Well that was a considerable improvement on the kickfest of 2010, wasn’t it? After 120 grinding, brilliant, and often maddening minutes of football, Germany won their fourth World Cup and their first since 1990 (and, interestingly, their first as a unified country) off of a spectacular Mario Goetze goal in the 112th minute. I want to examine three main aspects of this final, and indeed this tournament, in depth now that it’s all over: the legacy for Germany, the legacy for Argentina, and the legacy for Lionel Messi. The third is there to respond to the absolute idiots who inhabit a regrettable amount of my twitter feed, while the first two concern the finalists.
It seems fitting, however, to start with the winners. The victory stands as a spectacular vindication for three particular actors in the world of German football. First, it stands as a vindication of the changes that Germany made at the dawn of the 21st century. After a horrifically bad performance at Euro 2000 on the heels of a quarterfinals loss to Croatia in 1998, the Germans effectively ripped up and replaced their entire footballing structure, completely overhauling youth development at the club and national level: all 36 clubs in the Bundesliga’s two divisions are obligated to operate centrally-regulated youth academies; at least twelve players in each academy team must be eligible to play for Germany (which, given Germany’s restrictive citizenship laws, isn’t easy), while the German FA has substantial control over the operation of the Bundesliga, unlike the FA and Premier League in England. Youth coaching was also overhauled: Germany now has the most UEFA-licensed coaches in Europe with 35,000. For comparison, Italy have 19,000, Spain have about 24,000, while England have 2,500. The focus of the academies was also changed: historically, Germany have been known for playing very defensive football, with the exception of their interpretation of Dutch Total Football in the mid-1970s. The new academy system emphasized the creation of technically gifted, creative, highly fit footballers who could play in a modern system under skilled tacticians. Germany has been reaping the rewards of that overhaul ever since: reaching the finals in 2002 was a bit of a blip, backed up by Oliver Kahn basically dragging a very sub-par team to the final. In 2006, Jurgen Klinsman discarded the old, defensive style in favour of proactive, attacking football. They finished third after being defeated by Italy in the semifinals. In 2010, a young German team hammered England and Argentina 8-1 on aggregate, yet again finished third when they proved unable to overcome Spain in the semifinal. In the Euros their performances were similar: a finals loss to Spain in 2008 and a semifinal loss to Italy in 2012 (German youth development is good, but even it has been unable to overcome the hex that the Italian national team has on Germany). They have, however, stuck with it. This squad is still young – Muller, Kroos, Goetze, Schurrle, Boateng, and Hummels all easily have another World Cup in them – and the often amazing football they have produced, capped off by twenty-nine minutes of madness against Brazil, is a testament to how much that overhaul has succeeded. I wasn’t cheering for Germany in the final, but you can’t help but admire their commitment to the changes they have made, and to their willingness to make changes. If they tried to do the same thing, France would implode under the weight of mutual loathing, England would send it back to committee forty times before The Sun nixed the whole thing, Brazil would lose the plot amidst bribery and corruption, while Argentina would just default on their debt again. The last two World Cups have been won by the teams that performed the most dramatic overhauls of their youth development and coaching systems in the last three decades (Spain beginning in the 1990s, Germany in the 2000s). Both have been thoroughly deserved. A World Cup is a worthy reward for Germany’s efforts.
Second, it’s a vindication for Joachim Low. He was heavily criticized after the Euro 2012 loss to Italy, as well as after some iffy results in Germany’s World Cup qualifying – particularly the hilarious draw against Sweden where Germany went up by four goals and then proceeded to blow a lead harder than even the Toronto Maple Leafs can manage. In 2008, 2010, and 2012, the problem was always a shift back to defensive football when Germany hit a genuinely superb team – Spain in 2008 and 2010, Italy in 2012. This time, Germany stuck with proactive, progressive, free-flowing football: Low made changes where he had to – bringing Khedira and Schweinsteiger back into the side and dropping Lahm back to the defense were both needed masterstrokes that paid off handsomely. Recognizing that Brazil were there for the taking, and then taking them, was also down to his insistence that Germany twist the knife when they went ahead. He’s been trusted by his federation, and he’s repaid them with a World Cup trophy.
Third, and you just knew I was going to find a way to work this in, it’s a vindication for Pep Guardiola. That’s two tournaments in a row where the team that wins starts seven players from his squad in the World Cup Final. Germany spent much of the tournament playing football modeled off of the peak of his Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides – proactive, high-pressure, possession-heavy football. At some points in the tournament, Germany played four defenders and six midfielders, boasting a wealth of talent that even La Masia would be jealous of – Low somehow crammed Kroos, Goetze, Muller, Lahm, Khedira, Ozil, and Schweinsteiger all onto the same pitch, and had them playing absolutely beautiful football. The era of possession football isn’t dead; it’s just moved house to Germany.
Tomorrow – Part 2: what it all means for Argentina