There are some books that you just know are going to work out. Perfect concepts executed by the most appropriate writer. Sid Lowe on the history of El Classico, Tony Evans on the Liverpool team of 1983/84, Jonathan Wilson on anything that involves hundreds of hours of research in dusty provincial libraries. Yellow Jersey Press must have been confident about this one. It has the concept; the long recovery of German football that culminated in their 2014 World Cup triumph. It has the writer; the peerless Rafa Honigstein. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer, you’ll be relieved to know, is absolutely nothing. Honigstein, supremely well connected, lets the characters tell the zeroes-to-heroes story as he flicks the scene back and forth from those grim post-millennial days to Brazil and the run to the final. And beyond the familiar characters and the compelling accounts of the recovery, there’s some myth-busting here too. The common consensus is that the German football establishment had to give itself a major makeover after the humiliation of Euro 2000 when they suffered the ultimate indignity of being beaten by Kevin Keegan’s England. The truth is that there were some who had seen it all coming years before.
There were concerns as early as 1996, when Germany won the European Championships, that something was awry with their youth development. Veteran coach Dietrich Weise was told by the German FA that video games and a failure to match the hunger of foreign players was to blame for a lack of talented youngsters, but he came to a very different conclusion after he had travelled around the country to investigate. Weise believed that there were actually plenty of good youngsters, but that they were falling through the cracks. He made bold proposals for new academies, more coaches and more sophisticated talent-spotting, but was rebuffed by the German Football Association.
In 1998, Germany were unceremoniously dumped out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals, forced to watch as France, who had undertaken profound reforms of their own years earlier, romped to victory. All of a sudden, Weise’s plans were dusted off and quickly implemented. The transformation could begin. For all the attention given to Euro 2000, the Bundesliga clubs actually signed up for the revolution weeks before the tournament even began. The shock that followed served only to shake some sense into any remaining non-believers.
A book with this sort of scope could easily sag in the latter stages, but Honigstein keeps the pace consistent throughout and it rattles along, dropping priceless little nuggets as it goes. Even the most ardent Bundesliga fan might not have known that Mats Hummels’ mother, Ulla Holthoff was the first woman to commentate on German football for ZDF Sportstudio in the early 1990s and that she once had a run-in with Otto Rehhagel. The man who would go onto to lead Greece to European success spoke to Holthoff over the phone, making a point to ask her if she knew the offside law, and was unaware that they had met in the past.
“If you were pretty I’m sure I would have remembered you,” sneered Rehhagel.
“I can’t help your taste,” straight-batted Holthoff.
There have been a number of fine books of late that have immortalised a period of contemporary football history; Graham Hunter’s Barca and Mike Calvin’s Family to name just two. Honigstein’s excellent account stands with the best of the genre.