When Philipp Lahm was part of the Bayern Munich youth team, his coaches fretted about his size. Physically so small and slight, he was far behind his team-mates. Though a gifted athlete and naturally talented, he had to learn to protect himself. On one tour to Italy, he came up against much bigger boys who intimidated him. During one game, he was substituted at half-time for his own safety. Lahm realised quickly that he would never be as strong as the others. But he could be smarter.
At the 2006 World Cup, Germany opened the tournament by beating Costa Rica 4-2. The first goal of the game came from the boot of a fresh-faced, diminutive, blonde-haired defender. Just twenty-two, he seemed so much younger. But he played with an intelligence and awareness that belied his age. It was Lahm. Then, he was a left-back. And around him were hardy, experienced German internationals. Jens Lehmann in goal, Torsten Frings in central midfield, Bernd Schneider on the wing, Miroslav Klose up front. The squad was padded out by players in their mid-thirties – Oliver Neuville and Jens Nowotny. The team was in transition having been embarrassed at Euro 2004. There had been an over-reliance on Michael Ballack owing to a general dearth of proven quality. A German club team hadn’t won a Champions League in five years. The country watched as traditional heavyweights like Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid racked up the tournament wins while runts-of-the-litter like Jose Mourinho’s Porto proved game-changers.
Lahm was at Euro 2004 and played every match. Around him, his colleagues grafted and toiled. But far from it seeming determined or spirited, it was tired and weary instead. There was a lack of cutting-edge, a lack of identity and a lack of intelligence. Lahm, just a kid of twenty, such a technically-astute mind, was out of step. He belonged somewhere else. A Bayern team-mate, Bastian Schweinsteiger, was also part of the German squad and was even younger. There was another vibrant teenager, Lukas Podolski from Cologne. As the Germans were humilated by Latvia and Czech Republic and subsequently eliminated at the group-stage, the trio of youngsters – with Lahm the always-leader – were comfortable in the belief that they were set for bigger and better things. That everything would improve because they were around.
Euro 2004 was a turning point in German football. It was the lowest ebb. But behind the scenes, radical changes had already begun to be implemented. The main restructuring occurred within the league as all thirty-six clubs were forced to operate their own youth academies. A certain quota of players accepted in the programes had to be able to represent Germany. Over a couple of years, the number of foreign players began to drop. Running parallel was the development of gifted youngsters. Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Podolski were prototypes. They were the proof that the revolution was working.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Bayern Munich reached the Champions League final in 2010 and the German team lit up the World Cup just a few weeks later. More importantly, as Lahm looked around him before Germany’s opening clash against Australia, he was met with a startling sight. There was Manuel Neuer, the 24 year-old goalkeeper, Sami Khedira, a 23 year-old midfielder, and Mesut Ozil, a twenty-one year-old playmaker. Also part of the team was Thomas Mueller who, at just twenty years-old, had been a reserve in a German second division team just twelve months before. Lahm peered towards the bench and saw a familiar face – baby-faced Toni Kroos, a twenty year-old team-mate at Bayern. And finally there was Jerome Boateng too – a young defender. All of a sudden, Lahm realized he was the elder statesman of the group at twenty-six years-old.
Ever since, the resurgence within German football has been incredible. It all seemed to come to a head last year when Bayern played Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League decider. The Dortmund side featured seven Germans, the Bayern team five while their Austrian left-back David Alaba had come through their youth academy. Just a few short months later, Pep Guardiola, the most sought-after soccer coach made his comeback after a twelve-month timeout in New York. Everyone wanted him. Everyone had desperately followed him to America, wining and dining and whispering sweet nothings in his ear. In the end, he chose to go to Bayern Munich. It was a defining moment. That long-held theory of Germany as being cold and obtuse was debunked. It was cool, new-wave, modern.
At the centre of it is Lahm. Shortly after arriving at Bayern, Guardiola referred to his captain as ‘the most intelligent player I’ve ever trained’. With exceptional ease, Lahm switched from full-back to the centre of midfield. Everything Bayern did on the pitch revolved around him. Asked to explain his coach’s comments by Der Spiegel last year, Lahm said: ‘I think I’m good at assessing situations’.
No bigger situation than a World Cup final. And he, more than anyone, knows how far the German team has come. His comrades have tasted only success. They’ve been lauded and celebrated, perennial winners of various trophies. But Lahm knows the struggle. He knows about being good enough and others letting him down. He knows about the decline and the rot and the rebuilding. He knows about being a boy amongst men. He knows about the one medal missing from his cabinet. He knows about the golden generation. He knows about being intimidated by bigger, bolder opponents. And he knows about being better than them.