When a German delegation visited Brazil on a World Cup reconnaissance trip late last year, they came to the conclusion that no hotel was up to the standards required by the soccer team. So instead, they built their own. Nestled deep in a sleepy village on the country’s east coast, the camp features 14 accommodation blocks while there’s a training complex and a press centre just a short walk away. A nearby airfield is where the team’s private jet is stationed and it can have the group transported to any of their games in less than two hours.
It’s meticulous preparation. The base was chosen because of ease of travel and to get the players properly acclimatized to the heat and humidity. Germany has already played one lunchtime game and will take on the U.S. in another Group G clash at the same time of day. Their next assignment against Ghana meanwhile is set for late afternoon. With a big emphasis on the players’ recovery after key games, the Bahia base comes with all mod cons. A home away from home. Since June 8, the Germans have been in their own facility, built to suit their needs. It’s a quiet, calm and serene environment, and Germany are all the better for it.
It’s been a strange few months for German soccer. Only a year ago, the country was lauded as the hub for free-flowing, exciting and successful teams. The 2013 UEFA Champions League final was contested by two Bundesliga clubs – Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Along the way, Spain’s dominance of the European game was vanquished as Dortmund embarrassed Real Madrid while Bayern humiliated Barcelona. Though Bayern narrowly edged Dortmund in the tournament decider, the real winner was German soccer. It was the place to be. A country where the sport was properly organized and managed. A country where clubs were sustainable and, unlike the English Premier League, didn’t become embroiled in financial soap operas. It became such a hotspot that Pep Guardiola, the most sought-after manager in the game, chose to return to management with Bayern. Here he was, the most prized asset in soccer, unable to speak German, with no personal ties to Germany but seduced by the country’s possibilities. He was giddy with excitement. An expressive and romantic Catalan moving to the industrial heartland of Germany and he was excited. Things had certainly changed.
But it wasn’t long before Germany was in crisis mode. Bayern had already agreed to buy one of Dortmund’s star players, the gifted youngster Mario Goetze and desired another in Robert Lewandowski. Dortmund’s CEO said their rivals wanted to destroy them. It was all getting nasty. But the Bavarians had their own problems to deal with. Uli Hoeness, the club’s president and figurehead, was sentenced to over three years in prison for tax evasion. He refused to declare $25 million and kept the money in a secret Swiss bank account.
It got worse. Guardiola’s mandate upon arriving as manager was to secure European dominance for Bayern Munich. But, after a tight Champions League semi-final first-leg against Real Madrid, they were ripped to shreds in the return fixture and thumped 4-0 in front of their own supporters. The next day, local Bavarian broadsheet Suddeutsche Zeitung painted a vivid, unsettling picture:
“The coach, respected worldwide for his ideas, stood motionless on the sidelines, hands in his pockets, his eyebrows narrowed. He saw well that he could not do nothing more to change the outcome.”
This wasn’t in the script. Despite Guardiola managing Bayern to a history-making Bundesliga title (they won the league championship with seven games to spare, beating the previous record they had set 12 months before), it wasn’t enough. Even beating Dortmund in the German Cup final wasn’t enough. The club had been humbled in Europe and their spell at the top of Europe’s soccer totem poll had been fleeting.
So, with the spine of this German team made up of Bayern players (six started against Portugal), the World Cup odyssey has already provided some much-needed respite. Shelter from the storm. There is a spirit to the squad, an ease and a perfect opening game against Portugal has only added to the feel-good factor. In 2010, not many will remember the initial struggle to get past the group stage. They were beaten by Serbia and barely scraped past Ghana. Unsurprisingly, memories of the demolition handed out to England and Argentina are easily recalled but the young, raw, inexperienced players took their time to settle into a World Cup.
This time, it’s different. There are question marks over the form of Mesut Ozil - such a star in South Africa, injury has deprived the tournament of Marco Reus while Bastian Schweinsteiger’s fitness problems show no sign of easing. Their defence is a concern while Philipp Lahm’s ability to play as a deep-lying midfielder is a blessing and a curse. But the ease with which they dismissed Portugal is an ominous sign. In many ways, Germany didn’t get out of third gear and still won at a canter. For all of the talk surrounding the potential difficulties of their improvised back four, Manuel Neuer was barely troubled.
There will be bigger challenges ahead and Germany know that. For now, they’ll return to the comfort of the hotel they built themselves and reflect on what went right and what can go better. In the midst of all the chaos and confusion of a World Cup, one should be wary of the Germans, hidden away in self-imposed isolation. Wondering, waiting, ready to pounce.
Eoin O'Callaghan is a soccer journalist and broadcaster. Best known in North America for his TV work with Fox Soccer, he has also reported extensively for BBC, RTE and Setanta Sports. He writes about soccer for The Irish Examiner newspaper, beIN Sports, One World Sports and TheScore.ie.