Of all the many notable junctures on Germany’s journey from fallen giants to reinstated champions of the world, perhaps the most unexpected transpired in a sauna in St Martin shortly before Brazil 2014.
It was there that the German delegation congregated, at the behest of their most prominent players, to “sweat for the trophy”, a bizarre team-bonding exercise. Nevertheless, it convinced Oliver Bierhoff, Germany’s general manager, that “something is happening here”.
So it's revealed in Raphael Honigstein's brilliantly titled Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, which traces the country's path to the Fifa World Cup crown last summer. "Eighteen years of hurt" – England, take note – was consigned to distant memory by one perfectly choreographed, football-robot-inspired swish of Mario Götze's left boot.
The success of the team has also rejuvenated national pride – more of that later. But it had been a long road. Between 1972 and 1996, the German team lifted five major titles and contested four more finals. But then came the drought. The 2000 European Championships represented the nadir, when the defending champions crashed out of the tournament at the group stages having accrued a solitary point.
An ignominious exit prompted radical change. Substantial investment was made, coaching and scouting systems rebuilt, a country-wide matrix of youth academies established and a new outlook born.
Of last summer’s World Cup-winning squad, all but two players were products of the academy system. A fine display of positive, potent football at the 2010 World Cup highlighted that this new-look Germany was on the right track – the “Nationalmannshaft” were once more a source of national pride.
Their lead attacker, Thomas Müller, may not look like a member of Germany’s new wave, but he certainly plays like one. Thinks like one, too. “That’s when you realise what a fascinating organism a cactus is,” he pondered after Joachim Low’s side defeated France in the searing quarter-final heat at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana. “How it doesn’t wilt …”
Honigstein’s account, though, is illuminating and insightful. We hear from Jürgen Klinsmann, the manager from 2004 to 2006; Bierhoff; Ralf Rangnick, a German club manager renowned for his progressive methods; and the current players Philipp Lahm and Müller.
Honigstein, a German journalist, cleverly conveys how small steps made significant change. These included Oliver Kahn’s cession to Jens Lehmann, which precipitated Manuel Neuer’s rise as the game’s finest goalkeeper; Sean Dundee, Paulo Rink and an era of inferior forwards helping spawn Müller’s emergence as World Cup Golden Boot winner and “space interpreter” extraordinaire (Müller coined the phrase to describe his own style) and Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s evolution into national team figureheads.
This was Germany 2.0 – no longer the Teutonic “panzers” of the 1980s, nor their mulleted, mustachioed and at times Machiavellian successors that inhabited the early 1990s.
Klinsmann’s “10-year plan”, built on the back of sizeable structural changes made to German football close to the beginning of the millennium and riding the public swell of support through its hosting of the 2006 World Cup – “this generation’s Woodstock”, as Thomas Hitzlsperger describes it – laid the foundation for global triumph eight years later.
The finals in 2006 constituted a watershed for Germany. Staging the planet’s most popular sporting event provided the opportunity to show the world how the country, not just its football, had progressed. Just like Germany as a whole, the national team were shedding their unstylish, conservative past and embracing a bright new future. It also signalled a moment when Germans were finally casting off the dark past, embracing nationalism and flag-waving became fashionable.
It did not matter that Joachim Löw’s side departed in the semi-finals; as Honigstein puts it, they were “popular losers”, a previously thoroughly un-German concept.
Little anecdotes litter Das Reboot, some more informative than others, but they combine to make a compelling read. Per Mertesacker's avoidance of military service, in part because the giant defender simply could not squeeze into a tank, was a minor but amusing titbit.
So, too, the revelation that WhatsApp can be used for something other than sending wacky pictures or snappy soundbites. (During the World Cup, the Germans employed the instant messaging app to disseminate among themselves information, performance analysis and scouting reports.) It was simply another example of the Germans’ commitment to conquering the world. And, worryingly for their rivals, it appears set to continue. A fourth global title may have represented the culmination of a 10-year plan, of Germany’s rebirth, but it is viewed merely as proof they should stick to this path.
Das Reboot is an excellent chronicle of the ride, and what predated it. It is told with the poise and panache of Germany's rebranded national team, when Götze's golden goal guaranteed their return to the summit of the beautiful game.
This book is available on Amazon.
John Mcauley is a sports writer at The National.