Relative values

If several of Germany’s stars had quickly withdrawn from international soccer after the World Cup, would not an ideal system quickly have replaced them, asks Brian Glanville.

There is an old Italian saying: ‘Everything is relative’. And never more so, you might feel, after a plenitude of surprising results, than in international football. It was only weeks ago that German football was being lauded to the skies after a World Cup victory seriously flawed, surely, by that appalling reckless foul by their goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, on the Argentine striker Higuain which should surely have meant a sending off. Only for the Italian referee, who afterwards somewhat belatedly admitting he had been wrong, to say he was wrong to have booked Higuain as he absurdly did. Since Germany needed a winning goal at the breathless end of extra-time, what would have happened to them down to 10 men? And remember that Argentina were without the explosive Di Maria who would take the German defence to pieces in a subsequent friendly.

So much for those theorists who believed German football had found the ideal coaching, training and playing formula for success. If several of their stars had quickly withdrawn from international soccer after the World Cup, would not an ideal system quickly have replaced them?

Since then Germany have gone down 2-0 in Poland to a couple of breakaway goals, unable to exploit their territorial advantage. And now they have been humiliated by being held to a last gasp draw by the humble Republic of Ireland team whose equaliser came from, of all people, a veteran defender in the unlikely shape of O’Shea. But even before that shock, the German manager, Joachim Loew, was lamenting his team’s situation. “We used to be hunters, now we are the prey,” he said.

“Post tournament is never easy,” he added. “Some players have more difficulties than others to get back into a steady rhythm.” All no doubt quite true, but these negative results make no sense of the post World Cup rush to believe that Germany have got it right and that theirs is a system and a programme to offer. Not least in England where a supposedly grand joint scheme to coach the young and provide facilities at considerable cost has just been promulgated. To the scepticism of one leading columnist who points out, as one who has run a boys’ team with wretchedly inadequate playing facilities, that the amount of money specified is no more than a drop in the ocean.

Yet on view of the bright results recently obtained by junior England teams, you wonder why such pessimism about the state of the game is at all justified. True, the actual England team has looked sadly mediocre of late, its dismally laborious performance in Estonia against a 10-man team, won by only a single goal, seeming to confirm the pessimism engendered by World Cup failure.

Yet, recently an under-21 team lacking several of the best England players in that age group surpassed itself in beating Croatia both home and away to reach the finals of the European under-21 Cup. Even without the dazzling 19-year-old Liverpool attacker, Raheem Sterling, anxious to play in that tournament though not a confident senior player, and the splendid 20-year-old Everton midfielder, Ross Barkley, who has just returned to lively action after missing the early weeks of the season through injury. Even without them this young English team impressed. As indeed have done the under-20s who have just beaten their German equivalents 1-0.

There is, in fact, intense competition for ultimate places in the England under-21 team which eventually contests those finals, so something must be going right in the production of talent. A salient problem is the fact that the hugely rich Premiership clubs are forever importing costly foreign players thus denying opportunity to the young Englishmen on their books. But as we can see from the recent results of those English junior teams, talent still seems to be breaking through. Quite why there should be an attempt, however underpowered, to overhaul the whole coaching system to make it look like Germany’s is beyond me.

And now, look at Brazil. Thrashed 7-1 and humiliated on their own soil by the Germans, they looked a busted flush. And after the inevitable resignation of Big Phil Scolari, the appointment, as his successor, of Dunga seemed a bizarrely retrograde move. Previously, Dunga as an international manager had been very much the same as Dunga as a player: a role in which he had captained them to the winning of a World Cup in America in 1994. That is to say a pedestrian, however efficient a midfield figure, with few Brazilian airs and graces.

In his previous function as the Brazil team manager, he had been a dour disappointment. The team under his aegis had been negative, defensive and dull. His relations with the media had been virtually hostile. So that same media hardly welcomed him back. Yet, in the unlikely event, what has happened? Far from the Brazilian team operating as cautiously and dourly as it had, lo and behold it was serving up bright and adventurous football. Above all they managed to beat Argentina, the eternal foe, 2-0 in a friendly played in Beijing.

True, they were lucky not to give away a penalty after a clear foul by their centre-back Miranda, one of several newcomers to the team. But they seem, at last, to have found the centre-forward they so badly missed in the World Cup in the shape of Diego Tardelli who ably scored both their goals. The rout by Germany will remain an indelible black memory but this is a new Brazil just as it appears to be a new Dunga.

You might say that post World Cup international football is in a bewildering state of flux. Poland may have been able to astonish the Germans but they weren’t able, at home, to beat a resilient Scotland team now under the aegis of the former Manchester United star Gordon Strachan. Strachan, though optimistic about his team’s eventual chances of qualification for the European final, pointed out that Germany, for him still much the group favourites, may have lost to Poland, but had made 29 attempts on goal only to be thwarted time and again by an inspired Polish goalkeeper. And in Warsaw, Scotland survived even without a key player in the shape of the injured defender Grant Hanley.

Meanwhile, Holland, under a much criticised Guus Hiddink, despite his many successes in international football and despite their third place in the 2014 World Cup, are badly shipping water. They embarrassingly lost 2-0 in Iceland to a couple of goals by Gylfi Sigurdsson of Swansea City. “It really is painful that we lost there,” admitted their star striker Robin van Persie.