'He cannot play badly'
Before the start of the World Cup, many Germans did not truly expect Die Nationalmannschaft to win the tournament – coach Joachim Low even had to address questions about a group-stage exit and admitted that “change would be necessary” if that catastrophe came to pass.
But at the same time, no one is prepared to accept that anything but a triumph in the final at the Maracana on 13 July should be the target – especially after the Germans demolished Portugal 4-0 in their opening match
It is a difficult, almost impossible, starting position but as it turns out that is just how team captain Philipp Lahm likes it. The 30-year-old breezily dismisses the pressure of having no room for error. “I actually really like the fact that expectations are so high,” he says. “Firstly, it’s normal: we have had two third-place finishes and we have to try to improve on that in Brazil. This team has been together for a long time, we have come very far.
“Of course they want us to win the World Cup back home. Maybe it would be easier for us if there were no expectations, if we were able to play with a sense of freedom. But that’s not our reality. I’d much rather be considered one of the favourites than one of the underdogs.”
This sentiment echoes a lifetime in the service of Bayern, the club who consider every single defeat as an embarrassing stain on their reputation. Lahm was 12 years old when he joined the Bundesliga’s record title winners and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the club’s you-have-to-win-everything attitude to the game has seeped deep into Lahm’s psyche.
It’s taken a few years before the tabloid media and the stammtisch (regulars of beer gardens and pubs) really warmed to the small, boyish, quiet full-back. They liked their leaders bigger, harder, brasher, but Champions League success with Bayern in 2013 opened the detractors’ eyes to Lahm’s unassuming brilliance.
His consistency is so dependable – “he cannot play badly,” Bayern’s assistant coach and mentor Hermann Gerland has said – that serial wins tend to follow by way of natural consequence. There remains but one box to tick. Can he do it, can his Germany do it? “Yes, I believe so,” Lahm says without a moment’s hesitation. “I have seen how this team has worked in training, and I know that we will work hard and get things done.”
As a veteran of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when Bild had campaigned to relieve Jurgen Klinsmann of his command in the wake of disastrous 4-1 defeat to Italy that March, and 2010 in South Africa, when the loss of Michael Ballack to injury just before the tournament was widely interpreted as a harbinger of doom, Lahm knows that his countrymen have a tendency to overdose on angst.
The problems in preparation have brought with them signs of a new, attractive narrative, that of the team finding togetherness in the face of adversity. Lahm shoots down this notion. “I don’t see it that way at all. I have found a great team spirit here from the moment I joined up with the squad. The true test, in any case, will come later. We will have to see how people will react when they don’t play in the tournament.”
At Euro 2012, discontent within the ranks was one of the many reasons why Germany fell short. Under Low’s enlightened, stylistically uncompromising guidance, the norm has been turned on its head. Efficiency in the opposition box and defensive rigidity, two basic traits that Germany could always fall back on, have become scarce commodities. Lahm agrees that there is a need to balance creative capacity with more protection for the back four – “The mix needs to be right, we have to be a lot more careful in the way we switch from possession into defending” – but believes that the efficiency debate is in itself proof of progress. “I remember times when we would struggle to create any chances, even against so-called minnows,” he says. “You only miss many chances when you create many chances. It’s actually a sign that things are going well.”
Talk of a lack of determination in the generation of technical players that have changed the face of German football – Mezut Özil and Mario Götze – was also misguided, he adds. “Of course the younger players need to learn but when you don’t win as a German footballer people are always quick to doubt your determination. Me and Bastian Schweinsteiger have had to face up to that debate for ever.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014