Sports History Files: Germany’s stylish soccer renaissance

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at Enjoy!

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German soccer is cool. No, really.

While Die Mannschaft is no stranger to World Cup success — spacing out four titles every other decade since 1954 — the stylish Germans who hoisted the Jules Rimet Trophy in Rio last week have replaced Spain as the “it” boys of the game.

Tor!How long that status lasts may depend on more than the continued success of a fluid, fast-paced style, the result of an overhaul of the country’s youth development structure that’s been written about amply over the last few years.

Germany’s regard also figures to ride on how star players handle their success.

German journalist Raphael Honigstein is among the many chroniclers, having penned this piece for Sports Illustrated during the 2010 World Cup. The young stars that coach Joachim Löw has brought together over the last four years are the products of that revamped system, shepherded along the way by 1990 World Cup winner Jürgen Klinsmann, the current U.S. coach.

Just before Germany met Argentina in the final at the Maracanã, another article by Honigstein on previous German soccer dynasties was published in EightByEight, one of the new American soccer glossies that’s tapping into greater domestic spectator interest in the sport.

In recalling the legacy of Germany’s 1974 World Cup champions who triumphed over Johan Cruyff and The Netherlands in Munich, Honigstein, in “How Germany Got Its Game On” offers a reminder that winners aren’t always well-loved.

This German team — technically, it was West Germany — truly didn’t endear itself to its own citizenry. Despite having the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, the West Germans didn’t play an appealing style of soccer. Losing to East Germany in the group stage in the only international match ever between the divided nations also didn’t help.

The letdown was permanent, as Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger wrote in “Tor!: The Story of German Football:”

“There already was a sour taste to the 1974 triumph. These men weren’t like the players of 1954, 1966, 1970 or even 1972. They were men who had got the business done after first severely disappointing both the country and their benign coach. As Cruyff and his teammates walked dejectedly off the pitch, it was suddenly no longer clear who the good guys were. Fittingly, all laughter and merriment died out that same evening. It was the beginning of the decline.”

Honigstein picks up the story there, through the perspective of gritty defender Paul Breitner, who both personally and politically was a revolutionary character in his country’s sporting history. Honigstein chronicles Breitner’s troubled relationship with the national team through the 1982 World Cup that ended for West Germany with keeper Toni Schumacher’s borderline criminal challenge on French striker Patrick Battison.

While Breitner’s persona captured the rebelliousness of the first post-war German generation, “football and its image were changing. Professionalism and tactical realpolitik became more important, and so did money.”

Breitner was among those cashing in, and eventually his “cynicism infected the whole side” as the national team prepared for Spain ’82:

“The horrors of Breitner’s rabble of a team, the shame of 1982, became entrenched in a stereotype, the prism through which all subsequent West German and German teams were seen abroad. They became the Panzers, arrogant, methodical, and functional soldiers—even when they weren’t. Afro Breitner, the free-spirited attacking fullback, was forgotten; clean- shaven Breitner, torn between advocating a lack of discipline off the pitch and maximum discipline on it, took his place in the collective memory. The best you could say about his Germans was that they never gave up. Breitner’s ‘Kohl football,’ or at least the perception of it, outlived Kohl’s reign, effectively lasting until 2006. Then Jürgen Klinsmann changed everything.”

Honigstein continues through a unified Germany’s hosting of the World Cup in 2006, which unleashed an unusual expression of national pride among young people that carries on today.

With gestures from current players like Mesut Özil — who’s donating his World Cup check so Brazilian children can get operations — Die Mannschaft of the present time have pulled off the novel feat winning over fans around the world both on and off the field.

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