Football fans were stunned by the early exit of the German National Team in the 2022 World Cup, the second Cup in a row where they failed to advance beyond the group stage. Yet, the reasons for the team’s extraordinarily high level of excellence from 1954 to 1990 were clearly not sustainable and it is time for fans of the German Eleven to come back down to earth and recalibrate their expectations.
The World Cup victory of West Germany in 1954 was a watershed moment for the nation and its people. It was a moment when sports is no longer sports, but becomes an inspirational and motivating moment for an entire society. A distinguished German professor under whom I studied once told me that the only time he had ever seen his father cry was when the German 11 won the World Cup in that year. Germany had been a pariah nation in Europe because of World War II and had been banned from international sports immediately after the war. Through the fierce sense of dedication and raw, unbridled will shown by its footballers, led by their captain Fritz Walter and coach Sepp Herberger, the German team represented Germany’s moral resurgence and the German people celebrated their return to the world stage. The war was behind them, the Nazis had been punished, and there was new leadership and a new direction. The victory represented the beginning of a type of year 1 to Germans.
From 1954 to 1990 the Germans had THE most successful national program in the world. They won 3 out of 10 World Cups (it would have been 4 had they not been robbed at Wembley in 1966) and were in most semi-final matches. 1978 was the only Cup during that era in which they failed to advance to at least the quarter-finals, and that was a flawed World Cup due to the military junta in Argentina which was executing journalists, unionists and students (pushing “leftist” students out of helicopters over the ocean). The common denominator of every German team from 1954 to 1990 (when Germany reunified) was the leadership of the team which had an intense fire in their bellies. Following the Fritz Walter era, for example, the Germans had the Uwe Seeler era.
That Seeler was robbed of a World Cup victory at Wembley Stadium in 1966, by possibly biased officiating, was a football sin. The man was pure desire combined with unshakable tenacity and extraordinary skills. He has to be one of the greatest soccer players never to have won a World Cup. A photo of Seeler leaving the pitch at Wembley after the unfair loss was chosen by Kicker magazine as the photo of the century. He is considered by experts to have been one of the top 100 players of all time, was the first player to score in 4 consecutive World Cups and is third, behind Maldini and Matthäus, in minutes played in World Cups. He embodied the German spirit that made this the most successful program during the Cold War era.
Following Seeler there was Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer, who once played in a World Cup semi-final game against Italy with a broken collar bone and one arm in a makeshift sling. He led the team to a World Cup victory against the intimidating Dutch team captained by Johann Cruyff in 1974. Following Beckenbauer we get the era of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, whose performance in the 1982 semi-finals against Platini’s France can only be remembered by Germany fans as something akin to national heroism. With the Germans down by two goals in overtime, an injured Rummenigge hobbled off the bench, entered the game and scored an unbelievable goal moving away from the net. The inspired German team equalized with a Klaus Fischer scissor kick and won on penalty kicks. Following Rummenigge it became the Era of Matthäus and a 1990 German national team that looked unbeatable.
This is where the story ends or should have ended. That was, in fact, the West German national team. That was the team with the chip on its shoulder. That was the team with a fire in its belly. That was the team stretching from Fritz Walter to Uwe Seeler to Der Kaiser to Rummenigge to Matthäus. In the backs of their minds, they knew they represented a divided country, a destiny still controlled by foreign powers, a country with a mission to overcome world politics and unite once more. After 1990 we switch from West German to a unified German team. This is when things change forever.
In 1994 Germany was eliminated by Bulgaria. In 1998 they were eliminated by Croatia. In 2002, under coach Rudi Voeller of the 1990 World Cup team, a weak German team made it to a championship game against Brazil due to weak competition and one of the greatest goalkeepers in history, Oliver Kahn, in whom the fire still burned. Despite all the hoopla, 2006 was a disappointment as coach Jurgen Klinsmann refused to allow Oliver Kahn to upstage him and kept him out of most games, thus ending a possible Era of Kahn. The Germans should have won both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, as immigrants with fires in their bellies and something to prove began to carry the torch for the German squad. Suddenly we had guys with Polish and Turkish names, guys with darker skin colors, doing amazing things for the German Eleven. But in 2018 and 2022 even the great children of immigrants on the team showed they had lost the fire, lost the chip on their shoulders and they no longer really cared either. Life was becoming good for everyone in the country, so who cared about football anymore. Indeed, support for football and the national team has dwindled in Germany in recent years.
In the novel Catch 22 there is a scene where an American bombardier decides to start dropping his plane’s bomb loads into the ocean instead of on innocent civilians. Everyone thinks he will be arrested but, instead, he wins a medal from the Army for dropping his bombs in perfect patterns. This can be a metaphor for German soccer. In 2018 and 2022 the Germans often dominated games, sometimes holding onto the ball for about 70% of the time. The problem was, they were not scoring goals. They morphed from a sense of blood and iron to zombie, formalist ball control. Passing the ball around the field and then back to Neuer became their perfect bombing pattern into the ocean. It only took a couple of quick Koreans to expose this flaw in 2018 and a couple of quick Japanese guys in 2022. The over-emphasis on ball control to the neglect of scoring goals became a virtue under both Joachim Löw and Hansi Flick.
So, what is the solution? There is none. The Germans had a reason to be the greatest team in the world from 1954 to 1990. Another reason resurfaced for a while around 2010 but that has petered out as well. Brazil and Argentina are perennial favorites because they have a working class from which to draw guys who still have that fire in their belly and something to prove. History and sociology fueled German football's desire and certain inspirational players tapped into this and created something amazing. A unified and gentrified Germany where immigrants are seamlessly integrated into the dominant culture will continue Germany’s football decline; but that seems an acceptable trade-off to the German people.