The last time Germany won a major international title, at UEFA EURO 1996 in England, Matthias Sammer was the driving force behind the success. The former defender elegantly combined an extraordinary playing ability with an unbending will to win. Fittingly, later that year, Sammer was voted UEFA European Footballer of the Year and is the last German player to have received a major individual award.
Sammer’s playing career started at Dynamo Dresden, where he won two league titles as well as the East German Cup, before moving on to Stuttgart, Inter Milan and finally Borussia Dortmund. His long list of winner’s medals also includes three Bundesliga titles, the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup. As a player he was famed for his shrewd strategic thinking, which he later put to good use as head coach of Stuttgart and Dortmund. The universally respected figure has been working as technical director of the German Football Association (DFB) since 2006.
“Sammer is an awkward spirit, but in an absolutely positive sense,” new DFB president Wolfgang Niersbach said of the 44-year-old. “His tenacity and impatience can get on your nerves in a positive and constructive way. But that’s exactly what we need at the DFB. He’s always hungry for success and that’s the only way you can get things moving in the right direction.”
With just a few days remaining before UEFA EURO 2012 kicks off, Sammer took time out to speak exclusively to FIFA.com about emotions, memories, motivational strategies, what it means to be a leader on the pitch and football’s tactical development.
FIFA.com: You were the first big East German football star after reunification. That must have been quite an emotional thing to deal with.
Matthias Sammer: At the beginning, when I played my first game for the unified German team I was subdued. A few months earlier I had scored two goals for East Germany against Belgium and all of a sudden I heard a different national anthem. But I was able to get over that quite quickly. I was just proud to be part of a German team. I didn’t care about the origin. Maybe in my heart I’d always been a West German [laughs]. Don’t you think that as eight or nine year olds playing in the yard in East Germany that we wanted to be just like the best players? Don’t you think that back in the ‘70s I wanted to be like the West German stars? I just wasn’t allowed to say so out loud.
Who did you want to be?
[Laughs] It was always someone different. But Franz Beckenbauer, what an unbelievable player he was! Or Gerd Müller. Of course they were my idols.
With EURO 2012 just days away, do find yourself thinking about the 1996 tournament in England?
I don’t to be honest. At the moment I’m more concerned with why we’re not winning decisive matches any more. There’s no doubt that we’ve had a very positive development with our youth teams, our clubs and the national side. But the fact is that in the last few important games we’ve played, we haven’t won. For example in the European U-17 Championship or in the Champions League final.
In your playing days you were a true leader on the pitch. Is that what is missing from the German national team at the moment?
You would never hear me say that I was a leader in 1996. But you need to say things the way they are and employ both carrot and stick measures. In my opinion that’s an essential part of what it takes to be successful. That will be one of our next tasks in training our players. I believe we have players who carry the right genes. We just need to activate them. But above all in Germany we need to realise that a certain amount of discord is an important component. I’m not talking about egoism but using certain stimuli with the aim of helping the team. I don’t know what I’d be like today. In the past, discord was desired and encouraged by the coaches. I think it’s connected to the fact that we don’t win any decisive games. The last few minor details are missing.
On the one hand the tendency in football is to play within a system. But on the other hand individual performers are wanted. Isn’t that a contradiction?
You need to differentiate between the sporting and mental aspects. On the sporting side of things we need to make sure that we encourage players who are a little bit different. We are doing that. You can see that in the examples of Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira at Real Madrid. They are completely different in terms of the way they play but both of them have an unshakeable winning mentality. The two things are compatible. The contradiction is that you can’t first have a system at the centre of things and then make players fit into it. Then you would leave no room for individuality. If you can combine a system with spirit, then it works.
You have said that in developing German players it is important to not only push their sporting abilities but also to build character. How exactly can that be done?
By first of all making sure that leadership structures are accepted. We have analysed every world and European championship winning team from the last 20 years. There were no flat hierarchies. That’s a fact. In the successful German teams there were always clear leadership structures that were defined by different figures. In an ideal world the side has a leader, a healthy mix of team players and of course superb individual players. How do you go about doing that? You need to give different tasks to the different characters in the team. And everyone has to know that the leaders need to use both incentivational and punitive measures. Even just by recognising these structures, an interesting process is set in motion.
As in 2010, the Bayern Munich players go into a major tournament on the back of losing a Champions League final. Is that a disadvantage for the German team?
You can see that it’s still affecting Bastian Schweinsteiger a bit. He feels very responsible and I think that’s good. After all he did shoulder a lot of responsibility in the final. He’ll manage to switch his focus to the European Championship though. For a club team the Champions League is as good as it gets. But with all due respect, a European Championship is another step up!
Can the Bayern players draw any positives from the defeat against Chelsea?
People always think that Germans only win. But that’s not true. Great champions draw strength from defeat. They need to feel that they’re able to achieve great things. That’s what they need to do. And then they need to squeeze the last two or three per cent [of effort] out of themselves. We used to have an incredible goalkeeper [Oliver Kahn] who was very ambitious and would always say ‘keep going.’ Funnily enough, he won an awful lot!
Can Germany become champions of Europe?
[Without hesitation] Yes of course! We can do it. But we need to prove it. The conditions are there. We have a very good team, a very good coach and a very good support staff. The question is: can the team cope with difficulties? And there are always difficulties at a tournament. If they’re able to find solutions, then we have a very good chance.
What are the differences between young players of the past and those of today?
There are very different influences today. But with young players nowadays I see an incredible will to win and impressive levels of professionalism from an early age. On the other hand I miss the openness in dealing with each other. Today the guys often prefer to keep themselves busy with new technology and social networks than with the team. I miss people playing funny pranks on each other. I notice it because our teams are all so quiet. On the team bus they have no problem listening to loud music. But why aren’t they making a loud noise out on the pitch? The two go hand in hand. In certain situations in a match there’s not enough communication for my liking. That little bit of audacity, craziness and emotionality is missing. We haven’t managed to reactivate that completely yet. At the moment I don’t have a magic solution, but that’s the thing I notice.
Is that just a problem in Germany or is it more widespread?
Honestly, I have to say that when I go to youth tournaments, we’re [Germany] the quietest. Being loud doesn’t mean you automatically win, but there are situations in which joyful emotionality is helpful. We need to think about that.
You are an incredibly passionate and thoughtful man who says things that aren’t always easy to hear. Doesn’t being a coach tempt you?
Definitely not! I don’t say that for tactical reasons, it’s just that my current role satisfies me completely.
Every tactical formation has had its era. You were an elegant sweeper before 4-4-2 came along, then 4-3-3 and all the other different variations. What do you think the system of the future will be?
I think having four at the back will remain, although some teams are experimenting with a three man defence again. It’s actually very exciting to see how the formations in the middle and further up will develop. Of course it depends on the type of players a team has available.
Modern tactical systems are designed to get wingers into one-on-one situations on the flanks. In the future will we see tactics revert back to having a conventional No10 as the main point of attack?
That depends on whether you have a conventional No10 to play with. Mesut Ozil is one without doubt. But ultimately it boils down to the definition of a No10. If he plays just off the striker, does that mean he is not a classic No10 just because the second striker is missing? I think we’ll see a classic No10 again in the future, but only if they’re strong enough and fit enough to defend as well.
You mentioned Mesut Ozil. Could he win the FIFA Ballon D’Or?
I think there are several players in the German team who would be worthy winners. Ozil is one of them but there are others too. To be honest, these awards tend to go hand in hand with a team’s victory in a major tournament. Not always, but often. That will be the decisive factor. I’d certainly be very happy for someone else to be the last German winner of a major individual award [laughs].