Book Review: Das Reboot
To assess a book half a decade after it first appeared isn’t really playing fair of course. Raphael Honigstein’s much cited assessment of the organisational revolution that swept German football in the wake of dismal showings in the European Championships of 2000 and 2004, culminating in World Cup victory in Brazil in 2014, remains a persuasive read but any celebratory account will always be at the mercy of hubris and defeat against South Korea in Kazan last year rather upended Honigstein’s narrative; one that has been additionally put into doubt by the unceremonious jettisoning of senior players Mat Hummels, Thomas Müller and Jérôme Boateng from the national team’s plans a few months later, along with relegation to the second tier of the UEFA Nations League.
Honigstein is one of the UK media’s most engaging commentators, whether it be in print or via podcasts and radio, and I don’t think he’ll let it bother him. Nor should he. In the book itself, he breezily casts aside another possible contestation of his argument – rightly dismissing the Germans’ intervening run to the 2002 World Cup Final as one bathed in extraordinary luck – an absurdly easy draw navigated by one ugly war of attrition after another. That ‘tale of two Olivers’ – Kahn and Neuville – did nothing to mask the underlying decline in the German game of the period and nor, arguably, had a similarly limited team done so in winning Euro 96. The fully deserved triumph in Italia 90 was perhaps the last time that the Germans had displayed true confidence and élan.
Honigstein charts the ways German football was improved behind the scenes after defeat to a Czech Republic second string saw them exit Euro 2004 at the group stage, interspersing his account with a gripping description of the build up and progress of the team in the 2014 World Cup itself. At first a little confusing, it’s actually a good decision and does much to show how the groundwork resulted in eventual results.
Personalities are big of course – not least Jürgen Klinsmann and the way his Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society methods organised a national re-awakening at the country’s home World Cup in 2006. Watching the Nationalmannschaft take apart Costa Rica in Munich’s Hofbräuhaus on a blazing day, I too was swept along by the mood – it was suddenly OK to show patriotism and there were echoes of England’s similarly cathartic experiences from its own European Championships ten years previously.
For while big characters – and amazing players – were important, the swift in the German footballing mentality was as much about open-mindedness as anything. We hear about zonal marking and its perfection, the rise of pressing – and of course the immortal and much chronicled gegenpressing, a willingness to exploit Germany’s new multicultural, multi-ethnic landscape thanks to liberalised labour laws and above all, a recognition to no longer rest on laurels.
The tournament itself is accounted for expertly – and while the 7-1 win over Brazil in the final knocks every other World Cup surprise into a cocked hat – it’s the determination of the Germans to prevail while managing to enjoy the whole process of conducting a tournament and doing a masterly job of casting off the pressure that really impresses. Personally, I found the emergence of the particular generation of players – Müller, Ozil, Khedira etc – in 2010 presented the more satisfying aesthetic experience but the decline of Spain and a new steeliness made the 2014 vintage a much more persuasive champion.
I’m loath to bring the story round to England – but it’s perhaps important for Gareth Southgate’s 2018 semi-finalists to draw a lesson from this. While far more appealing than Germany’s 2002 finalists, there’s no doubt that the tournament draw ‘opened up’ for England in similar fashion in Russia. That the surprise performance has been timed to coincide with a short spurt of victories in youth tournaments is encouraging while the generally mature way that defeat to Croatia in Moscow was received do perhaps provide encouragement, as does the manager’s tendency not to get carried away. Winning major tournaments isn’t a matter of pressing a button but the Germans have learned well how to manipulate the underlying electrics.