Why doesn’t Germany win soccer tournaments anymore?

England soccer legend Gary Lineker once quipped: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” But lately, the Germans haven’t been winning when it counts. In fact, their national team hasn’t won a World or European Cup since 1996. That’s a streak of zero for eight.

For many a proud soccer nation, that streak wouldn’t be a problem. Portugal is zero for forever; Holland, zero for twelve; England, zero for 23.

But in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, West Germany/Germany never went more than four tournaments without triumph. During this stretch they won it all in 1972, 1974, 1980, 1990, and 1996. And they were runners-up in 1976, 1982, 1986, and 1992. Since 1996, the Germans have been runners-up only twice, 2002 and 2008. And, as I said, they haven’t won a tournament.

What happened?

Let’s start with what we know didn’t happen. Germany’s talent pool didn’t dry up. There’s talk these days about “genius clusters” – periods in which genius (or in this case talent) flourishes in a particular nation or region. I understand that the great Bill James has written on the subject.

In soccer, this phenomenon is referred to as a “Golden Generation.” Austria had one just before World War II. Hungary had one in the 1950s and Poland in the mid-1970s. Uruguay won two of the first four World Cups. It then proceeded to stink out World Cups for decades before a Golden Generation emerged to shine at the 2010 World Cup and at Copa America the following year.

But Austria, Hungary, and Uruguay all have populations of less than 10 million, and Poland, at around 40 million, has less than half the population of Germany. Lack of talent is not the problem with German soccer. The squad that just crashed out of Euro 2012 in the semi-finals was loaded with top quality players. It was at least as talented as the German teams that grinded their way to victory at Euro 1980 and 1996.

To be sure, those teams didn’t have to overcome Spain, perhaps the best national soccer team ever, and the team that bounced Germany out in 2008 and 2010. But Spain didn’t bounce Germany this time; that deed fell to a good but hardly great Italian side.

Moreover, the Greek team that won Euro 2004 was probably the weakest team ever to win this competition, and the Italian team that won the World Cup in 2006, on German soil, was one of the lesser sides to have claimed that crown. Germany has had golden opportunities to win tournaments; they just haven’t delivered.

A second theory that can be dismissed is the racialist one that sometimes gets bandied around. This theory is based on the fact that German teams are no longer exclusively Germanic. The 2012 squad featured three starters with racial/ethnic minority status – Mesut Ozil (Turkish origin), Sami Khedira (half Tunisian), and Jerome Boateng (born in Ghana, but raised in Germany by an émigré father). At Euro 2012, none of the three sang the German anthem during that pre-match ritual. A fourth starter, Lucas Podolski, was born in Poland but moved to Germany at age two. His father is Polish; his mother German. Podolski sang the German anthem, along with the other seven usual starters.

There is no reason to think that the German national soccer team suffers from being less “Germanic” than in the old days. The great French teams of 1998 and 2000 were poster children for what racially and ethnically mixed teams can accomplish. And I have heard no reports of the kind of racial tension within the German team that reportedly helped derail certain Dutch national teams during the 1990s.

The fact is that Ozil and Khedira were probably Germany’s two best players at Euro 2012. Germany would have been worse off without them.

German re-unification shouldn’t be a suspect either. If anything, it increased the German talent pool.

But perhaps the German ethos has changed for some reason. I sometimes hear that during the past 15 years or so, Germans have become less intense and driven. But this is anecdotal evidence of the least reliable kind. One would have to live in Germany to make this sort of assessment.

Nonetheless, two sports-related anecdotes stick in my mind.

In June 1993, on a sweltering day in Washington, DC, Germany took on Brazil in an exhibition match. This sort of match normally is considered meaningless; the two teams were here mainly to see what it’s like to play soccer in the summertime in the U.S., where the World Cup was to be staged the following year.

However, Germany was the defending world champion and Brazil was generally considered the team to beat in 1994 (they would eventually win the tournament). So the match was not completely meaningless.

In the first half, Brazil, playing “samba football” to the hilt, thoroughly dominated. By half time, they had a 3-0 lead.

The second halves of “friendly” matches are usually halting, passionless affairs, as multiple substitutions mar the play. With the temperature near 100 degrees, I expected the two teams to clear their benches, kick the ball around for 45 minutes, and hustle back to the dressing room for beer.

The Germans had other ideas. Unwilling to accept defeat even in this exhibition match, they launched perhaps the most spirited fight-back I can recall in 55 years as a sports fan. 45 minutes later, Germany had achieved a 3-3 draw. At the final whistle, four or five German players collapsed where they were standing.

Now flash forward to the 2006 and the World Cup staged on German soil. The Germans, under Jurgen Klinsmann (now the U.S. coach) produced attractive football and eventually finished in third place. According to reports, this was sufficient for Germans to view their team’s performance as a success.

To me, it seemed astonishing that Germans would consider anything less than first place to be a success in a tournament they hosted. Something changed in Germany between 1993 and 2006.

This is not to suggest that Germany is finished winning championships. Its Euro 2012 team was the youngest squad in the tournament. I expect that, before this decade is over, Germany will win a World or European Cup. But Gary Lineker’s definition of soccer may well be permanently obsolete.


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