"The only team I’m scared of and have respect for is Germany." This striking statement carries even more weight when you consider it came from no less an authority than Iker Casillas, captain of the FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO-winning Spanish side. "I like Germany a lot. They’re young, and they have great players. I think they are going to set the standard for football at international level in a couple of years, when Spain are probably no longer up there at the top," the best keeper in the world continued.
Germany have certainly earned a great deal of respect this year, maintaining their impressive progress along an upward curve that began quite some time ago. Ever since the stirring events of summer 2006, when Jurgen Klinsmann’s team defied the stereotypes with refreshing, attack-oriented football during their march to third place at the FIFA World Cup on home soil, the world has been aware that the German virtues of organisation, endurance and work-rate have been supplemented by dazzling skills.
After claiming the runners-up spot at EURO 2008, Joachim Low’s side travelled to South Africa in 2010 and finished third for the second time in a row. La Roja proved the stumbling block at both major tournaments, but their captain clearly saw enough to convince him that the Germans could well become a powerful force in the near future.
This is probably due to the style, panache, and above all youthfulness of the side now lying third in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Germany contested the global showdown in South Africa with their youngest FIFA World Cup squad in 76 years – the average age was just 24.9 - and their run to third spot included clinical victories over top-tier nations England (4-1) and Argentina (4-0).
They also finished top scorers at the 32-team tournament on 16 goals, four clear of the second-placed Dutch. Bayern Munich prodigy Thomas Muller collected two individual honours; the Best Young Player award and the Golden Boot as top scorer. "It's a massive honour, and just amazing to have won," the rising star exclusively told FIFA.com in a recent interview in which he also offered his opinion as to how such a young side had proved so successful: "It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, it’s whether you’re good or bad."
For both club and country, Muller lines up alongside veteran Miroslav Klose, who secured his own place in the FIFA World Cup history books in South Africa when he moved into second in the all-time tournament scoring chart on a total of 14 goals.
Overall, it was an overwhelmingly positive year for Low’s side, who registered 12 victories, two draws and three defeats in 17 matches, with 40 goals scored and only 10 conceded. That record saw the Germans reclaim a spot in the top three of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. After starting the year in sixth, the team finished 2010 behind only South Africa finalists Spain and the Netherlands.
"We’re approaching the end of a positive and successful year. Our football has steadily improved over the last two years, and that’s the greatest cause of satisfaction for me, because I know very well that you’ll only win trophies if you’re making that kind of progress," the national boss reflected. "My gut feeling is that our team will be in a position to win a trophy in 2012 or 2014."
Most observers agree that the team has yet to peak. Key individuals such as FIFA World Cup captain Philipp Lahm (27), Bastian Schweinsteiger (26) and Lukas Podolski (25) are just approaching what is widely considered the best age for a footballer, while U-21 graduates Mesut Ozil (22) and Sami Khedira (23) earned lucrative moves to Real Madrid on the back of their performances in South Africa.
As you might expect, the blossoming of a new generation is a product of careful planning rather than happenstance. In 2005, newly-appointed DFB director of sport Matthias Sammer turned his attention to youth development, making it compulsory for Bundesliga clubs to operate an academy, among other things. The harvest followed immediately: the Germany U-19s won their European championship in 2008, and the U-17 and U-21s followed suit in 2009. A clutch of the best youth products, including keeper Manuel Neuer, have now broken into the senior set-up.
Spoils for years
Nor is an end in sight. "Nowadays, we have 19-year-olds putting pressure on 23-year-olds. It's the ideal situation for a coach. I’ve been really impressed by our young players recently. They have so much potential," commented Low, who took the unusual step of singling out 18-year-old Dortmund prodigy Mario Gotze as "one of the biggest talents we’ve had in German football for many years". The 50-year-old coach described Gotze and Co as "a new and different generation" which has forced its way into the nation’s footballing elite. "With all these players, you get the feeling they take their job and their careers very, very seriously. They’re ambitious, diligent and have a crystal-clear idea of what they intend to do with their lives."
Germany’s priority for the year ahead will be to seal a place at UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, which seems just about inevitable given their record of four wins from four matches so far. "We’re in a magnificent position. Despite the intense, energy-sapping and emotionally-charged World Cup, my players have taken the next step,” Low said with pride.
Schweinsteiger and Co return to representative duty on 9 February 2011 with a friendly against long-time foes Italy in Dortmund. It is non-competitive, but ought to be a cracker, as the Germans have a score to settle with the Squadra Azzurra. Back in 2006, it was the Italians who extinguished the hosts’ dream of a FIFA World Cup triumph on home soil with a 2-0 extra-time victory in a riveting semi-final encounter, also held in Dortmund.