Dawn Of A German Era
The World Cup triumph is the culmination of the football world’s greatest ever youth development programme, says Sopan Joshi
For a competition that seemed to announce a decline of the passing and controlling game in the early stages, the final was played by the two best passing sides in the 2014 World Cup. And for the second World Cup in a row, the best passing side won. Germany produced imperious performances in the midfield right through the tournament. FIFA statistics show German midfielders right at the top of the lists of passing and distance covered. If it was Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta controlling and setting up the game in South Africa, this edition saw Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Yet the World Cup final was Argentina’s to lose; they looked the better team for a majority of the game’s duration. Through the early stages, the fear was this team depended too much on Lionel Messi — there were fears of the 4-0 rout by Germany getting repeated this time. But Argentina showed what a difference a good manager can make; Diego Maradona was a disaster last World Cup, while Alejandro Sabella has been a revelation. As the tournament proceeded, the players lifted their game and showed steel. If Messi’s goals carried the team in the early stages, it was defensive discipline that saw Argentina through the later games — when Messi’s magic failed to arrive. Again, let us look at the stats.
Argentina were the top attacking side of this tournament. In seven games, they produced 341 attacks, with 157 coming from the right wing, from where Messi likes to drift in. There were 32 solo runs into the penalty area from Argentina, also the highest. Their players were called offside only eight times, the lowest in the top 10 — this shows the game plan was to create their moves on the ground in the attacking third, and not to wait for long balls from the deep. (This is a good way to tell which sides played a reactive game to hit the opposition on the counter: the Netherlands had 27 offside calls and Belgium had 22.)
How many goals did Argentina score through this World Cup, though? Eight goals in seven matches, which places them seventh on the list. Two teams eliminated in the quarter-finals (hence playing two games less than Argentina) scored more goals; France scored 10 goals, while Colombia netted 12. If there is one thing this Argentina team lacked, it was good finishing. For all the converting ability of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Co., their form deserted in this World Cup. Even Messi missed chances, but then he is used to missing chances in club football, for he and his teammates create so many goal-scoring opportunities that it doesn’t hurt too much to miss a few here and there. In a World Cup and against tough teams, though, those misses hurt.
Where Argentina shined, however, was in defence. Manager Sabella gets the credit for this, as much as the four defenders. It speaks volumes for the ability of left-back Marcos Rojo that Germany’s Thomas Muller, a master of finding space and slipping into it, was largely ineffective. For when he got past Rojo, or when Rojo had to move up, centre-back Ezequiel Garay picked up Muller. Garay and his partner in central defence, Martin Demichelis, gave a good account of themselves. The standout show, though, was Javier Mascherano’s.
It is safe to say that Mascherano has been this World Cup’s best defensive midfielder. If Messi was given the captain’s armband for the inspiration he provides, the steel came from the gladiatorial Mascherano (he has the third highest number of passes in the tournament). Producing crunching sliding tackles, covering space, putting his body on the line — he was a constant reference point for the Argentine defence and midfield, shouting instructions to teammates, arms pointing. It is credit to him that Germany’s most talented playmaker Mesut Ozil had a poor game. Mascherano’s was a captain’s performance, even as Messi faded.
The game may not have produced fluent football and much risk-taking, but it wasn’t unworthy of a final. After Brazil’s 1-7 ridiculous display in Germany’s dismantling of it in the semi-final, no team was going to take too many risks. The Germans were missing Sami Khedira in the midfield due to a freak injury during the warm-up. His replacement, Christoph Kramer, got injured in a collision in the first-half, which brought on Andre Schurrle, a more attacking player on the wing (it was his assist from the left flank that created the winning goal).
Germany had 60 percent of the possession and produced twice as many dangerous attacks as Argentina. But when Argentina attacked on the counter, Germany did not look composed. The clearer chances came Argentina’s way, though German ’keeper Manuel Neuer was not forced to make a single save. Germany had seven shots on target, Argentina only two. Only three of Germany’s attempts at goal were off target; eight of Argentina’s attempts were off.
The only goal of the game said a lot about the direction of football. A short player with great technical skill and the ability to combine with other players, Mario Gotze is the most prized product of the radical reforms Germany introduced in its club football in 2003. He had no goals before this in the World Cup, starting only two games and completing only one: Germany’s first game against Portugal. He had been brought on by German manager Joachim Low in each game, though, for the immense potential he shows on the pitch.
That potential came through in a moment, as he jumped and cushioned the aerial pass on his shoulder, landed on his right foot to swivel and shoot with his left. Fifa’s reforms of football rules have opened the gates for smaller, technical players such as Messi. That Gotze is destined for greatness has never been in doubt. His Iniesta-like strike late into extra time will boost not just his stakes; it will be the greatest advertisement for how German football is administered.
This is the dawn of the German era. Given the assembly-line of talent they have created, this slim win will bring more money and resources in the world’s greatest ever youth development programme in football.
Argentina, meanwhile, is looking downhill. A bulk of its current squad comes from the effort Jose Pekermen put into youth development in the early 2000s. That effort ended with Germany coming from behind to eliminate Argentina in the 2006 World Cup. Since then, Pekermen has taken Colombian citizenship and his work shone in the dazzle of the Colombian team. For all the talented footballers Argentina produces, its management of the game is terrible. They need a decent youth development programme.
This was the second World Cup in a row won by players forged together at a young age. The players who dominated the six years of Spain’s domination of football had emerged in the FIFA Youth Championships of 1999. The current German squad was forged by the best youth development programme ever devised. Argentine football desperately needs management that befits the talent the country produces.
Argentina has six under-20 championships to its name, a testament to the quality of young players. Yet it hasn’t won a major title in 23 years. Brazil’s is a similar story: it has won the title five times. After these two, the only country to win the youth championships more than once is Portugal, and they have won it only twice.
Given the almost ridiculous pool of talent Argentina and Brazil have, the only reason they don’t dominate football — like Spain did after 2008 and like Germany is now threatening to — is how the two countries manage the sport. These are the nurseries that provide an array of players who dominate European leagues. When they come back to play for their country, they somehow lack the cohesion that is essential for a football team to win.
The dawn of the German era is bound to drill the message of youth development and curtailing capitalism in football. It is bound to create conversations on taking short-term risks for long-term gains. On club football retaining its local roots and working along with national associations.
Brazil 2014, meanwhile, will be remembered for re-establishing the World Cup as the pre-eminent football competition. The past three editions had created the impression that the pinnacle of football is now the European leagues, especially the annual UEFA Champions League. The goalfest in Brazil has brought the sheen back to the World Cup.
The 2014 edition did not show systems football thriving like it happened in 2010. No team was as dominant as Spain was in South Africa. Apart from a few games of the knockout stage, the defending was of a low order, showing that risk-taking is not dead in football yet. That the sport retains elements of play, and hasn’t been converted into a corporate operation — though there will be those who claim Germany’s victory signifies the ultimate win of the systems approach, of a rich country that can invest billions in a youth development programme. Yet, if Brazil can invest billions into hosting the World Cup despite the terrible socio-economic conditions, it can surely find the money to groom its talent.