Let’s be realistic. So far, only Brazil has won five World Cup titles. And just them and the Italians – both nations with agile, sensitive, technically sophisticated, magic feet – have succeeded in defending their title in the subsequent tournament.
So how does Jogi Löw, the coach of Germany’s national team, intend to win the fifth title for Germany in Russia? It goes without saying that he’s proceeding just as he did in 2014, when Germany carried off the title in Brazil. He’s relying on “die Mannschaft”- which means “the team” in German and is the international name for the German national Soccer team at the same time. And his definition of “the team” goes far beyond the players.
At least that’s the impression I got after a visit to the training camp in Eppan. This is where the German Football Association, the DFB, recently spent part of a partners’ and sponsors’ day showing how the German team is preparing to win its fifth title – with the discipline, determination, and passion that are shared by every last team member.
The daily press conference in the media tent began around 12:30 p.m. Leading the day’s discussion were team manager Oliver Bierhoff and the SC Freiburg striker Nils Petersen, who was in the extended team before the final nomination. At that point the team had already completed its first training unit, with an average of two training sessions per day.
Team manager Bierhoff explained once again why Jogi Löw, the coach of the national team, had decided to nominate Nils Petersen for the extended World Cup squad.
It wasn’t a sudden brilliant idea on the part of our national coach, as some people believe, and it wasn’t a spontaneous decision either,” he said. “We’ve been observing Petersen for long time. With 15 goals to his credit, he’s the best German striker of this season – an alert player who learns fast. This will now be the acid test.
Panini vs. Petersen
Subsequently, Petersen had to answer the toughest question to be asked during this press conference. A young fan of kindergarten age wanted to know how he feels about the fact that his picture is missing from the current Panini football card album. Wham! Petersen didn’t lose his cool.
“I’m not getting mad about that,” he replied. “Of course I’d like my picture to be included, but my nomination was a surprise. But I’m telling all of my friends that they should buy the Panini cards anyhow. One day there might be a picture of me in there after all. If I’m allowed to stay on the team, I might make it into the Panini album.” Petersen might not be in the final team, but when it comes to press conferences, Petersen is certainly well prepared for the World Cup!
The team behind the team: The fitness trainer
After lunch we got to know the team behind the team. First of all, there’s Nicklas Dietrich, 35 years old, from the Palatinate, an athletic trainer at RB Leipzig who has also been the German national team’s fitness trainer since 2015. The stereotype of a slave driver who bullies the team through a series of grueling exercises is fairly outdated, he explained.
“We try to analyze soccer as a sport and to see what we can bring to it as athletes so that it’s played more smoothly on the pitch. We want to make sure we have fewer injuries so that on the day of the game the trainer can rely on players who are fresh and ready to go – that’s the most important thing at the moment. With that as our main goal, we’re training in small doses to enhance the players’ power, speed, agility, and so forth.”
The team behind the team: The grounds expert
Next we were introduced to Rainer Ernst. Within the DFB he’s known as the “Lord of the Grounds,” but he doesn’t really like that. He explained that he’s a landscape architect and that he’s responsible for making sure the team has optimal ground conditions at the training camp and for training during the tournament. Wherever the DFB is about to pitch its tents, Ernst will be there first to prepare the grounds. On the basis of his experience, he said, “It helps if you don’t arrive on the scene and say, ‘Hello, I’m from Germany and I know everything better than you do.’”
Before Ernst can start to do his work, he first has to look for a pitch measuring 105 x 68 meters – the international regulation size of a soccer pitch. That’s the only way the team can optimally train its standard plays.
When he puts together a mix of grass seed for a pitch, he draws on a deep store of practical know-how. Depending on the location, the lawn expert decides on a certain grass culture and then, more specifically, on the optimal mix of different varieties. “There are grass varieties that are especially resistant to plant diseases – they act as a protective layer that also covers the other grasses,” he continued. “There are varieties that are well-suited to cope with shear forces when the players slide over them. And then there are varieties that regenerate quickly. And we decide on the precise mix on a case-by-case basis, depending on where we are.”
The team behind the team: The video analyst
The third expert we got to know on that day was Christofer Clemens. Ever since the “Sommermärchen” of 2006, he’s been a member of the scouting team led by Urs Siegenthaler. Today he’s the “Head of Match Analysis” – in other words, he does the video analyses. Every player we play against during the tournament is analyzed beforehand by Christofer Clemens and his team in terms of his strengths, weaknesses, and playing style. They then summarize the results of each analysis, which lasts between 50 and 60 hours, into a brisk eight minutes for the team. This is how they help Löw and his team to adapt themselves to their respective opponents.
“The most sensitive phase of our preparations takes place in the locker room an hour and a half before the game,” said Clemens. “We have to address the players at the point where they are at that moment and give them the last pieces of information they need. And that’s why we’ve worked together with SAP to develop a tool that is oriented toward the visuals they’re familiar with from their game consoles. We’ve compiled information about the opposing players that is inserted into the right tactical concept and very clearly answers the question ‘What’s going to come at me, and how can I deal with it?’”
It’s always important to know which tactical variant the opposition is offering you. But the crucial factor for the DFB team is its own concept of the game.
In our vision of the game we’ve decided how we want to deal with certain situations. We’ve invested a lot of time in this process. And that’s why we also know just how we want to react in every Situation.
Of course Clemens has nonetheless taken a look at our opponents in the preliminary games. “I can reassure everyone here in this room that we’ve thoroughly analyzed Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea. If they beat us, it will be because we’ve done something wrong,” he concluded.
At the end of the day, we finally joined the team on the training ground. After a short warm-up, the national trainer had the team train for various playing situations: keeping the ball when you’re outnumbered, scoring a goal, playing four against four in a small pitch. The national team’s goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, after his long injury also known as “the foot of the nation,” was always in the center of our observations. Does he dare to engage in a duel? Will he dive to the ground fast enough? Will he fish the last unstoppable ball out of the net in time?
The answer is yes, yes, and yes! What we saw of Germany’s number one that afternoon was confirmed by Neuer in the following days through his performance in the training sessions and in the test games. Even after an eight-month pause due to injury, “Manu” stands in front of the goalposts like a wall. His reflexes are so quick that even his own teammates can’t get past him .
Autographs and selfies
The day was rounded off with the last highlight: After the training session, our group was brought to the team bus that would drive the players back to the team hotel. One after another, the players trotted back, sweaty but satisfied, and almost all of them took the time to sign autographs and pose for selfies. The goalie trainer Andi Köpke also stopped by, and someone from our group softly exclaimed, “The FC Nuremberg legend!” Beaming, Köpke replied, “We’re in the Bundesliga again, aren’t we?”
Yes, the mood of the entire team in Eppan, both on the pitch and around it, is really great. In the words of team manager Oliver Bierhoff:
We’ve got a clear goal, a clear will, and a clear focus.
And that means winning the 5th title – without any magic feet, but as a unified and totally committed Mannschaft. Just “best never rest”.