RIO DE JANEIRO – Only the magical feet of Lionel Messi stand between Germany and a fourth World Cup title now. The Germans have been so efficient and so dominant over the past four weeks here in Brazil that only the brilliance of Argentina's talisman could shatter their championship dreams.
Winning Sunday's World Cup final at Maracana Stadium would be the crowning achievement for coach Joachim Loew and a golden generation of supreme footballing talent that began with Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger and continues with Thomas Mueller and Toni Kroos. A title would be fitting because the Germans have easily been the tournament's best team, even before famously destroying Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals, and to raise the World Cup trophy would serve as the ultimate affirmation of a master plan devised 10 years ago to rejuvenate Die Nationalmannschaft.
Jurgen Klinsmann's master plan.
The United States head coach was the inspiration behind the complete overhaul of German soccer when he took over as manager of the national team in 2004. The flamboyant world-class striker who shunned the emotionless German mindset injected passion and brought new ideas to a rigid soccer system that had grown stagnant. The tectonic shift in soccer philosophy not only changed the way Germany played but also the way its players ate, drank, slept football by famously introducing nutrition, psychology and yoga to training regimens.
Central to Klinsmann's blueprint, though, was the introduction of new blood. The Germans were runners-up at the 2002 World Cup, but the impetus for change came from dismal performances at the European Championships with back-to-back exits in the group stage in 2000 and 2004. So in came Klinsmann and a group of unproven youngsters that he, along with Loew as his top assistant, gradually shaped and molded into the anti-Germany – an entertaining, risk-taking team that embraced attacking soccer and won back the German public with a third-place showing at the 2006 World Cup on home soil.
Four World Cup rookies from that group are on the current Germany squad: captain and defender/midfielder Philipp Lahm, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, defender Per Mertesacker and forward Lukas Podolski. Loew took over the head coaching job after the '06 World Cup, leading the Germans to the semifinals in four straight major competitions and their first tournament final since the 2008 Euros.
Loew, regarded as the brains of the Klinsmann-Loew leadership by the German press, deserves plenty of credit for building upon what was started a decade ago and meticulously fine-tuning a system that is unyielding defensively and unforgiving offensively. But Klinsmann's role should not be forgotten. He deserves his fair share of the credit, too.
"He was the first coach to place his trust in a very young generation, and in that respect he was a breath of fresh air for the DFB [Germany's football federation]," Mertesacker told the German national team's official website before Germany played the U.S. in the teams' group stage finale.
"We’re still continuing what Jurgen started, even now. Many of the same players from back then are still in the team, and Jogi Loew has developed over time, too. We’re definitely still influenced by that period."
While the German media reveres Loew for his tactical nous – some reporters practically feted him on the spot for the no-brainer decision to return Lahm to right back in the quarterfinal win over France – it continues to use Klinsmann as its punching bag.
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In the buildup to the Germany-U.S. game, Klinsmann fielded questions from German reporters about his coaching knowledge, or lack thereof. The reputation stuck after he was unceremoniously ousted as Bayern Munich manager in 2009. In responding, Klinsmann always took the high road.
"I think I know a little something about soccer," Klinsmann said one time, half-laughing off the topic before moving on to the next question.
The irony is that even with Loew at the helm, Germany is still searching for its first World Cup trophy since 1990 and its first major tournament crown since the 1996 Euros. Which is why Messi won't be the only one playing for his legacy on Sunday.
Lahm, 30, and Schweinsteiger, who's just three weeks from turning 30, have continued to be mainstays of the German starting XI, but they're likely playing in their final World Cup. Mertesacker and Podolski have been relegated to reserves. Loew is entrenched as manager but not even he can tell you where he'll be for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, such is the unpredictable life of a national team coach.
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"I am convinced we will deliver another great performance in the final," Kroos said after Tuesday's historic thrashing of the host nation. "That is our purpose and our goal."
When asked how important it is for Germany's golden generation to win the World Cup, Loew dismissed any urgency, saying the team's core group had already accomplished plenty with Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Mueller, Kroos, defender Jerome Boateng and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer having won club football's top competition, Europe's Champions League, with Bayern Munich. But not even Loew could really believe what he was feeding the media.
The Germans must complete what was started 10 years ago with a victory over Messi and Argentina at the Maracana on Sunday. Anything less will be a disappointment.
And any credit not given to Jurgen Klinsmann for being the catalyst to Germany's first world championship in 24 years would be an injustice.
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