Monday, September 19, 2016

Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World

Das Reboot, by Raphael Honigstein, tells the story about German football leading up to their incredible victory in the World Cup of 2014. Many forget that up to 2014 Germany had not won a major football title since 1996, despite being one of the great powers of World football. Although they had made the 2002 World Cup final (which they lost 0-2 to Brazil) German football was in crisis since their last major tournament victory in the 1996 Euro.
In 1998 Germany had been eliminated from the World Cup in humiliating fashion by Croatia, and in 2000 and 2004 they had fallen in the group stages of the Euro. This was not the Germany that everyone expected to win, not least themselves. Amid the need for change two sides faced one another, the conservatives that argued that German football should continue with its values and style that had before led them to victories, and a more reformist group of coaches and football managers that wanted to adapt German football to a modern attacking style, and not least to a changing Germany. The book traces the likes of Dietrich Weise, who helped set up a reformed youth system for spotting and nurturing talent, including working with schools, in that footballers should also have education, as aptly put by Volker Kersting, the youth director at Mainz (one of the clubs that gave birth to much of the renewed focus): “...the brain is the most important thing a footballer possesses. What doesn't happen upstairs can't happen down below at the feet either.” But Weise was not alone; a notable a group of reformist managers who promoted youth and a new style at club level, Ralf Rangnick, Jurgen Klopp, Thomass Tuchel and Mattias Sammer, all had important roles in the transition of German football.
 The 2006 World Cup in Germany plays a central role in the tale. Jurgen Klinsmann became the unlikely manager who wanted to change German football. As much as ever, Germany had to win the World Cup at home, but when they didn't, it was not a catastrophe.
Quite on the contrary: the 2006 team became one of the most popular teams of German history. Its attacking style, flat hierarchy, relaxed attitude and friendly players became a symbol of a marvelous World Cup, greatly described in the documentary “Ein Sommermärchen”.
In 2006 football in Germany was no longer about winning only, but captured the wider imagination of Germans.
Germany built on the 2006 World Cup “success” for the following years. Under Klinsmann's assistant, Joachim Low, they continued building on the attacking style and involving players in decision-making. In 2008 and 2010 they lost the Euro final and World Cup semifinal, respectively, to the best Spanish side of all time. In 2012 they lost in the Euro semifinal to Italy, but one could already see the potential of a technically skilled and confident team before the 2014 World Cup. The fruits of the focus on youth could already be seen in 2009, when German youth sides, who had never performed well, in one year won the u-17, u-19 and u-21 European championships. The victories counted up to 10 players who would eventually be part of the 2014 triumph.

The book is excellent as it inter-changes chapters on the background, and then the actual build-up to the 2014 final at the Maracana. Each of the major matches gets a chapter, with the matches against Algeria and Brazil standing out. Against Algeria, Germany was under enormous pressure against a team that had read well their style. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer saved Germany, who in the end with patience and ball possession wore down the brave Algerians.
For the Brazil-Germany semi-final it is interesting it is to read how the German team had studied Brazil's weaknesses. Brazil had indeed not been strong in the tournament, and the Germans downplayed their chances, while knowing that the South Americans were under enormous pressure to win the World Cup at home; a pressure that the Germans had themselves been under in 2006.
The description of the final is fascinating, also considering that it was never a given that Germany would win; Argentina had one of the best teams in the world, and had it not been for Higuain's misses history might well have been different... The description of Mario Gotze's winning goal is excellent. Gotze himself a fruit of the youth system and an avid user of a computer simulation where players were made to repeat a move similar to the goal move, becomes in the book the ultimate proof of the successful transformation of German football.
I liked the book because unlike many other books it does not go into gossiping or some pseudo-psychological analysis of people. The focus is on football. In that regard it may be too detailed for the un-initiated. The book requires some prior knowledge of older German players, results and teams, or one will have a difficult time appreciating all the changes and details. But f you have that knowledge and an interest beyond German football, and also on football in general (I could not stop thinking why Brazil has not engaged in similar reforms that are very needed), this is a great book.