Germany the class of world football

Germany's national soccer Joachim Loew (R) goes over the pitch as goalkeeper Manuel Neuer looks at...

Germany's national soccer Joachim Loew (R) goes over the pitch as goalkeeper Manuel Neuer looks at him during a training session at the stadium in Warsaw, June 27, 2012. (REUTERS)

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:28 PM ET

How wonderful to be a football nation that every two years does not arrive at a major tournament as a psychological basket-case.

Better still, one that carries a virtual guarantee that if it does not win, it will be seriously competitive.

How splendid, also, that the coach doesn't have to talk up the inspirational powers of a player who missed the first two games, not because of some unfortunate injury but because he hacked down from behind an opponent who had done nothing more provocative than win the ball -- and one who, incidentally, played his last significant international football eight years ago.

Maybe, though, it is time to cut from the chase for excuses and revisionism so familiar in England to the one that is still running towards Sunday's European final here and say how wonderful it must be to Germany.

Yes, Germany -- the team that ever since losing at Wembley in 1966 has been setting standards, evolving teams, replacing one major player with another of similar quality, beyond the dreams, well, certainly the competence, of its conquerors.

It seemed the nadir for England came in Bloemfontein two years ago, in the World Cup round of 16, when a new, young German team, responding brilliantly to the fact that in the previous World Cup and European Championships they had merely finished, respectively, semifinalists and runners up, seemed to be playing an entirely different and infinitely superior game.

Here these last few days, though, the division has looked still wider, with Germany dropping key players -- including the tournament's co-scoring leader, Mario Gomez -- and eventually blasting four goals past Greece on its way to Thursday's semifinal with Italy.

Though it's true Germany has never beaten Italy in a major tournament, coach Joachim Loew brushes this away as though it is the smallest particle of dust.

"Football," he said, "is not about what happened in the past -- it is about today and tomorrow. I don't have a problem with our record against Italy, it is irrelevant to this next match and I don't have a problem with changing winning teams. My job is picking the best players at a certain moment."

When Loew says that, you are obliged to flinch at the memory of the certainties enjoyed by England's "golden generation." Sven Goran Eriksson ran them in the fashion of a celebrity club of virtually irrevocable membership -- and made a concerted campaign to deliver a 100th cap to David Beckham, even after he had decamped for his sweetheart deal with Major Soccer League.

A somewhat bemused Fabio Capello was asked if an Italian coach would have come under similar pressure if a Paolo Maldini or Franco Baresi was scratching for a century of caps. He said, "Never in a million years."

It's not bad being Italy, either, when you think about it, give or take the odd match-fixing controversy. Whatever their troubles, the Italians reminded us Sunday night they can generally find a way to play football at a serious level. It helps, of course, if a player like Andrea Pirlo is around to illustrate the value of possession and skill on the ball and also a vibrantly working intelligence.

Yet for all the wiles he imposed on England, it is hard to imagine that Pirlo will get much more than a breath of such opportunity against Germany in Warsaw. All the evidence suggests Germany, with the ramrod Bastian Schweinsteiger fit again and Mesut Ozil playing the football of his young life, will be too strong, too fast and simply too good for the Italians, who so dominated England in all but the matter of scoring goals.

The conviction before the start of this tournament was that Germany had indeed moved beyond the promise they displayed so strikingly while outplaying both England and Argentina before falling to Spain in the World Cup semifinal. Nothing seen here has weakened the pre-tournament claim of Loew that his team had become strong to the point where they performed their most vital tasks "automatically."

In the process, they have produced a quality of football that has brought fresh ridicule on the mythical idea that Germany's extraordinary record in major tournaments -- three World Cup wins, and four times runners-up, and three European titles and three second places -- has been the product of nothing more than joyless efficiency.

The impression goes back to the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, when the beautifully rounded -- and elementally tough -- Netherlands was seen to throw away, in arrogance, its chance of a first triumph.

It is right that the Dutch sought not only to beat their bitter rivals but also embarrass them on their own soil. There was no doubt that their ambition was supported by a superb cast of players that included Johan Cruyff, Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol and Willem van Hanegem.

But then you look at the winners' column and you see names like Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Brietner, Wolfgang Overath and Gerd Muller.

These were not the dull beneficiaries of Dutch football madness, no more than the team which cruised past Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder the other day. They were master players laying down the foundation of a tradition, superb not only in its achievements but also in a relentless desire to improve, to build one point of strength upon another.

The truth is that if you have not come to admire and envy the Germans over the last few weeks, and even like them more than a little, you might want to check what international football is supposed to be all about.


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