Paul Breitner (1974, 1982)
Spain, 1982. It was the saddest goal in a World Cup final. Paul Breitner reacted quickly to a loose ball in the Italian box, adjusted his body, and volleyed neatly into Dino Zoff’s bottom right corner. It was a goal that begged to be scored, had to be scored, but there was no joy, no sense of relief, not even hope. It wasn’t even a goal at all, really, but an anti-goal. It marked defeat, not victory.
Breitner knew it. He raised his hand to acknowledge his inconsequential achievement and jogged back to the halfway line. Nobody came over to congratulate him. The West Germany vice captain looked like a schoolboy who had come up to the board and solve a problem for which there is no solution.
Seven minutes before the final whistle at the Santiago Bernabéu, the time was up—for the World Cup (West Germany were 3-1 down against the Azzurri), for Breitner’s team, and for Breitner himself. A few weeks later, he announced his retirement from the national team in a book. “There will never be a Paul Breitner with the German eagle on the national team dress again,” he wrote in classic third-person football parlance. Eleven months later, in June 1983, the Bayern Munich midfielder stopped playing altogether, at age 31. Bayern’s general manager, Uli Hoeness, his closest friend in football, had criticized the team’s performance at halftime in a post season friendly in Bangkok. Breitner took off his shirt in disgust and never played a competitive game again.
Nine years earlier, at the Olympic stadium in Munich, he had scored in another World Cup final. That time, it mattered. He converted a penalty to equalize against Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands. The then 22-year- old wasn’t the appointed taker, but he grabbed the ball ahead of Gerd Müller and cooly dispatched it past Jan Jongbloed in the Dutch goal. Müller scored West Germany’s decisive goal 20 minutes later, at the stroke of half time. Breitner suffered an out-of-body experience when he watched the game the next day. “I was shouting at this guy, saying ‘You’re crazy, why are you shooting? You must be mad!’” he recalled decades later.
Back then, West Germany were world champions, and Bayern were European champions after a 4-0 win against Atlético Madrid in the replay of the final in Brussels. (The first had ended 1-1). Breitner, with his Black Panther afro, lamb-chop sideburns, and Mexican-bandit moustache, would have looked right at home on a “Wanted: Red Army Faction member” poster. He was on top of the football world. He played as a left back for both teams, but he would often maraud into midfield, cutting onto his stronger right foot. This was an age when the concept of fixed positions had become negotiable. Ajax’s 4-0 destruction of Bayern in the semifinal of the European Cup the previous year is widely seen as the high mark of “total football,” but watch the 90 minutes on YouTube and you’ll see Bayern players attack in seemingly random patterns as well.
The West German side, with the elegant Franz Beckenbauer as a sweeper cum playmaker at its fulcrum, was just as talented and creative as the Dutch, even if they hadn’t been at their best through the ’74 tournament. It was Breitner who had saved the team with a fierce shot into the top corner in their first game v Chile (1-0), after which the crowd in Berlin had booed the team. They expected more from their European champions.
Still, this was the golden age of German football, and their youthfully elegant, modern, and faintly rebellious style was perfectly aligned with the mid-’70s zeitgeist in the Federal Republic. Nobody played his role with more abandon than Breitner, the man from Kolbermor, southeast of Munich. (Bastian Schweinsteiger hails from the same place.) He pretended to be an admirer of Mao Zedong, wanted America to lose the Vietnam War. and had his picture taken in a rocking chair beneath a Mao poster with a Communist newspaper from Beijing in his hand. The German FA weren’t impressed.
It was all an act, of course. “I gave them something to write about, and they left me well alone,” Breitner explained later. He forgot about his admiration for Mao when Real Madrid, the team of right-wing dictator General Franco, came calling after the World Cup. In the Spanish capital, Breitner felt more Bavarian than ever: He used to have Bavarian sausages shipped in every week. Three years later, he longed to move back home. He spent a season at Eintracht Braunschweig complaining about the amateurish conditions and was soon enough back at Bayern, where he basically took over the club along with his best friend, Uli Hoeness, in March 1979. Hoeness was appointed general manager three months later. It was an unprecedented revolution, player power taken to its logical extreme.
Football and its image were changing. Professionalism and tactical realpolitik became more important, and so did money. Breitner, the self-styled revolutionary, took 150,000 deutsche marks to shave his trademark beard in an ad before the World Cup in Spain. He wasn’t the same player anymore. He played box to box now, as a tyro in midfield. Two years before, Germany won the European championships with Bernd Schuster in the center, but the Barcelona midfielder was injured. National manager Jupp Derwall had to pick the cantankerous Breitner instead. It was Faustian pact that didn’t end well for either party.
Breitner had come back to the national team after a six-year boycott—foreign-based players didn’t tend to get called up, in any case. With him, a player-manager in all but name, at the helm (the good-natured Derwall had little authority in a dressing room packed with hard-nosed pros), West Germany lost their first-ever World Cup final in Spain. Someone called it “the biggest anti-German PR event since the Second World War.”
España ’82 started with an embarrassing 2-1 defeat against Algeria in Gijón that revealed two things. The European champions were arrogant so-and-sos, and they were well short of match fitness. “We will score four to eight goals to warm up,” goalkeeper Harald “Toni” Schumacher (of F.C. Köln) had predicted. Nobody took the Algerians seriously; his players would have laughed had he showed them footage of the opposition, Derwall admitted. But his men spent their time at the training camp playing cards and drinking, right under the nose of the coach. “It wasn’t rare for 20,000 or 30,000 deutsche marks to be at stake in those poker games,” Schumacher wrote in his book Anpfiff. “Others fucked throughout the night and then crawled to training like pieces of wet cloth in the morning.”
Breitner convinced Derwall that the side needed to be kept on a long leash. The coach agreed, believing the Bavarian would act as a kind of role model by doing the right thing on the pitch. Breitner had a reputation for being a poor trainer, but he rarely failed to perform. “It was right to run away [from the team hotel] sometimes to have a drink late at night,” he told Der Spiegel 10 years later. “You know where to play the ball after having played 100 games that year. If they lock you up for three weeks despite that, you need something in order to survive. It has to be fun, and it can get late.”
It was obvious that Breitner wasn’t having fun anymore, though. “He wanted to prove to ‘a hypocritical world’ [as he put it] that everybody was only playing for themselves, that only the result mattered, that professionals didn’t have to abstain [from alcohol] more than normal people,” wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Kurt Röttgen.
Breitner’s cynicism infected the whole side. Germany beat Chile in the second game and then played out the most disgraceful 1-0 win in the history of the World Cup, against Austria. The game, eventually known as “the shame of Gijón,” was effectively over after 10 minutes, when Horst Hrubesch scored. Since Algeria had beaten Chile 3-2 earlier, both teams knew that a narrow defeat for the Austrians would see them and Germany advance to the next round. The 22 men on the pitch spent the entire second half passing the ball around among themselves. What made this fraud worse was the arrogance and lack of repentance of the culprits. “I can’t care about the crowd’s reaction. It’s their own risk if they fly here to watch this game,” said Wolfgang Dremmler. The Spanish paper El Comercio famously printed the match report in the crime section.
Gijón shamed an entire generation of West German footballers and the country itself. The Federal Republic had tried hard to present itself as forward-thinking and liberal in the postwar years, but 1982 marked the return of the “ugly Germans”: a species of people prepared to do unspeakable things if it was in their interest.
Schumacher made things worse in 1982 when he brutally took out Patrick Battiston in the semifinal against France. He jumped into the Frenchman neck high; Battiston damaged his vertebra and lost two teeth. While he was attended to by the medics, Schumacher was playing keepy-uppy. After the final whistle (West Germany won on penalties), the keeper sarcastically offered to pay for the Frenchman’s crowns. The incident sparked a political crisis. In a poll in France, Schumacher beat out Adolf Hitler as the most unpopular German, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President François Mitterand had to release a joint declaration to cool tensions before a friendly game in Strasbourg in April 1984.
Kohl, a conservative politician from Rhineland-Palatinate, had come to power in October 1982. Even though West Germany’s anti-football predated his taking office, Kohl’s risk free, bland, businesslike politics neatly coincided with a footballing culture that propagated hard work and defensive caution in place of flair and individualism. César Luiz Menotti’s theory of a “right football” (negative, results-oriented) and a “left football” (creative, democratic) was impossibly crude, but it fit.
The horrors of Breitner’s rabble of a team, the shame of 1982, became entrenched in a stereotype, the prism through which all subsequent West German and German teams were seen abroad. They became the Panzers, arrogant, methodical, and functional soldiers—even when they weren’t. Afro Breitner, the free-spirited attacking fullback, was forgotten; clean- shaven Breitner, torn between advocating a lack of discipline off the pitch and maximum discipline on it, took his place in the collective memory. The best you could say about his Germans was that they never gave up. Breitner’s “Kohl football,” or at least the perception of it, outlived Kohl’s reign, effectively lasting until 2006. Then Jürgen Klinsmann changed everything.
Michael Ballack ( 2002, 2006)
Michael Ballack could never quite work out whether the year of his birth (1976) was a blessing or a curse for his footballing career. He was the outstanding German player in a generation that produced no others, a world class performer asked to carry a whole country during its darkest footballing online casino days. Ballack became rich and famous, but success at the team level was ultimately impossible. To add insult to injury, many blamed him, not the quality of his teammates, for the dearth of trophies. “It was a classic case of people confusing cause and effect,” said national manager Rudi Völler.“We were missing two or three more Ballacks at the time.”
The son of an architect, Ballack grew up in the GDR. He was one of the last German internationals to have benefitted from East Germany’s comprehensive education for gifted athletes. They drilled football into him in the KJS Chemnitz school until he was as good with his left foot as with his right, and strong in the air too.
The wall came down precisely at the right time for him. Unlike his idol, Rico Steinmann (Chemnitzer F.C.), an elegant playmaker who never made it in the Bundesliga, Ballack moved west when the dust had settled in 1997. A year earlier, Berti Vogts’s Nationalmannschaft had won the European championship in England playing sturdy but uninspiring football. When Ballack arrived in the top flight, after playing second and third division with Chemnitz (known as F.C. Karl-Marx-Stadt until 1990), the Bundesliga was at the top of the world. Dortmund had won the Champions League that year, and Schalke 04 the UEFA Cup.
Nobody anticipated the impending football crisis. Vogts blamed a FIFA conspiracy for the quarterfinal exit against Croatia in the 1998 World Cup in France, and the media blamed him. (He resigned that September.) Paul Breitner was briefly installed as the next Germany manager in the comically inept hunt for Vogts’s successor before Erich Ribbeck and Ulli Stielike took over as a strange and un- happy couple. One wanted to play with a traditional sweeper, the other with a novelty in German football—a flat back four. “Concepts were nonsense,” Ribbeck said. “Only the next game matters.” His team had little idea what they were supposed to do beyond reproducing “the German virtues” of hard running and fighting. FA president Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder bemoaned that Germany had lost her African colonies in 1918 and thus couldn’t compete with the athletic style of France.
Ribbeck and Stielike were as bad as their suits, but the shameful performances at Euro 2000—one point from three games in the group stage—made it apparent that German football had missed the boat. Some smart people within the FA recognized the problems as structural and set about modernizing player development. But it would take another decade for those changes to reach the top level.
Meanwhile, the national team, the Bundesliga clubs, and the German public carried it on under Rudi Völler, sensing that something wasn’t quite right but with no clear idea about the underlying causes. Völler, a World Cup winner with Germany in 1990, had the authority and basic know-how to set up a team. But his side struggled to beat minnows in qualification—“There are no small footballing countries anymore,” the former striker used to say—and the feel-good factor that surrounded the team that catennacioed all the way to the World Cup final couldn’t disguise its mediocrity. “When it doesn’t flow for you, you have to stand well,” midfielder Jens Jeremies opined. That summed up the conservative nature of German football at the time. At best, they could negate better opponents and muddle through on sheer determination.
Ballack, an upright, effortless player who reminded some of the young Franz Beckenbauer, stood out amid players like Carsten Jancker and Paolo Rink. Bayer Leverkusen boss Reiner Callmund called Ballack the “little Kaiser.” Ballack led the unfashionable Bundesliga side to the Champions League final, then dragged Germany to the World Cup final in Japan. (He missed the 2-0 defeat with suspension.) Ballack didn’t just become the most important player in Völler’s system; he became the system itself. Germany were supposed to keep things tight at the back, then snatch a goal through a Ballack header or shot from the edge of the box. “Anything can happen, apart from Ballack getting injured,” the popular national manager said before Euro 2004 in Portugal. That was the next disaster. Völler resigned after the tournament.
It wasn’t just Germany’s football that was stuck in the past; the public discourse about football was too. That Völler never bothered to analyze the opposition teams or prepare specific tactics was not seen as a contributing factor to the malaise. Instead, the crisis gave voice to a dark and long-forgotten longing. The word Führungsspieler (leading player) became important. Defeats were suddenly explained by a lack of leadership on the pitch. The less football Germany played, the more the tabloids cried out for a “leader” to marshal the troops. Few people realized just how pathological that reaction was—a deeply emotional, knee-jerk solution to complex problems that couldn’t be well articulated.
Ballack took responsibility by scoring the crucial goals, but he was a quiet, controlled player, not one to scythe down an opposition playmaker or rough up an teammate. Former West Germany international Günter Netzer, who had always pretended to be a bit of a rebel like Breitner, infamously wrote in 2003 that Ballack was “not predestined for the leadership role of days gone by” because the socialist GDR had been a country where “the collective counted” and “the path for geniuses was blocked.” It was character assassination.
Unwittingly, this theory actually hit the nail on the head. Ten years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when Ballack made his debut for the national team, Europe’s best sides had started playing the kind of systematic football that had originated in the Eastern bloc (think Valeriy Lobanovski’s Dynamo Kiev). The game had become collective, largely free of individual geniuses or “leaders.” Unfortunately, Germany had missed the advent of modernity. The self-defeating obsession with leadership created unrealistic expectations for star players. “They wanted me to win the ball at the back, dominate in the center, play a pass to myself in the final third, and score the goal,” Ballack said.The path of his genius wasn’t blocked by too much collective football but by far too little.
It took a tactical revolution under Jürgen Klinsmann and his chief strategist Joachim Löw from 2004 onward to get out of that bind and change the focus from a romanticized past to tackling the present with courageous attacking football. Ballack actually played a more selfless (read: defensive) role in the 2006 World Cup, as a second holding midfielder to protect the back four. During his time at Chelsea, he also finally accepted that he needed to wield more off-the-pitch influence on the German team. Ironically, this change in attitude brought him into conflict with some younger players and paved the way for the end of his international career. He missed the 2010 World Cup with injury and was cruelly cast aside after the tournament.
Ballack had gone from being the system to being seen as detrimental to the system in a couple of years. In South Africa, Germany were reborn as a football nation—without one of the men responsible for that transition.
Thomas Müller (2010, 2014)
Everything changed in 2009, when Louis van Gaal took over at Bayern Munich and brought possession football to the Bundesliga. The Bavarians reached their first Champions League final since 2001. Ballack got injured, missed the World Cup, and never turned out for Germany again. The Nationalmannschaft played a new kind of game, with a new playmaker, a skinny kid called Mesut Özil.
And an even skinnier kid came out of nowhere—the third German division, to be precise—to catch half of Europe and Germany’s opponents in South Africa on the blind side. Twelve months after Thomas Müller had been an unused sub in a 1-1 match between the Bayern Munich B team and Kickers Offenbach, he picked up the Golden Boot and the Best Young Player award for his five goals at the World Cup.
There are more elegant players in Joachim Löw’s squad (Özil), faster ones (Mario Götze), more thrilling ones (Marco Reus), but Müller is special, incomparable. He doesn’t look like a footballer to begin with. The roving forward often seems to scuffle over the pitch with one sock half rolled down and a white undershirt limply hanging out the back of his shorts. And his body looks ill-suited to the job. “I’ve tried, but muscles don’t grow,” he’s said about his spindly legs. The son of a BMW engineer, he has made the most of his physical attributes and relative lack of power. “There are others who are better in the air, better with their right and with their left,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung. “My legs were never a problem. They’ve helped me, even playing the youth team. If you can’t just count on your physical attributes, you have to switch on your brain and make certain runs to evade direct tackles.”
Müller has memorably described himself as a “Raumdeuter,” an interpreter of space. It’s an apt label for a player who eludes categories as easily as slow-thinking opposition defenders. Müller sounds out areas that few care to explore, for example the gap between the back four and the goal line when there’s a throw-in. To everybody else, it’s a barren land, not worth furrowing. Most of his teammates at the club and international levels are better with the ball—some are better without it too. Müller finds room for his legs when there isn’t any and ways toward the goal that are hidden to everyone else.
Germany have always had small, technical players. In fact, they’ve always had many more than the “Panzer” stereotype alleged. But Müller wouldn’t have thrived in previous Nationalmannschaft editions. Discovering space in unchartered territory—his expertise, his raison d’être—simply wasn’t much of a concern before 2010.
In the dark age of the noughts decade, Germany didn’t worry about finding space for their game against big-name opposition, their main aim was to deny space to the other side. Without the ball, they often had 50 meters of green ahead of them. Only when they started monopolizing possession did getting behind deeper defenses become a problem that cried out for a specialist. (Müller, in fairness, is not bad in counterattacks either).
Löw’s Germany tend to have the ball and plenty of chances. Lack of leadership is still an easy hook to hang defeats on (see the 2-1 loss to Italy in Euro 2012), but the new buzzword has become “efficiency.” It’s what Germany used to excel at—in the view of others—and what they fear is slightly missing in this ensemble of highly gifted technicians. “All the possession counts for little if you don’t have efficiency up front,” warned Germany’s sporting director Oliver Bierhoff a month before the tournament.
This is where Müller should come in. His former youth coach Hermann Gerland once said that he could “play badly for 90 minutes but still score a goal.” He’s not just a tourist who enjoys jaunty trips to foreign spheres; he arrives like a thief in the night, bent on plundering (a goal or two). In Brazil, much will depend on him. Thomas Müller could well decide what the definitive chapter on Löw’s team will read like a generation or two from now.