The Broken Jigsaw: Joachim Low’s Legacy

Is a legacy what you leave behind in the past or what is built upon what you leave in the present? The history of something or the same thing’s unwritten history? Nobody would doubt the legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson left at Manchester United, winning 13 of the club’s 20 top-flight titles during his 27 years at Old Trafford, yet the club have failed to build on his success and just completed an eighth season in a row without winning the league. They haven’t won anything in six of their eight post-Ferguson seasons so far. But, if anything, the club’s decline has cemented his legacy. He arrived in the mid-1980s, he transformed the club, and the same club has, since his departure, failed to live up to the standards he created, which has only served to enhance his own legacy, his own reputation. That’s the thing about a legacy. Whatever you leave behind cannot be undone by what comes next.

Art by Charbak Dipta

Which brings us to Joachim Löw as he enters his seventh and last major finals in charge of the German national team. What will his legacy be? Has he already ruined it? And can we even define it before seeing what comes next?

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. Exactly eight months later, on July 9, 1990, West Germany won the World Cup. Their third. The official reunification of East and West Germany didn’t occur until October 1990, so the World Cup still saw West Germany compete as, well, West Germany.

Just two years later a united Germany took part in their first tournament since 1938 and suffered a shock final defeat, before much of the same team lost in the quarter-finals at the 1994 World Cup. The Germany that tasted glory at Euro 96 was still, really, a West Germany team. Only three players in the 23-man squad had been born in the east, and only Matthias Sammer had ever played for East Germany. One of the other two players, Rene Schneider, played just once for the German national team and it didn’t come at that tournament. The success was built off the back of West German excellence.

And as that excellence faded, the next ten years would be miserable.

Germany made it to the quarter-final of the 1998 World Cup but were humbled there, losing 3-0 to Croatia. An astonishing 12 of the 23 Germany players at the tournament were in their 30s and just two were younger than 26. The future was bleak. And so it proved to be. Euro 2000 brought just one goal and one point from three games and a group-stage exit.

The 2002 World Cup was a peculiar outlier, even if Germany did suffer a humiliating 5-1 defeat to England in qualifying. Once at the tournament they found some rhythm and were helped along by a friendly path to the final. There were glimpses of the future in the form of Miroslav Klose emerging on the grandest stage of all but things unfurled in the final as Germany had to do without their best players, Michael Ballack and Oliver Kahn. Ballack was the midfield driving force who had inspired a run to the final but picked up a yellow card in the semi-final defeat of South Korea. He went on to score the only goal of the game four minutes later, propelling Germany into a final he already knew he couldn’t feature in. Kahn tore ligaments in the ring finger on his right hand early in the final, an injury he refused to blame after fumbling the ball for Brazil to score the opener.

If there were fears that 2002 was an outlier, they were confirmed two years later, when Euro 2004 brought another group stage. Germany were, to be fair, drawn in the tournament’s Group of Death, having to face both the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. But it didn’t start badly when they drew with the Netherlands. What followed — another draw but with Latvia and a defeat to a heavily rotated Czech side — sparked a revamp.

“In 2004, German football was down. We took decisive steps,” Löw would say 10 years after that group stage exit. “We said, ‘We have to invest more in the education so we are technically better.’”

And then came 2006. For the first time, the eyes of the world were concentrated on a reunited Germany. The tournament was a chance for them to have a new global image, to free the nation of connotations of wars (both World and Cold) and disunity as the 21st century began. Berlin, the city divided in two for 41 years (and separated by a literal wall for 28 of those) was at the heart of the tournament. And Löw was there too, part of the Germany setup for the first time. Not as manager, not yet, but as Jürgen Klinsmann’s assistant. Still, there’s no mistaking that Löw was crucial as Germany surprised everyone, including themselves, and a young side made it to the semi-finals on home soil.

“Klinsmann constantly speaks to all the players himself. Every conversation revolves around motivation,” Philipp Lahm later wrote in his autobiography.

“Motivation is Klinsmann’s big subject. He radiates tons of passion, and he tries to pass that passion on to us, so we can channel it. Quick game, attractive game, attacking game, successful game. That’s the new mantra of the German national team.”

“The game we end every training with mostly contains additional instructions – maximum of two touches, every second pass must go forward. Suddenly, training with the national team is enormously demanding, multi-faceted and enjoyable.”

It’s clear that Löw was already key in these sessions, with Klinsmann’s focus geared towards the more emotional, man-management side of the job. He would leave after the tournament and Löw, already incredibly familiar with the squad and having helped them to a World Cup semi-final, would take over. Germany didn’t look back.

Just two years later Germany would go one step further, with much of the same side making it to the Euro 2008 final. It was a final, yes, but also a final flourish. Only nine of the 23 were in the squad for the 2010 World Cup. That is when this truly became Löw’s team.

There should have been plenty of optimism moving into 2010. Germany had, after all, reached a World Cup semi-final and a Euros final in their previous two tournaments. But nobody was quite sure how a young squad would cope with a World Cup. A new generation of Germans was emerging, a generation trained in the academies redeveloped after the disappointments of 1998, 2000 and 2004, coached to play front-foot football. But then disaster struck. Talismanic captain Michael Ballack was injured in the FA Cup final, on the receiving end of a nasty challenge from Portsmouth’s Kevin-Prince Boateng. The Berlin-born midfielder became public enemy number one, and then added fuel to the fire he had sparked by declaring for Ghana, who Germany would face in the group stage, setting up a potential World Cup clash with his brother, Jérôme.

But Ballack’s injury, an injury that denied the hero of 2002 his final World Cup and a chance to actually appear in a final after he had so cruelly missed out eight years earlier, and the ire it caused became a footnote. The kids — Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil — turned out to be more than ready. They had the talent to perform on any stage and the attitude to prove it to the world on the biggest of them all. Of the 23 taken to South Africa, 12 were not yet 25. Lukas Podolski almost made it 13 but enjoyed his birthday a week before the tournament’s opening match. What a contrast to the ageing squads of previous campaigns.

This was the first modern Germany. Modern Germany in its approach — a young, exciting, offensive, counter-attacking marvel — and also truly, finally, representative of a multicultural nation.

Jérôme Boateng (Ghana), Dennis Aogo (Nigeria), Serdar Taşçı and Mesut Özil (both  Turkey), Sami Khedira (Tunisia), Mario Gomez (Spain), Cacau (Brazil), Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski (both Poland) could have ALL decided to play for another country. Toni Kroos, the youngest member of the squad, was born in East Germany, after the Berlin Wall fell but before the official reunification of the two German states.

This was, on the world stage, a true and positive image of Germany in a very modern way for the very first time. And they enthralled with their approach, with their confidence, with their ability and their performances.

It wasn’t enough for glory in 2010, though. Nor was it enough two years later, when a very similar side tasted semi-final defeat at Euro 2012.

But by 2014 the squad was established. The players involved had, between them, experienced an adoring home crowd in 2006, tasted final defeat in 2008, outdone all hopes as young dark horses in 2010, and ended 2012 disappointed to have lost a semi-final. And they were ready. The Bayern-Dortmund rivalry in the Bundesliga had hit a peak, with both teams involved in the Champions League final just 13 months prior to the World Cup. Jürgen Klopp had won the double and Pep Guardiola had enjoyed a season with Bayern Munich, following on from the club winning the treble. Khedira and Özil had played for Madrid. German football was the envy of Europe and the national team’s players had experienced glory and the most rigorous coaching of the most advanced football around.

And Löw used all that to his advantage. He used Philipp Lahm in midfield. He had Mario Götze up front as he scored the goal to win Germany their fourth World Cup. But it was a united Germany’s first. Toni Kroos became the first and last player born in East Germany to become a world champion. And the first generation of German players that weren’t old enough to remember a divided nation crowned themselves World Cup winners.

Germany haven’t gone on to add to that collection of titles, not yet. World champions often suffer decline as they transition from one generation to another. See Spain’s drop off since 2012, or France’s dismal performances in 2002 and 2004 disappointment, or, indeed, how far Germany looked from being contenders in 1998 and 2000. That transition didn’t look too badly managed in 2016, when hosts France knocked Germany out in the semi-finals. But this was a Germany without Klose at a tournament for the first time since 2000, without World Cup-winning captain Lahm at a tournament for the first time since 2004, and with midfield icon Bastian Schweinsteiger noticeably overdue international retirement. The real drop off came in 2018, when Germany arrived in Russia hoping to defend their world champions tag and failed to even make it out of the group stage.

Löw remained and his conclusion, after things didn’t improve in the months after the tournament, was that the transition had to happen more drastically. He culled key players in the form of Boateng, Mats Hummels, and Müller. They joined Özil in a forced retirement, though the then-Arsenal playmaker’s decision was technically taken by him after the DFB failed to protect him from criticism.

Hummels and Müller are back this summer after entering the Indian summers of their respective careers. Hummels has recaptured his previous heights with Borussia Dortmund, Müller has arguably reached new peaks during 19 months with Hansi Flick as Bayern Munich coach. And — let’s be honest about it — a smooth transition to a younger generation is no longer Löw’s concern. In Germany’s final warm-up for this summer, a 7-1 defeat of Latvia, Löw named the oldest German starting 11 in 19 years. And, regardless, his legacy is already secure.

With Flick — Löw’s assistant in 2014, as Löw was Klinsmann’s in 2006 — set to take over after the summer, the expectation will be sky high. That is Löw’s legacy.

Germany was struggling to find its unified national identity in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the national football team was no different. It didn’t represent the nation’s diversity but it absolutely represented its confusion. There was no modern German approach to the game. There was no sense that the team looked like the nation. It was old, it was almost exclusively white. And then Löw arrived.

The success he enjoyed from 2006 to 2016, making at least the semi-finals in six consecutive tournament finals, five as head coach, has set a standard German football now has an obligation to uphold, to meet. The balance has been readdressed and Germany must compete at every tournament. Anything less will never be deemed enough because Löw has shown that sustained success is possible. That’s the bar and he has set it.

Only three players — Neuer, Hummels and Müller — in this summer’s squad were born before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This Germany does represent a nation and that nation won’t settle for anything but the best because that is, over the last 15 years, what they have been taught to expect. Whatever comes next will be viewed through that prism, the prism built by Jogi. And that is his legacy.