Michael Walker: Ruminations on the World Cup week that was
O’Neill trusts footballers to do what’s necessary because he was one and knows the drill
Argentina’s Lionel Messi scores his third goal against Ecuador. Argentina’s victory sealed their place in the World Cup in Russia. Photograph: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images
1 Fear Germany
They finished with 10 wins from ten games and scored 43 – more than anyone else in European or South American qualification. They conceded four. As World Cup holders, Germany’s qualification record was the best.
A group where Czech Republic were seeded second is not the stuff of nightmares, but there has been a style and rhythm to Germany’s progress.
Yet in Belfast 10 days ago, Joachim Löw went out of his way to disrupt the notion of smooth passage. As Michael O’Neill praised the Bundesliga for its constant supply of ready-made internationals, the national team manager was labelling his national domestic league “alarming”.
With his Mrs Merkel haircut and placid demeanour, Low does come across as an angry radical, but, reflecting on German clubs’ relative failure in Europe this season – one win in 12 games in Champions and Europa Leagues – Löw declared the Bundesliga to be not “the be-all and end-all”.
That was the start.
“It’s wrong to praise the Bundesliga to high heaven or say only the Bundesliga produces the best talent,” Löw continued. “That would be untrue and people who say this have been humbled.”
Quite a dig, so it was notable that the official Bundesliga report on Germany winning 3-1 in Belfast, ensuring they reached Russia, congratulated Löw but did so via an opening line which began: “With eight Bundesliga stars in the starting line-up . . .”
What this all suggests is restlessness, and in the context of German football, that is a proven quality. It was this sort of internal dissatisfaction which turned the country around after France 98 and Euro 2000. This should worry everyone else.
2 Disunited States
What links the resurgence of Germany and the decline of the USA?
The answer is Jürgen Klinsmann. It was Klinsmann who helped shape a new German football when he succeeded Rudi Völler in 2004. France 98 and Euro 2000 are remembered as being landmark-bad for Germany but at Euro 2004 they didn’t even make it out of their group, drawing 0-0 with Latvia.
Klinsmann came in and altered mindsets and training. One relevant quote from Klinsmann, taken from the excellent Das Reboot by Raphael Honigstein is: “The pace in the Bundesliga was slow, and yet the assumption was that we’re very fit.”
Klinsmann brought in Löw as his assistant, took a look at the Bundesliga and made Germany sharper and smarter. Allied to systematic changes in youth coaching, Germany regrouped.
“I believe that football represents the culture of a country,” Klinsmann said. “Germany was a doer country, but we had stopped playing doer football.”
Klinsmann went on to the United States, where they reached the last 16 in Brazil 2014, losing to Belgium in extra-time.
But when qualification for 2018 began with two defeats, Klinsmann was gone. Results were telling, but so was Klinsmann’s critique of American soccer and and American players: insular, slow.
What is being said now after the US failure to get to Russia is that America needs to reboot and become can-do again just as Germany did. It is an opinion which may make Klinsmann smile.
3 Strachan & Messi
Gordon Strachan is not alone among coaches in Britain when bemoaning a lack of physical stature. There are others who consider the solution to their alleged woes is always Yaya Toure, rather than rethinking how they deploy resources.
As Mario Götze, who scored the winner in the last World Cup final, is 5ft 9in, and Javier Mascherano plays centre-back for Barcelona at 5ft 7in, you would think there is sound evidence against the height-equals-success idea.
As if to emphasise that, Lionel Messi – smaller than Mascherano – did what he does and dragged Argentina to Russia on his own slight shoulders. ‘A Country Called Messi’ was one of the headlines. You could call Messi big.
4 Oh yeah, England
England have become an afterthought, in England. Partly it is because they, once again, were drawn in a group they would dominate but also because, once again, England’s domination was dull.
England expectations were driven down steadily from 2006 onwards so that Roy Hodgson could preside over the embarrassment of Uruguay 2014 and still keep his job until the embarrassment of Iceland 2016.
There is a vague notion that soon it will turn, but looking at Group F, it was the group from which the second-placed country did not make the play-offs. That does not suggest strong opposition.
England were unbeaten but scored just 18 goals, six of which were against Malta, and whereas to Joachim Low the Bundesliga feels secondary to the national team in terms of excitement and quality, for Gareth Southgate it is the other way round.
This weekend’s return of the Premier League and Championship is welcomed with something approaching public relief.
5 Martin O’Neill, footballer
Most Irish football fans probably have an awareness that as a teenaged Irish League forward with Distillery, Martin O’Neill played against Barcelona in the old European Cup Winners’ Cup – and scored.
In a forthcoming book called, ahem, Green Shoots, O’Neill is taken back to the first leg of that tie in Belfast.
It was held at Windsor Park as Distillery’s home ground, Grosvenor Park, was deemed dangerous, or the streets around it were – this was 1971 and Belfast was in meltdown.
O’Neill recalls his team-mates and manager, Jimmy McAlinden, with affection. And his goal.
What O’Neill either never knew, or forgot altogether, was who managed Barcelona that day at Windsor – Rinus Michels.
When informed of this, O’Neill’s reply is: “Rinus Michels! No? Extraordinary.”
O’Neill follows up quickly with: “Other than my own manager I was never interested in who managed the other team.”
This is retold, not to downplay the importance of management to O’Neill, but to return to an O’Neill fundamental: the game is about players.
“Playing is the ultimate,” he says, “let no-one tell you differently. These men who’ve never played who become managers and think it’s all about them, it’s not, it’s about players and playing.”
Since Monday night in Cardiff people have tried to deconstruct O’Neill’s management in order to understand it.
Perhaps it’s like this. These words are from Ruud Krol on Michels: “He covered all the ground before a match, but most of all he gave you a sense of freedom. You never went on the field weighed down by what you had to do. He recognised your ability and he gave you some respect that in the heat of the game you would do the right thing.”
It is called trust. O’Neill trusts footballers because he was one and he loved it and in a dressing room he might be quite good at conveying that.