I HAVE ALWAYS loved history. Experiencing the world through the eyes of the past has been an interest for as long as I can remember, and when I was to choose a major at university, history was my first choice. The idea of a clear nexus between action and consequence was always one of my favourites, which has also become my way of legitimising history as a science. To learn how to act today, we must look at how people have acted in similar situations throughout history. History has also become a reason to my ever-growing love of German culture.
Germany is a country with leaders that have shaped the world as we know it today. Frederick Barbarossa, one of the most charismatic leaders of his time and an avid lover of Ancient Rome, is attributed the rise of Imperial Authority in German lands. The Holy Roman Empire as we know it can therefore be attributed to the man with the red beard. Another German leader who changed the world was Otto von Bismarck, who unified the German states into one in 1871, creating the Second Reich, one that would stand until the end of the First World War.
The sole creation of this Reich makes him a truly important person, but Germany’s role in the coming World Wars would elevate him to a much higher status. Then the First World War came, burnt and ended. German inflation soared during the Great Depression and the nation was quickly thrown into times of dismay once again.
From the ashes of the Weimar Republic, a new leader emerged with goals and dreams that not even the greatest poet could imagine. Adolf Hitler came and, with him at the helm, the German society started to feel better again. It seemed like a Phoenix had arisen from the ashes of yesterday. However, as we all know, this was not the case. Hitler’s importance to the world and its current status cannot be overstated.
With that in mind, perhaps it’s worth looking at football too for the greatest leaders to emerge from Germany. For the purpose of this feature, I’m analysing the role of a singular leader; the actions of one man at the centre of everything. Everything that happens on the field can in some way be attributed to this player and his commanding presence. It has become a very Germanic idea.
Players like Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthäus changed their respective squads and made them real contenders for titles, partly due to their mere presence on the field. Fundamentally, what I want to know by looking at into the past is whether the old-school German leader disappeared with Philipp Lahm and what that might mean for the future of Die Mannschaft.
We often associate the German leader with foul and rough play, with a defender or even a libero sweeping players off their feet with hard tackles. That’s why Fritz Walter is an interesting phenomenon. The Kaiserslautern legend, of whom their stadium is named after, had an astonishing ability to saunter across the field with the ball glued to his feet. Tackles were no matter to the diminutive German with the commanding presence of a Mongolian warlord as he just skipped them with flamboyant ease while laughing sardonically at their futile attempts.
Read | Fritz Walter: the icon who united Germany after World War Two
Walter was the leader of the legendary World Cup-winning team of 1954, a team that changed the history of an entire nation during some troubled times. The country had been divided, with a future full of obstacles. The World Cup win in 1954, however, proved to the people that overcoming difficulties were possible as long as the masses stayed united behind a true and common goal.
With Walter the figurehead in this fantastic side, his importance to Germany as a nation cannot be overstated. Walter wasn’t only the technical mastermind in the team, he was also the captain and the focal point of everything related to football in Germany at the time. His presence made dreams possible, which enabled other players to flourish.
His mixture of technical prowess and responsible leadership makes him almost unique in German football. He was in no way controversial, in no way arrogant. He was just a humble individual who’d seen the torment of war, a small German with natural charisma and some gifted feet with which he fondled the ball as if he loved it. Despite the considerable passing of time, his legacy remains strong in his homeland.
Kaiser Franz is an obvious nod to the old Habsburgian Emperor Kaiser Franz Josef, but it is also an accurate depiction of Franz Beckenbauer, the greatest persona in the history of German football. Beckenbauer’s importance to the teutonic side of the game cannot in any way be overstated.
Beckenbauer grew up in Munich, where he also spent the maority of his career. While his boyhood club were Bayern Munich’s rivals 1860, he soon moved to the Stern des Südens after an incident in a game against 1860. As described by These Football Times’ Andrew Flint, Beckenbauer’s career was not straightforward and not solely focused on defending. He actually started his career in midfield, where he scored 17 goals for Bayern the season before they reached Bundesliga status.
While he always was a goalscoring centre-back, his versatility in moving up the pitch, starting and finishing moves, is something to be seen to be believed. While his versatility was certainly one of his biggest assets, the greatest by far was his ability to lead a group of people to the depths of hell and back with unwavering loyalty from his comrades. When Germany won their second World Cup title in 1974, he was pivotal to their success.
Read | Franz Beckenbauer: captain, manager, president and serial winner
Aside from 1954, when Germany surprisingly won the World Cup final against favourites Hungary, German football in 1974 was at the height of its ability and power. This was in the middle of one of the most successful eras of German football, when they had two teams consistently battling for European glory. Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayern Munich were both superpowers in the game and the World Cup team in 1974 was filled with players from them. Apart from two players from Eintracht Frankfurt, Jürgen Grabowski and Bernd Hölzenbein, most of the team was filled with either Foals or Rekordmeisters. The likes of Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, Rainer Bonhof, Berti Vogts, Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeness were key cogs in the team that beat Rinus Michels’ Netherlands in the final in Munich.
In 1954, it was an easier task for Fritz Walter; not in regards to being good enough to waltz past Hungary, but in regards to him being the obvious leader in a team filled with inexperience. Beckenbauer’s role as a leader, however, can in no way be attributed to the nonage of his peers, which makes him stand out even more. He was part of a team consisting of natural-born leaders like Vogts and Paul Breitner, but still managed to stand out. This was a remarkable feat in itself.
Beckenbauer’s methods as a leader inspired a generation – on and off the pitch. Many captains nowadays look back wonder how he succeeded. What did he do so well? While his sphinx-like leadership is hard to depict, his affection for the ball and his peers cannot be questioned, nor can it be overstated. Kaiser Franz’s charisma and modesty made him stand out among other more controversial souls – such as Breitner – but what made him so difficult to defy was the respect most must have felt in his presence. Der Kaiser’s commanding presence and his technical prowess at the back was a rare mix, and something that won Germany the title in 1974. Beckenbauer is the manifestation of the word Ehrenspielführer.
A rigorous mind in a demanding body, Lothar Matthäus was another incarnation of perfect German leadership on the field. While the longevity of his greatness is what has canonised his career, Matthäus’ leadership on the field is often overlooked. He once famously said: ”Lothar Matthäus is not to be defeated by his own body. Lothar Matthäus is the decider of his own destiny.”
While it may seem a vainglorious line, it is also a great portrayal of Matthäus’ strange character. If the World Cup win in 1954 was important due to the insecure future of Germany, and the win in 1974 is regarded as a product of Germany at the absolute height of its power, victory in 1990 is therefore often overlooked, but Germany’s win against Argentina was the perfect celebration for a unified Germany – even if they still went by West Germany.
It was the perfect start to life in the brave new world. Matthäus did the same thing as Beckenbauer, managing to stand out in a team littered with leaders. With Nürnberg legend Andreas Köpke in goal, Bayern zealot Klaus Augenthaler and hard-shooting Andreas Brehme in defence, Thomas Hässler in midfield, and iconic duo Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler in attack, Die Mannschaft scored lots and conceded very few.
Read | When Lothar Matthäus went to Inter Milan and became a legend
Within this group of world-class players, Matthäus stood out. He was a tough-tackling defensive leader with a wonderful eye for a pass. Matthäus’ lungs were seemingly bigger than the rest of Germany put together, and his grandiloquence both on and off the pitch rightly made him one of the most iconic players of his generation.
His role in forming the new German football remains eternal. His strength of character and will to make it to the top still inspires young players to grow as individuals, boosted by the hope that they may also win 150 Germany caps. Matthäus’ identified himself as a no-nonsense type of football – smart, efficient in possession and interested in getting his job done as early as possible – something that was prevalent in the national team at the time. Much has changed since.
The year is 2002 and Germany is engulfed in a national football crisis. The upcoming World Cup in South Korea and Japan looks exciting – but not for Die Mannschaft. They’ve just experienced a few years at the bottom of the international stockpile, and while their national team is still a force to be reckoned with, most claim this iteration to be the worst one ever.
A team without any clear leaders, without clear threats and creators, they were seen as a ragtag bunch of mediocre individuals trying to make their mark in an increasingly demanding world. The national team in 2002 was an iconless side. There were few players in that team that had won much in their career – only Oliver Kahn, Christian Ziege, Dietmar Hamann and Jens Jeremies had won anything of note. Miroslav Klose and Michael Ballack would, however, use the finals to elevate themselves to greatness over the coming years.
While Oliver Kahn was at the height of his powers – some argued he may have even been past it – this tournament was what propelled him into realms of legend. Kahn went down in history as one of the greatest goalkeepers to ever don the gloves, and although many see the World Cup in 2002 as a German failure, I would deem it as Kahn’s triumph.
Read | Oliver Kahn: a glittering career undermined by high-profile failures
Despite not leading them to glory – losing to the famed Brazil of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – the mere fact that they managed to reach the final with such an underwhelming team was a feat of epic proportions. With a final team consisting of Kahn, Thomas Linke, Carsten Ramelov, Christoph Metzelder, Torsten Frings, Hamann, Jeremies, Marco Bode, Bernd Schneider, Klose and Oliver Neuville, there wasn’t too much individual flair to boast about.
While Kahn, Linke, Frings and Klose all became cult heroes for their respective clubs, the squad was stretched thin when the talismanic Ballack was ruled out of the final. While Ballack shone throughout the summer in Asia, were it not for Kahn’s commanding presence on and off the pitch, they would’ve found the route to the final much harder to navigate.
After the debacles of Euros 2000 and 2004, German football was determined to change. With Matthias Sammer as the leader of this new revolution, Germany soon began producing exceptional modern talent across the nation. It all started with a directive from DFB that stated that every club in the professional system must provide a platform for youth development and must use some of their revenue to improve their academy. With the future secured, a new generation emerged, which included Philipp Lahm.
While Die Mannschaft had struggled for much of the early 2000s – barring the unlikely final venture in 2002 – Lahm went from strength to strength in his club career. Starting at Bayern, he then made a crucial loan move to VfB Stuttgart, where the club’s famed experience in producing young players took his game to a new level. He would later return to Bayern and become arguably the most consistent player of his generation.
When Lahm was selected to play a part in the 2006 World Cup on home soil, it was a sign of things to come. Barely 23, his experience on the international stage was still limited, but he already acted like a seasoned leader. Lahm’s prominence as a wing back, no matter what side, propeled him into the starting line-up at Bayern the season after the World Cup. Even though the campaign represented a rare slump for the Bavarians – Lahm’s old employer VfB Stuttgart won a shock Bundesliga title – he was on his way up, growing in confidence on and off the pitch.
Lahm’s club career is undoubtedly fantastic. However, his international career is – if possible – even more impressive, with the 2010 World Cup representing the pinnacle of an already huge mountain. With a mixture of talent and collective leadership, Germany won the title – their fourth – in Brazil. Lahm’s importance to the team was perhaps just as evident as Beckenbauer and Matthäus’ was. As the versatile veteran, he became the natural leader in a squad boasting a number of natural followers. He controlled play from the right flank, with his feet and lungs showing no signs of old age. And as the tournament reached its crescendo, so did Lahm.
Lahm was never a physical presence on the pitch, nor was he the loudest voice, and is therefore different to his predecessors Kahn, Matthäus and Beckenbauer. But one thing Lahm had, which the others had lost on the long way to success, was modesty. Beckenbauer was a commanding spirit, the natural and charismatic leader in a squad with unhinged leadership abilities – and he knew it. Matthäus was much the same; a charismatic maniac with egotistic tendencies. Kahn was as mad as they got, but his leadership from the back was definitive for both Germany and Bayern.
Read | Philipp Lahm: a decade in the sun
Lahm, however, was different. A quiet individual with a sharp mind, Lahm would speak softly to his colleagues, knowing when they needed a friend and when they needed a kick. That ability to analyse and make a flurry of correct decisions was Lahm’s biggest strength. In teams without natural leaders, this modest Bavarian became the unlikely father figure, the one young players looked up to. It says everything that he achieved as much with his mouth closed – consistent and smart as a defender – as he did with it open, and that’s of great praise to the now-retired star.
But what of the future? Do Germany have a leader-in-waiting? Many may suggest Manuel Neuer – the current captain – as a leader of men, but he really isn’t. He is a talented, charismatic and outspoken individual, like his Bavarian comrade Thomas Müller, but these traits don’t necessarily make you a leader. The room likely doesn’t fall quiet when these stars talk like it did for Kahn. Brilliant as they are, they are players themselves who need direction.
Someone mentioned Leon Goretzka as a possible candidate for the role as Spielführer and I can’t help but agree. Amongst other great qualities, Goretzka is a talker, an individual always looking to maxmise the output of his teammates. The key for Goretzka is playing time and experience. It remains to be seen how much he’ll be used at Bayern Munich ahead of his move to the Allianz Arena, however, if he does play regularly and demonstrate his undoubted quality, Die Mannschaft surely have a natural successor to Lahm.
Elegance has become hoi polloi since Sammer’s revolution at the beginning of the 21st century, and leadership has taken a back seat, perhaps unwillingly. The question I asked was whether Lahm will be the last old-school leader in German football and the answer, in my opinion anyway, is yes. Lahm will, in the decades ahead, be seen as the last of a dead breed – equally adept at playing the traditional game and leading from the front as he was playing the quick, counter-attacking football of today.
For me, there are few players demonstrating such skills, not through any fault of their own, but because they’re a product of the game today. Fritz Walter was the humble individual Germany needed after the national psyche was obliterated during the Second World War; Beckenbauer was the cocky leader who allowed Germany to feel superior again; Matthaus was the bridge between two worlds, leading with the dedication of the old and playing with the freedom of the new; Kahn represented a Germany not afraid to look back in time and punch above their weight; and Lahm was the hybrid, an individual shunning the limelight in a world of superstars.
As we continue to move towards producing footballers with superior technical ability than ever, in a world where instant gratification is sought by so many, the end game becomes less about the work it will take to reach the top in a decade and more about what glory looks like in the short term. Perhaps I’m being pessimistic; perhaps we’ll see a new type of leader emerge. We may even see an individual naturally adept at leading like Kahn. My only worry is that such an individual would be considered archaic by some in and out of the game today.
While that may be my opinion, my hope is this: Germany will, as it has so often done in the past, redefine what a leader looks like on the football pitch. Perhaps that player will be Leon Gortzka. Or maybe we’ll have to wait some time yet. Either way, if it does happen, you can be sure that national team success won’t be too far behind.