BAYERN MUNICH AND BORUSSIA DORTMUND brought the Bundesliga to our television screens in Britain and allowed us to become familiar with the structure and culture of the German game.
The SKYTV generation turned out to see German football writers Roland Reng (author of Matchdays) and Raphael Honigstein (author of Das Reboot) at the recent London Sports Writers’ Festival.
Skilfully hosted by Arsenal devotee Amy Lawrence, these two Deutsch Schriftsteller spoke eloquently and humorously on the rebirth of German football.
Reng’s book, following the story of Heinz Höher, a journeyman footballer and coach, is a teutonic take on Only a game?, the Eamon Dunphy classic. Honigstein’s work reflects on how German football reinvented itself to become World Cup winners in 2014.
Lawrence, one of the most accessible football writers around, asked the duo to explain how Germans traditionally viewed English football. “We looked down on England, but we have definitely changed our perception,” said Reng.
Reng’s book is the “Only a game?” of its time
Whether that was forced by Germany’s decline in the early 21st century, or genuine admiration of the English game is open to debate, but certainly it works both ways. English football always saw Germany as a team of robots, clinical and determined, lacking in flair. Good at penalties.
To some extent, stereotyping also existed within Germany – Honigstein and Reng both admitted that the German national team was never particularly loved by its own people, especially when accompanied by the post-war neurosis of suppressed nationalism. “The current German team is probably the most loved of all time,” said Honigstein, perhaps forgetting that the 1954 World Cup winners passed into folklore and created the legend that is Das Wunder von Bern.
Some 15 years ago, Germany’s football had declined to near-humiliation. “We even lost to Kevin Keegan’s England,” joked Reng. “How bad could it be?”.
This prompted what Honigstein called “deep measures to find players good enough to represent Germany.” The 2006 World Cup was looming and Germany did not want to embarrass itself on home soil. The competition seemed to act as a rebirth of German self-confidence. Having experienced it first hand, in Hamburg, Hannover and Frankfurt, I can confirm that the outpouring of goodwill, coupled with that old German quality of good organisation, created a spectacularly successful competition. A template for future footballing jamborees.
At the same time, Juergen Klinsmann, the national team’s coach, brought a new approach to the dugout. “Our football started to be rebranded – it was very much ‘let’s play attacking football’,” said Honigstein. In 2006, Germany wasn’t quite ready to reclaim its place at the forefront of world football, but important steps were made in the right direction.
But German football had to go through some painful self-analysis after flopping at the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship. They scraped away at the arrogant belief that Germany would always be able to produce a winning team.
This was aided by one of the big pluses of the German football structure, the close connection between the DFB and the Bundesliga. The DFB forced clubs to set-up academies. “We were not producing enough young players. So after looking into the mirror, Germany got itself back on the right path,” said Reng.
It is a story that English clubs would do well to learn from. Reng added: “In England, the academies seem good, but the players do not get the chance to get through to the first team. The clubs then end up paying good money for mediocre players while sending their young players out on loan to Arnhem or similar clubs.”
While Germany tackled the root of its problems, there was also a revolution taking place off the pitch as the German matchday experience became the envy of the rest of Europe. But Reng suggested that an unhealthy dynamic may be emerging. “There is an attitude developing among some fans that they are the real stars, the real power base in the German game.”
It is true that there is something refreshingly egalitarian about German football. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. There are so many things that can be learned from Germany. Getting copies of these two fine books would be a start.