The press here seems flummoxed by the failure of the players who were much-vaunted pre-tournament to shine – Mssrs Ronaldo, Rooney, Messi and Kaka – so somewhat half-hearted attempts are being made to promote Miroslav Klose and Arjen Robben into the vacancies. Football fans seem to demand stars to personalise their dreams and attachments, though most fans choose their team first and then who to idolise within it, roles which naturally change down the years as players come and go. This makes the objective assessment of players very difficult. If you ask the average manager who was the best player he ever saw, he will normally choose either someone he played alongside when young or someone in the team he manages, or seek refuge in saying that there are so many good players it’s hard to choose. I once heard Bill Shankly asked that question and, quick as a shot, he replied ‘Dennis Law’, the sort of remarkably honest choice you might have expected from Shanks: he had never played with him or managed him, on top of which Law was a thorn in Liverpool’s side.
The real star of this World Cup has undoubtedly been the German coach, Joachim Löw, who has produced, from a team which was wholly unsung and given little chance when its captain, Michael Ballack, got injured, one which has swept spectators away with its style of lightning counter-attack. Most teams at World Cups, having achieved a two goal lead, will sit on it. Not Löw’s team: they have just kept going and have scored four goals three times. Before the tournament Löw picked Spain as favourites but for the semi-final he apparently refused to let his team practice penalties, saying they would win in normal time. He had not reckoned with the infallible predictions of Paul the octopus or, indeed, with the strength of the Spanish mid-field. Germany without Müller lacked a vital spark.
For all that, one suspects we are going to hear more of Löw, who is that interesting phenomenon: a superb coach and tactician who was not an outstanding player himself. A lot of his football was played in the lower divisions of the Bundesliga. And like most of the best coaches he had to learn through often bitter experience. He was sacked as coach of Karlsruher in 1999 and, moving to Turkey to coach Adanaspor got sacked again in 2001. He took Tirol Innsbruck to the top of the Austrian league a year later but the club immediately went bankrupt, so he lost his job once again. However, in coaching school he happened to meet Jurgen Klinsmann and when Klinsmann was appointed Germany’s coach in 2004 he immediately sent for Löw, having been deeply impressed by him as a tactician. Together the two men took Germany to third place in the 2006 World Cup, after which Klinsmann resigned, leaving Löw to take over. Third place looks likely for Germany again, no mean feat with such a young team.
Löw points to the fact that of the four teams in the semi-finals, 28 players play in the Bundesliga, more than any other league. He expects this will mean that big European clubs will raid the Bundesliga for signings; a mistake since what makes the Bundesliga strong is that many of its teams have been working hard on team systems of play rather than individual brilliance. That was not enough in last night’s semi-final as Spain ground out the same sort of remorseless but marginal performance which put out Paraguay and Portugal. In the end the Fifa rankings were right: Germany was ranked 6th, Holland 4th and Spain 2nd. Logically, Spain should now be favourites but anyone who prefers a bit of dash will be rooting for the Dutch.