second generational transition. After winning it all in 2014, the class of players that constituted Klinsmann and Löw’s youth movement started to age out of the squad or retire from international competition. For the 2017 Confederations Cup, Löw heralded the transition by selecting a squad with only five players older than 25 and none with more than 30 international caps. The kids won the Confederations Cup, but at the following year’s World Cup, disaster struck.
Germany failed to advance out of the World Cup group stage for the first time (the straight knockout format of 1938, in which Germany lost in the first round, being a historical curiosity). It finished dead last in the group, needing a 95th-minute circus shot from Kroos to achieve its only win.
“I don’t know if it is the darkest moment for German football but it is definitely a very black one,” Kroos said at the time.
“At this tournament we didn’t deserve to win again or move to the Round of 16,” Löw said. “We were eliminated not because we didn’t want to win but we never had the chance to take a lead at any point—we were always lagging behind, trying to keep up.”
And Lineker, his wit as sharp as ever 28 years later, retracted his most famous quote. “[T]he Germans no longer always win,” he said. “Previous version is confined to history.”
Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans no longer always win. Previous version is confined to history.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) June 27, 2018
Things didn’t exactly get better in the months that followed. If international management is mostly about unity and motivation, both went in the toilet after the shock exit in Russia. Shortly after the tournament, playmaker Özil, a key starter since the 2010 World Cup cycle, retired from international soccer at the age of 29, citing racist treatment not only from fans but the German football federation (DFB) and its president, Reinhard Grindel. Özil, a third-generation German from an ethnically Turkish family, had been photographed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the tournament, touching off waves of criticism both legitimately political and nakedly bigoted. In his open resignation letter, Özil said both Löw and national team director Oliver Bierhoff had stuck up for him when Grindel demanded he be omitted from the World Cup squad.
In the fall of 2018, in Germany’s first competitive fixtures since the humiliation in Russia, Löw’s team went winless in four UEFA Nations League matches, and was saved from relegation only by a tournament format change.
The following March, Löw made a stunning announcement. Three key starters from the World Cup–winning team, Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels, and Jérôme Boateng, would no longer be selected for international competition. This despite Müller leading the team in scoring at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and all three being 30 or younger, and still starting for Bayern Munich, one of the top club sides in the world.
Exiling popular veteran players is a common tactic for coaches—it happened to David Beckham at least twice in his career—but it’s unusual for a manager as well entrenched as Löw to draw such a bright, confrontational line with three of his stars. And results haven’t really improved. Germany finished second in its group in the 2020-21 Nations League, punctuated by a 6-0 defeat to Spain in the finale.
A 7-0-1 record in Euro 2020 qualifying is deceptive, as six of those wins came against Northern Ireland, Belarus, and Estonia. And in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, already underway pre-Euros due to the latter tournament’s yearlong COVID-related delay, Germany suffered a home defeat to North Macedonia. Since icing the Bayern trio, Löw’s Germany has won just 13 of its 25 matches.
Before the loss to North Macedonia, the DFB announced that Löw would be stepping down after Euro 2020. In May, the DFB followed up by naming Hansi Flick as Löw’s successor. Flick spent eight years as an assistant with the German national team under Löw, and most recently managed Bayern Munich to back-to-back Bundesliga titles, plus the 2020 Champions League, in which Bayern went undefeated and Müller and Boateng both started the final.
The looming specter of Flick, the rare coach who took a national team job at the height of his reputation, and the ticking clock on a seemingly endless tenure, leave Löw in a curious position, as for the first time in 17 years the future is no longer his problem.
So while the 26-man squad features 18-year-old Bayern starlet Jamal Musiala, subject of a furious recruiting battle between Germany and England, and only one player—Neuer, the starting goalkeeper and team captain—older than 32, it also features Müller and Hummels, both welcomed back to the squad for the first time in two years.
This Germany team, at least the third full metamorphosis of the squad under Löw, will have an unusually difficult row to hoe. A brutal group stage draw pits Germany against defending world champions France and defending European champions Portugal, who might be even better this time around. Even with as many as three teams eligible to qualify from the group, Löw enters the tournament as an underdog for the very first time.
Very, very few coaches—regardless of the sport—manage to stick around as long as Löw has and go out on a high note. The game changes, the player changes, the coach’s personality changes, and eventually something goes sour. What’s at stake for Löw is not his legacy; flags fly forever, after all. It’s whether the expectations will be as high for Flick as they were for his predecessor.