Despite strong World Cup showing, Germany still facing To Do list
Germany's first order of business is reaching extension with manager Joachim Löw
If Löw stays, he'll have to determine Michael Ballack's future with the squad
Germany's worries are small -- but not so small that they can be ignored
It would have been difficult to mistake a rainy Port Elizabeth, South Africa, for sunny Stuttgart last Saturday, but those who had been around the German national team four years ago likely suffered from some disconcerting déjà vu. Another World Cup had ended with a hard-fought win in the third-place game, and while there were scenes of jubilation, there was also a tired-looking manager contemplating a goodbye.
"I'm burned out," Jürgen Klinsmann said after Germany beat Portugal 3-1 in the 2006 World Cup.
"I'm not sure I have the energy and drive to continue taking this team forward," Joachim Löw said after Germany beat Urugay 3-2 last week.
Most experts believe the 50-year-old Löw will stay on and extend his contract for another two years. But that's what most people thought Klinsmann would do, too. The California-based Swabian had worked wonders as the managerial equivalent of an "impact sub" since his appointment in 2004, but felt he could not repeat that success a second time. He was a project manager, and his particular project was finished.
Löw is a different kind of man and coach than Klinsmann. He has clearly enjoyed Germany's progress over the last four years and would relish the chance to go one better in the 2012 Euros, where Germany will be considered a favorite along with Spain. But he looked noticeably distant next to German FA president Theo Zwanziger at the last World Cup press conference in Centurion. The strained relationship between the two men, who fell out when contract negotiations failed in December, might have somewhat improved over the last few months, but it is still far from friendly; Löw has not yet fully forgiven the FA for leaking details of the negotiations to the tabloid press.
"I need a bit of time and quiet to arrange my thoughts," Löw said. "I don't want to make an emotional decision."
Problem is, there really isn't much time: Germany's next friendly (at Denmark on Aug. 11) is a mere four weeks away.
"We do need to know where we stand," Zwanziger said. "It's not possible to delay this decision until December."
Löw certainly has the backing of his players and the public, and the most powerful men in German football have strongly urged continuity at the top. "Löw has to stay, along with his whole team," Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness said. FA vice president Franz Beckenbauer agreed. "The most sensible solution is for everyone to remain in their positions," Beckenbauer said. That would presumably include general manager Oliver Bierhoff, who blundered the Löw negotiations in the winter and has few friends within the FA. Bierhoff, 42, looked positively doomed before the World Cup, but the team's strong showing has strengthened Löw's hand to the point of ensuring the continued employment of the former AC Milan striker.
A much bigger sticking point is the U-21 team. Löw and Bierhoff want the ultimate authority when it comes to these youngsters, but Matthias Sammer, the FA's sporting director, claims they fall within his purview.
"Löw and Sammer must develop close personal ties and make compromises," Hoeness said. "The future of German football demands it."
There's a good chance a solution will be found. Anything but an extension of Löw's tenure would be an enormous shock. But retaining Löw won't end Germany's problems. Michael Ballack, who was introduced officially by his new club, Bayer Leverkusen, on Wednesday, is set to return to the squad for the Euro qualifying campaign that starts in September. The 33-year-old was quick to admonish Philipp Lahm (Bayern), his stand-in as captain at the World Cup, for voicing his desire to keep the armband.
"This is not about what players want," Ballack said. "There is a hierarchy. I am the captain. I will talk to Philipp about [this] when I see him, then we'll all pull together."
It's not clear where Löw stands on the matter, though. Lahm had spoken out with the implicit backing of the players and was not rebuked by team management. There was a strong sense that the players were quite happy without Ballack acting as a sometimes overbearing alpha male, even if they did miss him on the pitch against Spain in the semifinal. Löw has to think very carefully about the reintroduction of the veteran midfielder, a decision that will have both sporting and psychological consequences.
One possible way out would be the promotion of Bastain Schweinsteiger to captain. It would be perfectly warranted -- the Bayern midfielder established himself as the team's most indispensable figure in South Africa. Giving up the armband would be Ballack's price for his continued involvement, but he'd probably find it easier to pay if his rival Lahm was losing out, too. The Ballack question will play heavily on Löw's mind, in any case. The former Chelsea player has not always seen eye-to-eye with the DFB coach over the last four years, and Löw abhors conflict.
In addition, Löw would have to find a way to accommodate the return from injury of Rene Adler (GK, Bayer Leverkusen), Simon Rolfes (MF, Leverkusen) and Heiko Westermann (D/MF, Schalke) without upsetting the new order that has emerged over the course of Cup competition. In South Africa, there was little or no pressure on the starting 11 from the rest of the squad, a fact that allowed Thomas Müller and Co. to play with confidence and lack of fear. It'll be a little different when another 10 to 15 players can lay legitimate claims to being involved this autumn.
Most football nations would happily trade their problems for Germany's rather small worries -- but those worries are not quite small enough to be entirely dismissed. For all the talk about a golden future and the enticing prospects of this young side, it shouldn't be forgotten that progress in soccer is rarely linear.
"Everybody says Arsenal has a great team of youngsters that will be brilliant in years to come," former Germany goalkeeper Jens Lehmann told me in 2007. "But I've been in football long enough to know that it's not as simple as that. I've heard people talk about other teams in these terms before, and it never quite happened there, for a variety of reasons." Arsenal supporters will concede that Lehmann's note of caution was sadly prescient.
Even if everyone stays in place and the development of the players and the team can continue unabated, there's no way of telling how Löw and his men will deal with the very different set of expectations they'll face in two years, when the stakes will be much higher.
"The self-conception of this team doesn't allow for celebrating a third place," the German squad wrote in an open-letter apology to its supporters after not meeting them upon their return from the tournament on Monday. "This team wants more, for itself and its fans."
It's a commendable and logical stance. But it doesn't leave much room for error for a side that still has so much to figure out, and so much room to grow.
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