The worst performance at a post-war football tournament for the German national team came in 2004. The European Championships ended for the Germans in the group stage, a humiliating exit to a group of the Czech Republic, Latvia and arch-rivals Holland.
German national teams didn’t do this. They made it to semi-finals and finals, and never ever lost in the group stage. Rudi Voller resigned in shame, leaving Germany without a manager and visionless.
Here Raphael Honigstein picks up perhaps the most important football story of the 21st century, certainly on a national level. His book, “Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World”, is a fantastic history of the painstaking project to rebuild German soccer.
Honigstein was in a German television studio in Portugal, covering Euro 2004, as news broke that Ottmar Hitzfeld was turning down the open job. Hitzfeld, the clear favorite, said “My heart said ‘yes,’ but my head won out.” The FA had no backup plan for Hitzfeld’s denial.
He describes the total shock and disarray of the nation, as weeks went by without a new coach. The FA had appointed a search committee to find the new manager, but every candidate either ruled themselves out, or was disqualified for behavior issues.
Finally the hero appeared, and from where else but Hollywood. Jurgen Klinsmann, the former national team striker, had long since been out of the public eye. Klinsmann retired to Los Angelos, enjoying the sun and philosophizing about the beautiful game.
Klinsmann finally aired his thoughts after Euro 2004. In a pair of newspaper interviews, the Swabian-turned-Californian systematically dissected the national team’s problems: they played prosaic football, decades behind the times; even if the tactics were modern, German players as a whole were physically unsuited to play a high tempo, aggressive game. Training and youth practices were also outdated.
The German FA took notice, and several weeks after, hired Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff to revitalize the German game.
Honigstein’s book is, in the end, a chronicle of the revolution Klinsmann started. Don’t be mistaken: much was accomplished before Jurgen started as manager in 2004, and much of Jurgen’s success was built on the decades of hard work preceding him.
But all of that work would have gone to naught had first Klinsmann and later Jogi Low not brought it into the spotlight. The two made the national team the most cutting edge, forward thinking football institution in Germany.
“Das Reboot” is told in a non-linear, Tarantino-esque fashion. Honigstein juxtaposes the story of the successful 2014 World Cup campaign with the history that led to it.
Honigstein tells the story of 2014 brilliantly. He merges match reports with chilling insight, and interviews with players and the management. He has enough of a big picture view to see the overarching themes of the campaign that manifested themselves within certain games. But he also focuses on the little details, recreating the atmosphere before and after every game. It allows the reader to recreate the day by day emotions of that summer. One can forget the ups and downs of a World Cup campaign, but Honigstein does a fantastic job of immersing the reader into the vicissitudes of the campaign.
Honigstein also narrates the story of the revolution. In between his account of the current German team’s triumph, he discusses the past struggles.
Decades of hard work, on several fronts, led to the Klinsmann revolution and the 2014 World Cup victory. Honigstein leaves no stone unturned in recounting the steps forward.
“The Beginning of the Beginning” and “More is More” tell the tale of the work of Dietrich Weise and Ulf Schott. Weise and Schott in effect built the German youth system, making it modern and cutting edge. They got the FA to create regional centers, where players in remote areas, where no Bundesliga clubs existed, could easily find high level instruction. They convinced the Bundesliga clubs to create or update their academies. The clubs, struggling in the economic downturn, saw youths as a cost saving measure, and bought into Weise and Schott’s plan.
The effects of their work are evident today: many of the players from the 2014 squad are direct products of the remade youth system.
“An Island of Modern Football” describes how Germany caught up tactically to the rest of the world. Having fallen behind in the 80s and 90s, the German establishment was at a loss for a solution. German teams were consistently outplayed in Europe, and the game at home was declining in popularity. But in the lower divisions, coaches like Ralf Ragnick and Jogi Low were making tactical changes that would fundmentally alter German football.
They adopted the play that the great Dutch teams and Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan had used to conquer Europe. Their teams played with a higher defensive line, pressing the opposition, and seeking to counter quickly. They pushed the tempo of the game, and dropped the traditional sweeper.
These changes were ridiculed in Germany, but as Ragnick and Low won more and more, the benefits were readily seen. Eventually clubs like Borussia Dortmund, led by one Jurgen Klopp, and finally even Bayern Munich adopted the tactics.
Klinsmann’s national team played no small role in pushing modern tactics into the mainstream of Germany. Low was vital as an assistant, helping Klinsmann put his big ideas into practice in the training sessions.
Honigstein stays invisible throughout the story, telling both sides of every argument ably. He took on a monumental task, telling the story of how an entire nation rebuilt football team. “Das Reboot” is a fantastic book, and a great read for any interested in how a country can succeed in the international game.