Michael Ballack is a seasoned campaigner, but the broad smile written across his chiselled features as he thanked the travelling German support at the Luschniki stadium on Saturday betrayed both pride and a deep sense of relief. Clearly, a huge burden had fallen from the shoulders of the national team captain. Over in the dugout, Joachim Low sat motionless for a while, absorbed in his thoughts and oblivious to the scenes around him. The coach and the captain were the chief architects of the three-time FIFA World Cup™ winners' tense 1-0 win over Russia that secured Germany's passage to the 2010 finals in South Africa.
The triumph in Moscow, sealed by Miroslav Klose's 48th goal in 92 senior appearances, will have sent a chilling reminder around the footballing world. Yet again, the Germans peaked when it mattered. Andrei Arshavin and Co looked the more skilful footballing side, but Germany won the day with a classic display of their traditional virtues: discipline, determination and an unbending will to win. Something had to give in the meeting between an irresistible force and an immoveable object - in the long history of FIFA World Cup qualifying, Germany have never lost away and the Russians had never previously lost at home - and German resilience ultimately proved the decisive factor.
Germany, who have never failed to qualify for a major tournament, will now be regarded with healthy respect when they arrive in southern Africa for next year's showdown. Yet another generation of players has demonstrated the deep reserves of mental strength which make them such formidable opponents. There are many routes to success in football, and scintillating skill is only one of them. Winning through tactical planning, seamless organisation and clinical execution of a game plan is just as much of an art, and it has been perfected by the men with the German FA (DFB) eagle on their shirts.
"We showed nerves of steel, we believed in ourselves, and we were extremely disciplined," Ballack commented at the final whistle. Against Guus Hiddink's lively and energetic Russian side, the 33-year-old demonstrated all his leadership qualities, symbolising his steely resolve to lift the major trophy which has consistently eluded him in an otherwise illustrious career. "Every one of my players has the genes of a winner," Low remarked.
After dropping just two points in nine qualifiers to date, Germany joined the Netherlands, Spain and England as the fourth European nation to book a place in South Africa. They were followed later in the evening by Denmark, Serbia and FIFA World Cup holders Italy. The only minor blemish in the Germans' campaign was a 3-3 draw away to Finland last year, in which Low's men had to come from behind three times. That match in Helsinki amply showed that, for all their lack of a true star name, the team had character and resolve in abundance. The three points away to the Russians were ultimately collected by ten men, following debutant Jerome Boateng's dismissal for a second bookable offence more than 20 minutes from time.
We showed nerves of steel, we believed in ourselves, and we were extremely disciplined.
Just a few weeks ago, defender Christoph Metzelder made the very same point in a FIFA.com exclusive: "We need to realise that we can't achieve [winning the World Cup] purely on our footballing abilities. There are six or seven other teams around the world that simply play better football than we do. We need to bring other attributes into play, and this is what I think makes all the difference. If we can do that again, we'll be dangerous opponents." The Real Madrid centre-back is only a fringe member of Low's squad at present, but would soon return to the coach's plans if he can secure a sustained run in the Madrid team.
Of the squad which rode a wave of national euphoria to finish third at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, only Jens Lehmann, Torsten Frings and Bernd Schneider have disappeared from the scene. Hungry youngsters have taken their place. Bayer Leverkusen keeper Rene Adler turned in a match-winning display in Moscow and must now be favourite to inherit the mantle bequeathed by tempestuous greats Lehmann and Oliver Kahn. Adler's club team-mate Simon Rolfes gave an intelligent and unruffled display as Ballack's foil in defensive midfield.
And then there is exuberantly gifted Werder Bremen ace Mesut Ozil, a mere 20 years of age but the inspired genius behind Klose's winner on Saturday. There seems so much more to come from Ozil, now widely regarded as the yearned-for source of attacking creativity not seen in the German side since the long-gone era of Thomas Hassler or Mehmet Scholl.
Speaking to FIFA.com at the Ernst Happel stadium in Vienna 16 or so months ago, Bastian Schweinsteiger's first reaction to losing the EURO 2008 final to Spain was to call for a certain numerical series to be completed. Philipp Lahm spelled it out exclusively for FIFA.com last week: "We were third at the World Cup and second at the EURO, so our goal for 2010 is to make the Final and win the trophy."
Perhaps glittering skill will never be the defining facet of the German game. Certainly, it will not be a reason why they will inevitably be rated as genuine contenders next summer. That will be due to the ruthlessness and tenacity they unfailingly summon up when a result is needed, the attributes which have kept them consistently among the elite group of footballing nations.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday's match, Low declined to answer questions as to his team's prospects in South Africa. It was left to Russia boss Guus Hiddink to voice the thought shared by experts the world over: "The Germans always do well at the World Cup finals."