Germany went out early at Euro 2000 in Belgium, prompting a national reckoning.
This wasn’t the usual spasm of garment rending and finger pointing that other countries enjoy after their disappointments. The Germans approached their sporting disaster in a very German way.
First, they commissioned a report. Then they followed every guideline in it. The result was something called the Extended Talent Promotion Program (ETPP).
Pro clubs and the German soccer association sank hundreds of millions of euros into youth academies, new training centres and coaching, all of which would be freely available.
The Canadian equivalent would be expecting NHL teams to assume moral and financial responsibility for the success of the Olympic hockey team.
This athletics New Deal created an employment boom. Germany now has as many licensed soccer coaches as Kingston, Ont., has people (approximately 160,000).
Essentially, if you send a child out into a backyard in Baden-Baden and he kicks a ball against a wall for 10 minutes, a scout will ring your bell in a day or two. (Not quite, but close.)
If the kid has real talent, he will be placed into a chute that leads straight up to the national team. The plan created an overlapping series of golden generations.
Germany finished second at the 2002 World Cup, third in ’06 and ’10 and won the title four years ago.
After a while, the system was a bigger star than any German player. The cogs were interchangeable. The results were the same. It was thought that after nearly 20 years, the ETPP had become foolproof in its ability to produce consistent excellence.
So, in the way of things, the system just got its ass handed to it. Worse, it happened in the only place that absolutely, positively cannot happen.
The Germans lost 2-0 Wednesday and were eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage. That had never happened before.
They lost to an Asian team – South Korea – in so doing. That had also never happened before.
They scored only two goals overall. That hadn’t happened before.
They were shut out twice … you get the drift.
This was an unprecedented World Cup collapse not because it was worse than all the other collapses, but because Germany doesn’t collapse at the World Cup. This team is like a horse. It was not designed with laying down in mind.
This was also not a fluke. Germany wasn’t unlucky. It was awful – lethargic, lacking any sort of creativity and slow. So damned slow.
Watching the Germans plod up the field to set their dreary perimeter, then swing it back and forth for days at a time wasn’t just boring. It was infuriating.
They seemed to believe they’d get there eventually based on reputation alone. Trying was apparently optional, as was any concession to reality.
The last goal of Wednesday’s game was scored in the 96th minute. It was an empty-netter, since German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had run up the field to aid the attack (e.g. sabotage the defence).
The South Koreans knew to a certainty it was over then. They were rolling around together in a damp, happy, red ball. They were also pretty terrible at this World Cup, but beating Germany? That’s a ticker-tape parade in a lot of countries.
There were perhaps 30 seconds left to play and the Germans needed three goals to save themselves. So, not even remotely possible.
Thomas Muller walked over to the referee and asked, “How much time left?”
People talk about cognitive dissonance – well, that’s it. The game was already lost, but Muller couldn’t get himself there. He plays for Germany. He doesn’t lose.
Except now the Germans do. And you know what? Good.
Decades ago, international men’s soccer reached a point of perfect stasis. A half-dozen or so teams were winners – Germany, Italy, Argentina, et al. Other countries were allowed to show up and lose as long as they supplied their own ball.
The World Cup wasn’t fixed, but it might as well have been. You could say with something close to certainty who’d still be in it near the end.
Would you play a random 200-number lottery if you knew only six numbers ever came up? Probably not. That’s how international men’s soccer works.
But all markets abhor equilibrium. In Russia, the World Cup has introduced a little organic chaos into the mix.
There will be a lot of smarter think pieces about why this is happening, but I’ll take a guess – complacency.
If every time you approach a door it is open, you will stop making sure before walking through. That’s how Germany just got its nose broken.
As it turns out, the Netherlands and Italy – two old-money families wiped out before the tournament started – weren’t unfortunate. They were a sign.
Argentina is wobbling. So’s Spain. Brazil hasn’t looked anywhere close to capital-B Brazil.
But Germany is a special case. It was the capo di tutti capi of soccer’s European/South American mafia. This puts the whole idea of monopoly in doubt. It’s too early to celebrate yet, but it’s about goddamn time.
When the Germans decided to re-engineer their soccer program 18 years ago, the problem to be solved was one of skill. German players had turned into galumphing brutes whose only virtue was a not-one-step-back mentality.
There’s no skill problem this time around. This German team contains some of the most technically gifted players in the world (Example A: Toni Kroos’s geometry experiment to beat Sweden).
What Germany has lost is the never-give-in approach. This German team gave in, constantly. Even their disappointment at the end was disappointing. Nobody seemed too bothered.
There is something Freudian about the way in which these Germans morphed into a through-the-mirror-darkly image of the team they were meant to replace. Something about ego and id.
Whoever’s to blame (Ed. note: the coach, dummy. Always the coach), you can’t tear down your infrastructure every time something goes wrong.
The Germans will lay most of this generation to rest and hope for better from the one to follow.
They’ll feel assured that the next wave has learned how to play keepy-uppy. But will anyone have bothered teaching them how to care?