None of those players were on the field in Russia, waiting to take to the podium. Like Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira, Marco Reus, Julian Weigl, André Schürrle and many others, they had not been included in Joachim Löw’s squad for the competition. They were all watching, from home or from holiday, as their country proved its soccer resources run so deep, so wide, that it can triumph without them.
As Löw was quick to point out as he reflected on Germany’s victory, winning the Confederations Cup, even with “such a young side,” does not mean that the Germans, the current World Cup champions, are certain to retain their crown when they return to Russia next summer. Nor does the European Championship won by its under-21 team last week in Poland mean that Germany can be assured of success in the senior continental tournaments in 2020 or 2024.
Major competitions do not subscribe to such straightforward logic. In the international game, more so even than at club level, tournament soccer is more complex, more chaotic than that.
In the concentrated, intense span of a World Cup or a continental championship, the fleeting and the unforeseen take on an outsize significance. One bad game, after all, is all it takes, and years of preparation can be wasted.
A raft of injuries, or poor form, might take hold. A referee — even one with a video monitor — might make a mistake. A rival — Brazil or Argentina, Italy or France — might build a momentum so impressive it takes on the air of destiny. The best team in the world does not always win the World Cup; the best team in the world that month ordinarily does.
Whether Germany wins twice on Russian soil in two years, though — and it is worth noting both that no winner of the Confederations Cup has ever won the subsequent World Cup, and that a World Cup winner has never repeated since Brazil in 1962 — should not detract from the broader pattern its latest gilded summer has brought to the surface.
In recent years, emissaries of Belgium’s soccer association have been invited around the planet to advise larger, richer nations on how to develop young players. Its representatives have given lectures at St. George’s Park, where England’s national teams are based, and its coaches have found themselves inundated with offers from across the Far East and Africa.
The reason is obvious: somehow, Belgium, a country of just 11 million people, one with a generally unremarkable soccer pedigree and a fair-to-middling national league, has stumbled upon an astonishing production line of talent.
Every major Premier League team — apart from Arsenal — has at least one Belgian player. Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne are two of the most devastating attacking players in England; Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany among the best defenders. One of Roma’s finest players, Radja Nainggolan, is Belgian; so too is one of Napoli’s, Dries Mertens, and, in Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, one of Atlético Madrid’s. It is a roll call that warrants further attention.
The problem, however, is that there is no great secret to Belgium’s success. There was no program put in place, no system endlessly fine-tuned, no grand plan to bring all of this together. Many of Belgium’s stars — including Hazard, Vertonghen and Alderweireld — honed their trade abroad, in France and the Netherlands. Nainggolan, like Hazard and Carrasco, has never played senior soccer in his homeland.
It is not a criticism of Belgium to say that it happened upon this remarkable generation of talent, particularly as it is doing all it can to use its recent success to help improve its own development infrastructure. But that is all it is: a happy coincidence, a set of unique circumstances that cannot be repackaged and repurposed for use across the globe.
That so many in soccer remain determined to see it as a learning moment is indicative of a game that rarely digs beneath the surface, a sport that is in thrall to guru thinking, too quick to leap on any passing bandwagon without bothering to ask where, precisely, it is heading.
Too often, teams or nations that have nurtured one crop of players are assumed to have struck upon a magic formula to do so in perpetuity. Too often, the truth — that success of the moment is a one-off, as much a stroke of good fortune as of genius — is lost amid the noise. The reason for that is simple: Soccer is so dazzled by the brightest stars that it does not care to look beyond them.
What is significant, then, about Germany’s success over the last few weeks, in both Russia and Poland, is that it has come without the majority of its most illustrious names, that the likes of Özil, Kroos and Müller could only enjoy those twin triumphs vicariously.
That German soccer’s strength is more than skin-deep indicates that there is, indeed, a program that has been put in place, a system that has been fine-tuned, a grand plan enacted. That can be gauged not by those players whose gifts are so lavish that they would have succeeded regardless of their education, but by the broad standard of those behind them.
Dietrich Weise, the man who helped shape the transformation of German soccer in the early 2000s, never believed the country lacked talent. As he told the journalist Raphael Honigstein in “Das Reboot,” Honigstein’s book on the revival of German soccer, the issue was that too much of it was being overlooked in the search for a star. Germany’s revolution was to ensure nobody was left behind.
That is what enabled Germany to win in Russia over the past two weeks — and in Poland, too — without so many of its best and brightest: not the brilliance of its outstanding individuals, but the quality of its rank and file, the depth and breadth of its talent. That is what makes it such a fearsome prospect for next summer, too, whatever happens: the idea that, whoever makes it into Löw’s squad, there will be dozens more who might have been there, condemned by the country’s success to watch on from home.
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