The Brains Behind the Team Hungry to Win the World Cup

Why you should care

There’s a lot to learn from the head coach of the German soccer team, even if you have no idea what this game is about.

Joachim Löw has an almost erotic relationship with precision.

A characteristic befitting the head coach of the German national soccer team and the son of a craftsman. And one that sets him up well to be one of the favorites to win the World Cup in Brazil, which begins June 12. But even if you’re not a football fanatic, you can learn a thing or two about Germany — and the effectiveness of German work ethic — by watching Löw at work.

Germans take superb performance almost for granted. It’s rather like owning a Mercedes — you expect it to perform to perfection and if it fails, you react with dismay. So far, under Löw, the DFB — the national German team — has had a number of very successful years. In the Euro Cup 2008, Germany’s team made it all the way to the final. In both the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euro Cup, Germany reached the semi-finals. But this year? Anything short of reaching the semi-finals would be regarded as a huge disappointment.

Here, soccer is more than a sport. It has a tendency to explain the world — and run parallel with historic moments in Germany.

And not just because the German people have a hunger to win. Soccer has the ability to personify — and uplift — a nation. And Germany could do with a bit of uplifting at the moment. The nation is increasingly disgruntled about shouldering the costs of European unification, bailing out poor countries in the south and east of the continent.

Which puts quite the burden on Löw. Especially because here, soccer is so much more than a sport. It has a tendency to explain the world — and to come in parallel with important historical moments in Germany. The first time the Germans won the World Cup was in 1954 — nine years after World War II.

When the team of frankly hopeless amateurs won the final that year against the highly professional Hungarians, a long-lost feeling of pride in the wake of a ruined nation, there was a feeling of bootstrapping uplift. Two decades later in 1974, it rang a bell of optimism, at a time of growth and modernization. When they won a third time in 1990 — just after the fall of the Berlin Wall — the win coincided with a time of newfound assertiveness in German leadership.

Löw is accustomed to the pressure, though. When in 2004 the national team was desperately looking a for a coach after a disappointing performance at the EuroCup 2004, they finally chose Juergen Klinsmann — now head coach of the U.S. soccer team— against heavy opposition from heavyweights who pointed out that despite his charisma, he was inexperienced. They insisted on supplementing him with an experienced coach; Klinsmann was picky, but finally agreed on Löw, whom he had known for years.

Players respect him because he treats them like grown-ups, he doesn’t rule over them, he encourages debate and actually listens…

- Roland Eitel

The one-time head coach at VfB Stuttgart, a major German club, Löw had followed that respected position with a string of short and unsuccessful gigs at minor clubs. He was repeatedly fired, and was unemployed multiple times. When he was called up for the Klinsmann job one day in the middle of a jog in the Black Forest, he’d been out of work for more than three months.

Though he started the job as a compromise, he made good on the chance quickly. Klinsmann came to rely on Löw to sweat the small stuff, to develop training techniques, to come up with tactical solutions — in short, Löw did all the nitty-gritty coaching leading up to a 2006 national team that Klinsmann took the credit for. When Klinsmann stepped down that year, Löw was the natural choice as his successor. “It was the top dogs among his players who made clear that the team itself wanted Löw to continue his work,” says (my colleague) Walter Straten of BILD, Germany’s leading sports journalist.

Headshot of Joachim

The Man Engineering German Soccer Stardom

Source Dieter Roeseler/laif/Redux

Players usually start rhapsodizing when asked about working with Löw. Why? Ask Roland Eitel, a former adviser to Klinsmann and one of Löw’s oldest friends: “Players respect him because he treats them like grown-ups, he doesn’t rule over them, he encourages debate and actually listens to his players, takes their views into account for his decisions.”

Which makes him a far cry from old-school coaches who assert their authority with early morning runs and extra-draining training sessions. It’s about playing smarter, not harder. The game today requires creative solutions — like how to minimize the impact of someone like Cristiano Ronaldo, of how to avoid conceding goals after corner kicks, of how to change around positions mid-game. The sport’s come a long way since the age of fight, kick and run games.

But soccer traditionalists prefer a less scientific, more hard-boiled approach. Some criticize Löw for coddling his athletes — it’s true, Löw is housing the 2014 team in a seaside resort hotel he actually had built for them, tailored specifically to their requirements including latest-technology gyms and superb training pitches. The detractors ridicule Löw’s interest in hiring psychologists and nutritionists, arguing that young millionaires are pampered enough already and need strong leadership.

He comes from the land of finesse, exactitude and hard work, the land that birthed Johannes Kepler and Carl Benz.

Yet coddling isn’t what Löw would call it. A down-to-earth child of the Black Forest — the region where, until the 1960s, every village used to have its own clockmaker — he comes from the land of finesse, exactitude and hard work, the same land that birthed astronomer Johannes Kepler and also Carl Benz, the engineer of the first automobile and founder of Mercedes-Benz.

Löw had displayed extraordinary talent as an amateur player in his youth and earned his first professional contract at the age of 18, but injury struck. When he recovered from a broken shinbone at 22, he realized he wouldn’t make it at the top — and became a coach instead. Of course, not all great players make great coaches. Löw made a study of it, on and off pitch.

For Löw, it’s meant managing the business of the team — resorts and all. And in Brazil, it means bringing a cadre of attendants, including a nutritionist, two fitness coaches and a medical team including physiotherapists and psychologists. And don’t forget the computer scientists, who use an exclusively developed software to analyze their competitors. After all, it takes precision to engineer success — something Germany unequivocally expects.

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