"It's been a remarkable tournament from our point of view. Eight or nine weeks ago, you wouldn't necessarily have expected us to achieve what we have done." Despite a heavy dose of flu, Germany coach Joachim Low could not help beaming with satisfaction after his side's 3-2 victory over Uruguay in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ third-place play-off.
Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Co have drawn praise from around the world for their fresh brand of play with its slick interchanges and bountiful finishing – and this despite the injury-enforced absence of long-serving captain Michael Ballack. In the space of a few short weeks, Germany's new generation have binned the old stereotypes and radically recast their footballing image.
Hitherto unsuspected attributes such as lightness of touch, youthful cheek and a willingness to take risks have obliged the world to seek a new vocabulary in describing the three-time world champions, supplementing the standard axioms of efficiency, obduracy and physical strength. Overnight, German football has become attack-minded and inventive – not that this was obvious in the semi-final defeat by Spain, where experience and class overcame callow enthusiasm, but it was emphatically on display in resounding wins over England and Argentina.
Plenty more to come
"It was very important for us to beat a big nation. We did just that against England and Argentina. That's taken us another step on compared to the previous tournaments. We're on the right track, but we need more stability in every position. We still need time," stand-in skipper Lahm told FIFA.com after Saturday evening's third-place clash at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
Defender Per Mertesacker, who with fellow centre-back Arne Friedrich played every minute of every game for his country in South Africa, voiced similar opinions when he spoke to FIFA.com: "This is a very promising team, but as we've learned, we still lack a certain quality. We need to improve in every area because our current limitations have been shown up here. But beating two big footballing nations like England and Argentina in the way we did should give us a lot of confidence for the next tournaments. And that's exactly what I think will happen."
When it comes to self-assessment, German football is nothing if not realistic, and it arguably rates as a major attribute that no-one connected with the national set-up appears blinded by the sheer number of goals scored in South Africa, where Low's men were top scorers with 16. Instead, the tournament is regarded as the next phase in a development process which began fully six years ago under former boss Jurgen Klinsmann and his then assistant Low, centred on winning well with high-tempo attacking football.
The next stage in the process appears to have arrived. Versatile attacking footballers such as Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski and particularly Thomas Muller, surely the find of the season and still just 20 years old, boast still-untapped reserves of potential in continuing to refine the new German model. Low is optimistic about the future. "We've worked hard, we've invested a huge amount, and we've delivered a remarkable performance," he said. "It's the first senior tournament for a number of my squad. We've scored an incredible number of goals.
"I particularly value the outstanding impression these players have given both on and off the field of play: they're dedicated to their work, courageous in matches, prepared to take risks, work as a team, and uphold mutual respect. They didn't just play with each other, they played for each other. I'm proud of the impression we've left behind."
Many in the media have already installed Low’s team among the favourites for the next FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil four years from now, but the coach remains more concerned about the near term. Low reckons his team learned something important between the defeat against Spain and the victory over Uruguay. "Champions bounce back from defeat. We've done just that. We'll go home now feeling unbelievably good!"