By using a longer-term strategic approach to improving performance, German football went from rock bottom to world cup winning. Here’s how they did it, and what you can learn from their story.
Please note: This is an article for anyone interested in achieving significant business success, not just football fans!
I don’t believe that winners are just born. I don’t believe in the idea of genetically inherited ‘talent’. I don’t believe that our successes or failures are preordained.
Obviously certain physical and mental characteristics are inherited, and certain characteristics lend themselves to certain disciplines, which can create an advantage. But then there are always exceptions to the rule.
For decades sprinting success was the preserve of people who were not too small and not too tall – average height seemed to be a Goldilocks characteristic of the most successful sprinters. But then Usain Bolt arrived and tore-up this rule. Yes, his 6 foot 5 inch frame was a disadvantage out of the blocks, but once into his stride his longer legs gave him greater speed in the remaining two-thirds of the race.
I believe that success is man-made. I believe that we are responsible for our successes or failures. I believe that anyone with the right resources around them can excel in any discipline (provided they want to do so).
For these reasons, whenever I see a great achievement I’m always curious to know how it was achieved.
Germany 1 Argentina 0
It’s estimated that 1 in 8 people on the planet watched at least a minute of Sunday night’s World Cup final where Germany beat Argentina 1-0. Sporting events don’t come much bigger than this.
Apart from the obvious highlight of Mario Götze’s goal, this wasn’t the most edge-of-the-seat football match in history. However, when the time came, Germany stepped up and delivered the goods. It was an incredible performance by a relatively young team while the world watched.
So how did Germany’s World Cup win come about? What was special about them this year? They haven’t always been so successful, so what’s changed?
Let’s go back in time and tell the complete story of how Germany won the World Cup, and what we can learn from their approach.
Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim ‘Jogi’ Löw
Ten years ago Germany hit rock bottom. In the 2004 European Championship in Portugal the team failed to win a single game, and therefore get out of the group stages.
The German Football Association (Deutsch Fußball-Bund (DFB)) took radical action, and coach Rudi Völler was replaced by the popular, charismatic but arguably inexperienced Jürgen Klinsmann.
Klinsmann began to build a support team that would help him to re-invent German football. He called upon long-time friend Joachim Löw to support him as Assistant Coach. Löw was initially reluctant, saying:
When Jürgen Klinsmann got in touch with me, I had to ask myself, ‘Do I really want to be an assistant again?’ After all I’d been a manager for several years. But he managed to convince me, explaining that I would have major responsibilities myself. [The Coach/Assistant Coach model] was new to me because I always used to work alone. Source
Klinsmann and Löw began planning how to turn around the fortunes of German football.
Around the same time, the DFB also invested heavily in developing youth talent in Germany. They launched talent development academies, up and down the country. The academies are supported by 1,000 part-time DFB sponsored coaches, who talent spot as well as train.
Klinsmann and Löw were under instant pressure. After taking the reins in 2004 they had only two years before their new side and strategy were expected to pay dividends at the 2006 World Cup. To make matters worse, the 2006 World Cup was hosted in Germany, adding extra host-nation pressure.
Klinsmann and Löw began a process of extensive analysis. Klinsmann explains:
We held workshops with German coaches and players, asking them to write down on flip charts three things: how they wanted to play, how they wanted to be seen to be playing by the rest of the world and how the German public wanted to see us playing. What we ended up with amounted to 10 or 12 bullet points laying out our proposals. We then announced that it was our intention to play a fast-paced game, an attacking game and a proactive game. Source
The pair drew on their own experiences, including ideas from outside of Germany. Löw comments:
I learnt a lot during my time in Switzerland, I found things there that I didn’t find in Germany. … [In Germany] I felt that a lot was always left to chance. In Switzerland it was much more about organisation, positional play, the collective. I was won over! Source
Löw gives great credit to Klinsmann during this time:
Jürgen Klinsmann was the revolutionary. He transformed certain aspects of the wider structure… that were seriously out-dated, and he worked with sports psychology, which had been something of a taboo up to that point. Source
Klinsmann and Löw thoroughly analysed the current state, diagnosed issues and then brought new ideas to Germany that challenged the status quo.
The Germany side had mixed results in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup. An initial 4-1 loss to Italy, followed by a 4-1 win against the United States. Everyone was nervous, but they stuck to their plans. Klinsmann describes the final World Cup preparations:
We had the players for four solid weeks before the tournament began and were able to get our thoughts across. They agreed to train the way we wanted them to and do extra work. Soon they started to believe in the system. I also think the players understood that I was the one taking the risk and that if it did not work out the DFB would send me packing back to California! Source
Finally, the results started to come. Klinsmann felt momentum building and a change in public attitudes:
We started well at the 2006 World Cup and the public began to feel that something special was going to happen. In the second game, when we beat Poland with a last-minute goal, the whole nation embraced us and said, “Yeah, that’s our team and that’s how we want them to play.” We lost in the semi-final against Italy but I was still very proud. Source
Klinsmann was burnt out after the last two years of pressure and non-stop work. He decided to leave German football on the proviso that Löw would continue the plan that they had built together.
Progress, But No Titles
As the years rolled on Löw did indeed stick to the strategy that him and Kilnsmann had devised. In 2008 Germany made it to the European Championship final. In 2010 Germany made the World Cup semi-finals and were knocked out by Spain. In 2012 they made it to the European Championship semi-final.
Despite the lack of titles Löw clearly believed his team were headed in the right direction, and in 2010 commented:
The team has mastered the art of playing simply. I have seen training sessions that have, at times, reached footballing perfection. Source
Many of us will remember the 4-1 defeat that England suffered at the hands of Germany during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which demonstrated Germany’s increased competence, confidence and attacking play.
Germany also started to reap the rewards of investing in their youth development. With the programme having been in place for ten years a regular pipeline of high-calibre players were coming through the ranks. Robin Dutt, sporting director at the DFB says:
We have 80 million people in Germany and I think before 2000 nobody noticed a lot of talent. Now we notice everyone. Source
Germans clubs have fewer foreign players and more homegrown players. As the clubs invest in their development they are symbiotically developing the national team.
In contrast the Football Association in England relies entirely on privately owned football clubs to nurture the nation’s talent. Because foreign players populate many English football clubs a material percentage of development effort is pumped into foreign players, rather than English players.
Coaching in Germany has also become increasingly expert. In 2013 there were approximately 35,000 UEFA licenced coaches. In contrast, England has about 2,500 UEFA licenced coaches.
It All Comes Together For Germany
Given everything that Germany has done it feels inevitable that they should win major titles again.
Over a decade ago the foundations were laid to build a pipeline of world-beating young players.
Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw painstakingly analysed the problems that the German national football team were facing. They built and executed a strategy to create a new way of playing football, using new ideas that challenged the status quo.
Performances generally trended up over time, culminating in Sunday night’s 2014 World Cup victory.
It took a decade to go from rock bottom to world champions. Germany has put in the work and they deserved to win.
Germany’s success was no accident. This was a plan coming together… this win can certainly be seen as the beginning of the era of domination Löw believes is at hand. It is certainly a lesson on how to foster home-grown talent for the long term.
If England ever wants to be in similar contention [to Germany] we need to start recognising this success does not come by accident. We’ve witnessed enough German lessons on the pitch over the years and the time is overdue to start learning from them…