Advent Day 21 – Lahm, Merkel and the ascendance of Germany

By Barney Stephenson

2002 was a big year for the Germans. The new year saw the advent of a period of economic dominance for Germany as the Euro officially replaced the Deutsche Mark. In the summer Die Mannschaft became perhaps the worst side ever to reach a world cup final only to lose to a far superior Brazil. But in hindsight (in sporting terms anyway) the critical event for Germany of 2002 was the introduction of a miniature Bavarian full-back to professional football.

In many ways the career of Philipp Lahm has mirrored and at times even embodied the ascendency of a unified Germany on the world stage. Relatively unremarkable physically and athletically it is Lahm’s innovation, pragmatism and technique that have made him one of the finest and most dominant players in the modern game.

When Rudi Voller’s side crashed out of the group stages in Portugal in the summer of 2004 a generation of Die Mannschaft had reached its nadir. After the side failed to win a single game, it would be the end for Bobic, Ziege, Worns, Hamann and Voller. Only the most optimistic of Germans would have picked out the three youngsters in the squad as the potential spine of an uber generation of German football. Podolski, Schweinsteiger and Lahm all featured at Euro 2004, with 20-year-old Lahm playing every minute of the wretched campaign. It was the start of Germany’s long road to the top. A similar overhaul was soon underway at the Riechstag, in November 2005, a certain Ms Merkel was elected Chancellor.

Meanwhile, at Bayern, Lahm had established himself as first choice left back. Naturally right footed, Lahm became proficient on the left during his two-season loan spell at Stuttgart and remained there for the early half of his career. A fullback playing on their weaker side is uncommon at top level football due to its obvious tendency to expose an incompetent foot. Yet, Lahm suffered no such problems and used the abnormality to exploit unknowing defences – surging down the flank and cutting inside to unleash a through ball, cross or shot.

This quirk was best illustrated on the opening day of Germany’s 2006 World Cup. The nation, cautioned by Euro 2004, was filled with light-hearted optimism rather than expectation. A young German side were playing Costa Rica at the Allianz Arena, Lahm’s home ground. Five minutes in, a German attack appeared to be fizzling out. The ball had dropped out to the left for Lahm to pick up. Ignoring the run of Schweinsteiger down the line, Lahm pushed the ball inside, taking out two Costa Ricans in the process. Now, on the angle of the box, Lahm shaped to shoot – in fact, he shaped so much he practically knelt. Lahm’s shot flew perfectly across the flailing keeper and in to the top corner. Die Party hatte begonnen!

The 2006 World Cup is widely regarded by historians as the first time Germans united in celebrating nationality since the end of WW2. Klinsmann’s young side played high quality attacking football watched by a young nation of flag waving Germans imparting goodwill on their foreign guests. Die Mannschaft ultimately bowed out against eventual champions Italy in the semi-finals but a renewed sense of pride had been garnered in both Germany’s football and national identity.

Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 all ended in heart break in the latter stages for Philipp and Germany. Bayern too were getting close to global success but had lost both the 2010 and 2012 Champions League finals. In the real world, the collapse of the global economy had positioned Germany and Merkel as the continental leaders, famously bailing out the Greeks to save the Euro. The same period would witness Philipp Lahm emerge as leader for both club and country. The glue holding together two sides on the edge of greatness.

In the time between 2012 and 2015 no one on the planet was as good at playing football as Phillip Lahm. Not even Messi or Ronaldo. Sure, they dazzled and they scored, but arguably nobody functioned in their role with quite the degree of success that Lahm did as full-back and captain of Germany and Bayern. By now playing a more orthodox role at right-back, the Magic Dwarf was controlling games from full back, dictating the pace of the game and orchestrating attacks as well as organising the defence.

In 2012/13 under Jupp Heyncke’s Bayern became the first German side to win the treble, beating Dortmund in an all German final at Wembley. The achievements of this side are rarely given the gravitas they deserve. Pep’s Barca of 2011 is often cited as one of the all time great sides but the Bavarian club’s achievements are not remembered in such awe. This seems somewhat unreasonable especially when considering the 7-0 aggregate thumping Bayern handed Barca in the Champions League semi-final that year.

Merkel too would be under appreciated, even resented, for her political hegemony both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, having secured a third term in office in 2013, Germany adopted a minimum wage for the first time and Merkel’s political engine kept on rolling.

In 2014, German excellence was about to come to its peak. Bayern’s class of 2013, Neuer, Boateng, Schweinsteiger, Kroos and Muller led by Lahm would provide the spine of Germany’s World Cup squad. Captain Lahm predictably starred in every single game for the Germans playing in both central midfield and at right back. On the 18th of June he led his country out against Messi’s Argentina in Rio de Janeiro. That evening Philipp Lahm became the first man to lift the World Cup for a unified Germany. The journey was complete. Having endured the misery of Rudi Voller’s euro 2004 escapade, Lahm had taken a unified Germany to the top of the world.

Lahm retired from international football the day after the final and then completely in 2017. Last year, Lahm interviewed Angela Merkel in preparation for her 2017 election campaign. Lahm, representative of a prosperous and harmonious Germany is the ideal photo-op for any political campaigner. It would appear the stunt worked as Merkel scraped to victory despite pressure from far-right Alternative Fur Deutschland.

However, on the footballing front things have not been so good. Germany bombed at World Cup 2018 amidst a political row. Star playmaker Mesut Ozil retired claiming he has been subject to racist discrimination whilst with the national team. A turbulent few months nationally were capped off after Merkel announced that she would be joining Ozil in retirement by 2020 following poor results in the polls.

It seems Germany is back where it was after Lahm’s first tournament in Portugal in 2004. The nation needs a new leader on the pitch and on the ballot. Lahm is already active within the DFB and was an ambassador for the countries successful 2024 European Championship bid. It would come as no great surprise to see Lahm, the man Guardiola called the most intelligent footballer he had come across, take the hotseat with the national team or even Bayern.

As for the vacancy due to be left by Ms Merkel, who knows? Chancellor Lahm 2020?

You may also like:

Advent Day 13 – Michael Ballack, Germany’s nearly man born a decade too early

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