BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL – Only a decade ago, under the guidance of former national team striker and World Cup winner Rudi Voller, Germany returned from Euro 2004 in Portugal pondering its footballing future.
Despite reaching the final of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea two years previously, the Germans failed to win a game at the European Championships, beaten into third place in their group by the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Even Latvia managed a 0-0 draw against Voller’s side.
The question of the German identity was being pondered by Voller’s former Nationalmannschaft strike partner, Jurgen Klinsmann, who took over from Voller and was tasked with the quest of reestablishing Germany as an elite force in world football.
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Klinsmann appointed current national team manager Joachim Low as his assistant and set Germany upon a new course, two years ahead of hosting world football’s showpiece event. Klinsmann would eventually lead Germany to third place at the 2006 World Cup—a result which cost the current USA manager his job—but he had sown the seeds of a German footballing revolution.
From also-rans in 2004, Germany made the final of the European Championships four years later under Low, losing by a single goal from Fernando Torres to Spain who won its first major international title since 1964. As recent history has taught us, this was to become a special Spanish team, benefitting from their own soul searching under Luis Aragones.
Low had taken on Klinsmann’s work but the Germans remained without a major trophy since 1996, when they were crowned champions of Europe at Wembley Stadium. Significant improvements had, however, been made since Voller’s ill-fated spell in charge.
The Deutscher Fussball-Bund assisted Klinsmann as he set about trying to turn Germany into a trophy-winning nation once more. The DFB encouraged Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga clubs to enhance their academy systems in order to produce players of a sufficient calibre for the national team, while simultaneously holding workshops with players and coaches to articulate what the German style should be.
Klinsmann and his staff settled upon a fast-paced, attacking and aggressive style but with an emphasis on the technical. A potent, intoxicating combination should it come off. Alas, for Klinsmann, it didn’t happen quickly enough.
In more recent seasons, we have seen a proliferation of outstanding players coming through the ranks at Bundesliga sides. Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Julian Draxler embody this new Germany. This is not so much a Golden Generation for German football, but more the start of a Golden Future, one based on an identity manipulated for the modern game, and helped by directives from those who administer the game at the national level.
Similar sweeping changes saw Spain become the omnipotent force in European and world football in recent years, and have served to turn Chile into a major contender in next year’s Copa America, which it will host.
It’s been 24 years since Germany last lifted the World Cup, beating Maradona’s Argentina in the final at the Stadio Olimpico by a single goal. Both Klinsmann and Voller—the two bosses either side of the ‘new’ Germany—started that match in Rome. Their three goals apiece helped Germany to the final, where Andreas Brehme’s penalty with five minutes remaining in regulation was enough to see Die Mannschaft lift the trophy.
Thomas Muller has four to his name this time around and still has two matches to play, whatever happens in the semifinal against the hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte. Muller is an attacking player far removed from the archetypal number nine that Klinsmann was, technically outstanding and tactically versatile, comfortable playing in any number of positions.
Miroslav Klose, who equaled Brazil’s Ronaldo as all-time leading World Cup goal-scorer with his strike against Ghana in the group stage, is the last in a dying breed. He is a relic, a throwback to a bygone era, a striker in the mold of Klinsmann but one, despite being Germany’s all time leading goal-scorer, who limits the young and vibrant side around him. Klose is a bridge between the old and the new, from what was to what will be.
Two victories are between this renaissance Germany and the biggest prize in international football, and how fitting it would be for Klose to be the match-winner in his final appearance for Die Mannschaft.
Paul Sarahs is an English-based journalist who is covering the World Cup for Sportsnet in Brazil. Follow Paul on Twitter.