John Brewin: Why the wheels have fallen off Germany’s golden generation

German football has suffered a rapid downturn that Theresa May would be proud of and we’ve asked John Brewin to get to the bottom of it…


Attending a match in Germany’s Bundesliga should be on your bucket list. They have it so good over there. The stadiums, high-tec and comfortable, are superb, served by an infrastructure that grants free local travel to ticket-holders.

Inside the grounds, the food options are decent, and reasonably priced. Should you be so inclined, some very drinkable beer will be brought to your seat, though they also have safe standing, and a far better atmosphere, something fans groups are willing to work on.

Banners and flares add colour to a noise level that rarely lets up. The average crowds are the highest in the game, only the NFL packs in more each week.

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German football is managed tightly in financial terms, and there are no real sugar daddies due to the “50+1” rule that fans, the paying public, hold the majority over voting rights. A Sheikh Mansour cannot just waft into town and spend oil money like it is going out of fashion.

Certain clubs might have close links with their local conglomerate – Bayer Leverkusen, linked with the chemical company, Wolfsburg and Volkswagen, Hoffenheim with accounting software firm SAP – but nobody will be allowed to spend cash in the oligarchical style that has revolutionised much of the rest of Europe.

Football for the fans, by the fans, a utopia beyond the ken of the average Premier League supporter.

A protest in November stopped Monday night fixtures being played in the Bundesliga, something those who have taken time off work to travel to places like Newcastle and Southampton might look upon with envy. And German fans enjoy themselves; check out social media videos of Schalke fans in Manchester this week or FC Koln in London a couple of years ago.

But on the pitch, and for those used to watching the Premier League week on week, the quality of football on show is not exactly of the highest grade. The skill level is not too high, the pace not quite so unrelenting. And the players on show are not nearly as reassuringly expensive as they are in England or among the top trio of clubs in Spain.

The result of this approach is what is coming to be regarded to be an inferior product of German social engineering. “German football is only second class,” as the newspaper Bild squealed this week.

The Bundesliga’s sole club left in European competition is Eintracht Frankfurt, who squeezed past Inter Milan in the Europa League on Thursday. They have been proclaimed as protecting “the honour of the Bundesliga”. Meanwhile, the Champions League was a horror show. Borussia Dortmund, who spent the first half of the season as the Euro hipsters’ favourite, were on the end of a hugely professional job from Tottenham, a team in the middle of a crisis back home in England.

Schalke, meanwhile, were pumped 7-0 by Manchester City on Tuesday, despatched in the same style Burton Albion were dealt with in January. And then there was Bayern, for whom that 0-0 away draw with Liverpool and Joel Matitp’s own-goal in the Allianz Arena was as good as it got. Liverpool did not have reach the crescendo of their heavy metal football in winning 3-1 in Munich.

Bayern, who have been catching up with a lagging Dortmund back home, looked old and tactically cumbersome. Manuel Neuer was made to look daft by Sadio Mane, while Franck Ribery and Mats Hummels creaked with age. Since last season, where Jupp Heynckes stepped in to replace Carlo Ancelotti, and was followed in by Niko Kovac, the club has lacked leadership of the type it was used to under Pep Guardiola.

Kovac might have done a good job in Frankfurt, but his teams show nothing like the technocratic innovation of the Catalan, or the thrust of the 2013 team Heynckes coached to the Champions League and a treble before stepping aside for Guardiola.

It is a measure of the Bundesliga that a dysfunctional Bayern can now top the table. And it adds to the sense that, for all the resistance of the rest of German football, profitable and ideologically sound, this is still something of a one-party state.

The majority of the best German players will almost always pitch up at Bayern. Leon Goretzka’s decision to sign for them on a free transfer from Schalke last January was the same old story retold, those of Mario Goetze, Hummels and Robert Lewandowski. Goretzka is the latest all-action midfielder in the style of Lothar Matthaus, Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger. He was the Bundesliga’s player of the month for February, and looks to be the future of his new club.

Meanwhile, Schalke, a club with a hugely proud tradition have been skirting relegation. Only Dortmund have represented competition for Bayern in the last decade, but have themselves had great plunges, with Jurgen Klopp’s team having its bones picked by the rivals they ought to have been competing with.

Meanwhile, stars like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, in rich form for Arsenal, have been cashed in to pay for the next generation. Jadon Sancho has been a revelation this season, not least to those back in England, but it will surely only be a matter of time before he is playing on Sky’s Monday Night Football, rather than having the night off. Christian Pulisic has already been cashed in and will play for Chelsea next season.

Sancho is English, Pulisic an American: somewhere along the line, the German production line for high-end, blue-chip, engineered talent has stalled. One of the sources of the ire over Goretzka was that there are too few players like him, unlike in the golden generation that won the 2014 World Cup, who were themselves a product of the response to a previous slump. The striker Timo Werner, 22, of RB Leipzig, should Bayern be able to hold off yet wealthier suitors in Liverpool and PSG, looks set to be next in line to take those usual, predictable steps.

It is a state of affairs that German football has become used to, but this season the shortfall has been apparent. The question is whether anything can be done to arrest what is beginning to look like a slide; the failure of the team at the Russian World Cup was a huge embarrassment but Jogi Loew remains in the job.

It may feel like yesterday for some of us but it was approaching 20 years ago, in the aftermath of Germany’s Euro 2000 failure, that “Das Reboot” began.

The German national team was the focus, but the clubs worked together towards achieving the dream realised in Rio five years ago when Goetze scored his winning goal against Argentina in the World Cup final.

Heavy investment in academies led to facilities envied around the world, and much copied. English football’s recent revival on the international scene owes plenty to ideas borrowed from Germany, but there has been something samey about recent graduates.

Joshua Kimmich, Julian Draxler and Julian Brandt are undoubted talents, but do they have the necessary mental fortitude of the best German players in history; the likes of Matthaus, Ballack and Franz Beckenbauer? There is a sense of over-schooling.

The answer most reached for on these isles is the spending money, with the Premier League awash with funds to invest in the best players and managers. German football is not poor by any means but reluctant to overburden itself, even if there is a danger of being left behind.

For many, for whom football’s social function is its prime attraction, perhaps that is an acceptable price of doing things the right way.

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