Five years ago, two fresh-faced, talented young men sparked a reappraisal of the German national team, both at home and abroad. Poldi and Schweini, as carefree on the field as they were off it, shone at the FIFA Confederations Cup as the three-time world champions began relinquishing a long-standing reputation for dour, result-oriented football.
Fast-forward to the present, where Poldi and Schweini have morphed into international stars Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The former was named Best Young Player at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, and the latter featured for Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League final little more than a month ago. The pair helped their country to third spot at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and second at UEFA EURO 2008. The likely lads have grown into senior figures with responsibilities to match, and their leadership qualities are now required more than ever as Germany prepare for their final and decisive group meeting with Ghana at South Africa 2010.
These days, the pair are expected to lead from the front. A sobering 1-0 defeat to Serbia means the Germans must beat the Black Stars to be sure of a place in the Round of 16. "We’ll need all our team spirit, because this is a final for us,” Podolski told FIFA.
The 25-year-old, who saw his second-half penalty saved by Serbia goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic in the previous match, has remained characteristically upbeat: "A draw would have taken us a huge step towards the knockout stage, but we still played well, despite going down to ten men."
Schweinsteiger, Podolski’s senior by a year and frequently portrayed in the past as a fellow prankster, comes over as far more thoughtful these days. "We need to get our heads clear and move on," he told FIFA following the defeat by Serbia. "That won’t be easy. But we have to beat Ghana."
It is no surprise to hear such solemn words coming from the mouth of the Bavarian, switched by coach Joachim Low from the left flank to central midfield after the loss of Michael Ballack to injury. Schweinsteiger and newly-promoted captain Philipp Lahm are now required not only to orchestrate events on the field of play, but also to keep the collective morale high.
The meeting with the physically robust and often unpredictable Ghanaians deserves its billing as a crunch showdown for the Germans. It will determine not only whether the European giants make the last 16 at this edition of the FIFA World Cup, but perhaps more significantly for the future, whether a new and exciting German generation, boasting creative potential arguably greater than ever before, has inherited the mental strength always associated with its predecessors. It will also show whether Podolski and Schweinsteiger can stand up and be counted when the going gets really tough.
"Obviously, we wanted to avoid this pressure in the last group game," said Low. "But it’s the same position we were in at EURO 2008, and my team’s better prepared for it this time."
In Austria and Switzerland, Germany lost 2-1 to Croatia in their second group match, but beat Austria 1-0 in their last first-stage fixture. However, it was the absent Ballack who secured the crucial three points with a thumping free-kick. Low remains confident. "We mustn’t let our heads go down. We have a good chance of reaching the last 16 and I believe we will."
German Football Association (DFB) President Dr Theo Zwanziger echoed the head coach’s comments. "I was in the dressing room [after the Serbia match] and said we could allow ourselves five minutes to lament the defeat, but the tournament’s far from over," he said. "This is where it starts for real. And I think we’ll get through. A team as young as this is always likely to make the mistakes a more experienced group would avoid."
For Podolski, Schweinsteiger and Co, this is the kind of situation that can mark the final transition from solid international to world-class star.