Never Mind The Ballacks, Here's Philipp Lahm

He's 27 and captain of his country, so his autobiography will be full of nothing, right? Wrong, he has a pop at Jürgen Klinsmann, Michael Ballack and tells you exactly how important playing for your country should be...
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Not only is Joachim Löw’s Germany squad blessed with some fantastic players, but they all want to give their absolute best for their country. Lukas Podolski is one good example. His career-goals tally in the Bundesliga is only one better than his record for the national team. Another good example, which I’ve been meaning to cite for a couple of weeks, is that of German Captain Philipp Lahm. He released an autobiography recently, in which he criticised past German managers Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler, as well as Felix Magath and Louis van Gaal. He accused Völler of a lack of professionalism and too much focus on leisure. But it was his comments about Klinsmann which really caused a stir here. Of the former Germany captain and manager he said that, when Klinsmann was manager of Bayern Munich in 2008-09, the team had to develop and practise its own tactics for games, without receiving any help from the management. Lahm asserted that Klinsmann had lost the dressing room after six weeks, by which time the players expected, and probably hoped, that he would soon be fired. The book is called Der Feine Unterschied, which roughly translates to “The Minute Differences”, a reference to, among any things, Lahm’s rise to the top of international football, but also to how close Germany have come to winning a major tournament in the last decade or so, in 2002, 2006 and 2008. (There’s also, I would wager, a dig or two aimed at Michael Ballack, which we’ll get to later).

Lahm has played 83 times for his country and is still just 27 years old. He was appointed captain for the 2010 World Cup, and stated publicly that he wouldn’t be relinquishing the captaincy when Michael Ballack returned to fitness. It’s clear, then, that he doesn’t mince his words. Reactions to the revelations he made in his autobiography were animated to say the least. He was disciplined by Joachim Löw, and by Bayern’s ‘big cheeses’ Uli Hoeness and Franz Beckenbauer, who no doubt had some egg on their faces due to their previous association with Klinsmann. What riled people, aside from the lack of respect shown to popular figures in German football, was the fact that the culprit was the current captain of the national team and the nation’s most successful club. The popular feeling was that he should have waited until he had retired, or was no longer involved with the national team, to express his feelings, such as was done by previous internationals like Stefan Effenberg and Oliver Kahn. He did show a lack of respect to fellow professionals, some of whom, such as ex-Bayern coach Felix Magath, now managing Wolfsburg, he’ll line up against this season. Lahm himself defended the book by saying that he was just writing what he saw, that he wouldn’t change any of it and that the hysteria surrounding its content was utterly exaggerated.

What riled people, aside from the lack of respect shown to popular figures in German football, was the fact that the culprit was the current captain of the national team and the nation’s most successful club.

Crucially, though, Löw retained his services as Germany captain, despite calls for him to be replaced. John Terry did something far worse when it was revealed in early 2010 that he had an alleged affair with the girlfriend of a former team-mate. He deserved to have the captaincy taken from him. But there still seems to me a marked difference between the manager-player relationships in the German team and the England team. Fabio Capello publicly criticised Andy Carroll for his lifestyle recently, when a quiet word in the dressing room might have been more productive for the young striker’s development. Joachim Löw sat next to his captain and defended him against probing questions from masses of reporters. He would have been well within his rights to criticise his captain, since an attack on Klinsmann’s management techniques was an attack on Low’s as well (they managed Germany together in the 2006 World Cup, Löw as assistant), but he stood by him. I can’t imagine Fabio Capello doing such a thing. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, he reprimanded John Terry for complaining that Joe Cole wasn’t being played last year in South Africa. Admittedly the situation isn’t really comparable to Lahm and Löw either, but there’s an interesting contrast there nonetheless between relationships in the national team camp between players and management.

This story also made me reflect on what present England players, like Steven Gerrard, for example, or ex-England internationals have to say about the national team in their autobiographies. Gerrard revealed in his book that he was thinking of moving to Chelsea during Euro 2004, but changed his mind after missing a penalty in the shoot-out against Portugal. That shows you what he was really focusing on then. Gary Neville recently recalled that he considered playing for England a waste of time, while Jamie Carragher expressed indifference when he lost a game for England as opposed to losing with Liverpool. It’s fairly clear that, for these players, playing for their country wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all, when it should be exactly that, as ex-England captain Paul Ince stated publicly today. I read into the Philipp Lahm situation how seriously he takes playing for, and captaining, Germany. If you accept that, then you can forgive his disrespectful comments towards other professionals. But you can’t question his commitment. He saw problems in the Germany and Bayern set-ups and decided to make them public.

Germany have always had big personalities in their team – Beckenbauer, Matthäus, Effenberg, Ballack and now Lahm – but it’s precisely because they can still play as a team, and want to give their absolute all for their country, that they, and Lahm, are more successful than England. There was some personal score-settling in Lahm’s book, and his timing was probably ill-judged (not to mention that he’s only 27 – he’ll probably need to write a new one in ten years’ time). But I’m sure many England fans would like to see John Terry have the same attitude of highlighting the England teams’ many problems so frankly that they might be addressed and resolved more quickly, as well as a favourable reaction to them from Fabio Capello.

Germany: From Villains To Heroes

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