Why German soccer is in a crisis – and the path it can take to restore glory

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Joachim Loew has helped engineer a German revitalization before. He now must do it again. (Getty)
Joachim Loew has helped engineer a German revitalization before. He now must do it again. (Getty)

It was the most humiliating night in German soccer history.

At Euro 2004, just two years after reaching the World Cup Final for the seventh time, Rudi Völler’s national team crashed out of the group stage of the tournament. Having dominated the international scene for much of living memory, Die Mannschaft were not used to such failure.

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However, while many other nations would have wallowed in the humiliation, the DFB immediately started planning for their return to the top of the game.

“In 2004, German football was down,” said coach Joachim Löw. “We took decisive steps. We said, ‘We have to invest more in education so we are technically better.’”

Investment at grassroots level is exactly what they did. While Jurgen Klinsmann was installed as national team manager — where he was rightfully credited with revamping the squad with a youthful slant — much work took place around the nation. The coaching network was vastly expanded and all Bundesliga sides were required to have their own academies.

This formed the basis of a 10-year plan that would get the Germans back to where they believed they belong.

Almost exactly 10 years later, Germany lifted the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.

With Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund contesting the 2013 Champions League final and the national team winning the big prize the following summer, German soccer was at its zenith. Former England striker Gary Lineker famously once described soccer as, “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” In Germany’s Golden age, this quip was terrifyingly accurate.

Thanks to the sustainable model of talent development that had been put in place, the good times were expected to continue long after the 2014 World Cup cycle. When Germany strolled to victory at the 2017 Confederations Cup with an inexperienced C team, it was expected that they would return to Russia the following summer to conquer the World Cup.

(From left to right) Kai Havertz, Julian Brandt, Ilkay Gundogan, Lukas Klostermann and Jonathan Tah represent the kind of new blood Germany needs in the national team. (Getty)
(From left to right) Kai Havertz, Julian Brandt, Ilkay Gundogan, Lukas Klostermann and Jonathan Tah represent the kind of new blood Germany needs in the national team. (Getty)

Of course, this is not how events played out. After shock losses to Mexico and South Korea, Die Mannschaft finished bottom of their World Cup group. Their last-minute win against Sweden in Sochi remains their only competitive victory of the past year.

German fans were given a sharp reminder of their Euro 2004 undressing, and the slump continues. After failing to win any of their UEFA Nations League matches in 2018, Löw’s side suffered the indignity of relegation from the top tier of the new competition. With qualification for Euro 2020 about to begin, Germany are fourth favorites to win the tournament outright. It’s difficult to remember a time when they were at such long odds on the big stage.

In their most recent friendly draw against Serbia, they were far from convincing. Although substitutes Marco Reus and Leon Goretzka occasionally looked lively going forward, Germany didn’t create chances for striker Timo Werner.

By jettisoning Thomas Müller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, Löw is making a clear attempt to clean house and start afresh with the kind of youthful rebirth that Klinsmann instigated in 2004. However, it was clear that Werner is not as effective as Müller, while Boateng and Hummels were sorely missed as Niklas Süle and Jonathan Tah failed to convince. They were frequently caught on the counter and gave Serbia’s Luka Jovic a very un-Germanic amount of space in which to score his goal:

The Germans are no longer an imposing team, and their next opponents are the high-flying Netherlands, who routed their fierce rivals 3-0 in Amsterdam when they met last October.

Further evidence of Germany’s latest nadir comes from the fortunes of domestic clubs. Just as Champions League success coincided with their World Cup run a few years ago, Bundesliga sides are now suffering on the continental stage. In the season leading up to last summer’s World Cup, two of Germany’s representatives crashed out of the group stage, while Hoffenheim didn’t make it past the qualifying round. Hoffenheim went on to finish bottom of their Europa League group, joining FC Köln and Hertha Berlin in group stage elimination.

In 2017-18, Germany slipped from second to fourth in the UEFA coefficients. If France continues to gain ground on them, they will cede their fourth Champions League spot to Ligue 1. This season, no Bundesliga side made the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time since 2006, while three English teams beat their German counterparts by an aggregate score of 17-3.

German soccer is clearly suffering on domestic and international fronts. And one may chalk it up to the cyclical nature of soccer: What comes up, must eventually come down. But there are potentially other issues that underlay the crisis.

On the domestic front, some argue that the lack of competition for Bayern Munich in recent seasons has harmed the league. However, both France and Italy are prone to having a runaway league leader and both are in relatively good health — particularly as the former has a world champion international team right now. A more meaningful reason for decline may be the lack of spending.

In the summer, Bayern’s biggest outlay was for Alphonso Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps, thought to be around €10m. Dortmund’s most expensive summer signing, Abdou Diallo, cost €28m and they were the only German club to spend over €65m at the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Ten Premier League sides significantly outspent that number. Liverpool spent 16 times more than Dortmund.

The Bundesliga holds a reputation for valuing fans with cheap tickets and concessions, while a “50+1 rule” that ensures no investor or company can hold a majority stake in a club. These are admirable traits, but the former stunts revenue and the latter prevents the kind of billionaire cash injections that have boosted many other European sides. If the Bundesliga is to grow at the same rate of other leagues, it seems like some of these traditions and covenants will need to be sacrificed.

The national team, meanwhile, is simply in a state of transition. Löw may not receive credit for the unceremonious manner in which he has dismissed some of the old guard, but it is clearly time for a drastic change. Giving starts to the likes Lukas Klostermann, Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt is a statement of intent for a new cycle.

It must also be remembered that Rome was not built in a day. In 2005, as Klinsmann rebuilt the German side, they had a 7-3-7 record, losing to Slovakia and Turkey, while only scraping past China.

Germany may be a wounded beast right now, but their track record suggests they will eventually provide the correct answers for the questions being asked of them.

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