IF Tuesday’s remarkable World Cup semi-final felt vaguely familiar, it is because as followers of England, we saw something similar in Bloemfontein four years ago.
The capitulation wasn’t as dramatic, the final scoreline not quite as historic or difficult to believe, but Germany’s 4-1 trouncing of England in South Africa can now be viewed as a precursor to the scintillating exhibition that left Brazil bedraggled and humiliated in front of their own supporters this week.
Just as Brazil can point to the absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva as a partial explanation for their collapse, so England could cite Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’ as an excuse for their failure. On both occasions, however, the outcome owed just about everything to the brilliance of a group of German players who now stand a game away from securing the legendary status they deserve.
Four years ago, they were unable to complete the job, losing narrowly to Spain in a semi-final that was a much higher-quality encounter than the final that followed it. Two years later, and Germany missed out again at the European Championships, conceding two early goals to a fired-up Mario Balotelli as the semi-finals proved their undoing once again.
On both occasions, Germany were the only realistic challengers to Spain’s claim to be the best team in the world. The era of Spanish dominance is over, shattered by a capitulation at the group stage that was as emphatic as it was unexpected. The hope, from a neutral point of view, is that Germany will triumph at the weekend to take their place.
They have been building towards this for a while now, certainly from way before their Bloemfontein exploits, and arguably since 2000, when their dismal performance at the European Championships led to a root and branch reform championed by the German Football Association that completely reshaped the way youth football was organised in the country.
Displaying a grasp of the bigger picture that continues to completely elude clubs in the Premier League, the teams in the Bundesliga accepted it was in everyone’s best interest to produce homegrown youngsters with a high degree of technical proficiency on the ball.
Those youngsters are adults now – Jerome Boateng (25), Mats Hummels (25), Mario Gotze (22), Toni Kroos (24), Andre Schurrle (23), Thomas Muller (24). It is not a coincidence that they have emerged together, through the same youth development system and German youth representative teams, to form a formidable line-up.
The first sign of their impending greatness came in 2009, when an Under-21 team that included Boateng, Hummels, Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Howedes, Mezut Ozil and Sami Khedira thrashed England 4-0 in the final of the European Championships.
It has taken a little while for them to fully flourish, but under the watchful eye of Joachim Low, a manager who has grown alongside his players and provided proof of the value of stability in the face of perceived failure, each year has been better than the last.
Germany qualified for the World Cup with contemptuous ease, and served notice of their quality when they brushed aside Portugal in their opening game. The rest of the group stage was something of a non-event, while the knock-out wins over Algeria and France were functional rather than fantastic.
That all changed on Tuesday, when Low’s side served up one of the great World Cup performances to rock the footballing world. Much of the subsequent reaction has focused on Brazil’s collapse, and there was certainly much to mull over when it came to David Luiz’s extraordinary dereliction of duty in defence or Fred’s persistent failings in attack.
But to concentrate solely on Brazil’s capitulation is to ignore the brilliance of Germany’s play, whether that be Neuer’s complete dominance of his goalmouth, Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s control of the central third or the sparkling attacking interplay between Muller, Ozil and Kroos. The effect of recalling the evergreen Miroslav Klose to lead the line should also not be overlooked.
The only shame is that the display came a game too early, but it is hard to imagine Germany’s players getting too carried away and failing to lift themselves again for Sunday’s final.
Come the weekend, they are unlikely to encounter anything like the same space and freedom they enjoyed against Brazil, but this is a side without any real weaknesses, capable of combining resilience and organisation with flamboyance and flair.
At the moment, Tuesday’s performance marks them out as a side capable of greatness, but that is still a little way short of being a truly great side. Win on Sunday evening, and their place in the annals of World Cup history will deservedly be assured.