For much of the game between Germany and Portugal last Thursday, it seemed almost unfair. Portugal may have been widely seen as the favorite, but the contest on the pitch seemed more like a boxing bout between a heavyweight and a middleweight. Portugal had the flash, the tricks and the fancy footwork. But in the end, it was Germany that proved willing to do what it took to win -- even if it meant star midfielder Michael Ballack had to shove a Portuguese defender out of the way to head home the winning goal in the second-half.
With that, Portugal was out, the team with perhaps the biggest star in the tournament. Christiano Ronaldo scored more goals than any other player this year in England's Premiership. He has been named the league's player of the year for two years running. Other stars like Deco and Petit, Nani and João Moutinho were playing alongside him on the Portuguese national side.
And the Germans? The team has a star midfielder in Ballack, who somehow manages to control games despite announcers going for huge chunks of time without calling his name. But his supporting cast is as anonymous as it gets, made up of players with names like Hitzlsperger, Rolfes and Mertesacker. And yet, it is exactly this devotion to the average which makes the German team successful year after year, tournament after tournament.
The German side, in short, will hardly ever make you jump out of your seat -- but it will only rarely disappoint. Its periods of success are brief, but so too are the lulls in between. In the last European championship tournament in 2004, the team didn't make it out of its group. But in the 2002 World Cup, the team came in second and in 2006, it finished an impressive third.
Why though? Why can a team like England, which year after year is packed with players recognized around Europe, if not around the world, not even come close to Germany's success rate in international tournaments? Why has Spain not won the European Championships since 1964 -- despite having one of the strongest domestic leagues on the Continent -- while Germany, with its fading Bundesliga, has won it three times since 1972?
One factor is certainly the teams consistent strength up the middle. Successful German national teams will always have an intimidating goalkeeper, a dominant defender in the middle, a leader in the heart of the midfield, and a robust scorer. Disappointing German teams have always lacked one of the links in this chain.
But at least as important is the team's stability. In Germany's opening Euro 2008 match against Poland, it fielded eight players who had played in the World Cup two years previously. The three players that subbed in were also part of the 2006 squad -- and the coach, Joachim Löw, was there too, albeit as an assistant. Such stability has long been the case for the German side. The team has never had a golden age of complete dominance, but -- even in the years of Franz Beckenbauer -- neither has it ever been reliant on just one player for success. Take away the Zinadine Zidane years, and France's international success plunges to English depths.
Germans, though, value the collective over the individual. The team, even with its recent focus on fitness sparked by Löw's predecessor Jürgen Klinsmann, is no Porsche. But it also is far away from being a Trabant. It's more like a solid, middle-of-the-road Audi. Fortunately for Germany, in cars as well as in soccer, their average is better then the rest.
But there is more to Germany's success that just continuity and consistent reliability. The team has been a major beneficiary of the globalization of soccer. Not because German club teams have been able to import flashy players from around the world to elevate the level of play. Rather, because they haven't.
In England, Spain and Italy, the local boys are often in the minority on the rosters of the best club teams. The Real Madrid teams of a few years ago weren't called Los Galácticos for nothing. And the money involved is huge. Indeed, in an age of skyrocketing salaries and club teams dotted with foreign superstars, club teams are suddenly more important than national teams and it is where the players' primary commitment lies.
Furthermore, when local teams are flooded with foreign talent, an important side-effect is a weaker national squad. Even Premier League Chairman Sir David Richards blamed England's failure to qualify for the tournament on the fact that many teams in the Premiership have a relative dearth of local talent. Italy, too, despite its 2006 World Cup victory, failed to advance very far this time around. Club leagues in both countries tend to rely on the talent of foreign players -- a luxury they cant afford when it comes to international competitions.
Germany doesnt have this problem. The Bundesliga cant afford to compete financially with its Spanish, Italian and English counterparts. Instead, the German league allows local talent to develop, blossom, lead and take responsibility. And by so doing, it creates players who care fiercely about national pride and uniform. Only Bayern München consistently imports superstars for positions where local talent is not good enough.
It also works the other way: Just three German players play in foreign leagues -- a situation that results in familiarity and, on the national team, a feeling of unity. It is not a bunch of soccer mercenaries who meet once in a while and are supposed to bond and win a tournament within a month. Germany, in short, might not be the most impressive national team, but it is very close to being a true soccer club.
On Wednesday, it will be meeting another team with many of the same traits. Few Turkish players play outside of Turkey -- indeed, few outside of Turkey have even heard of most of those on the Turkish side. It is also fiercely proud and has demonstrated a depth of character unmatched so far in this year's tournament.
Indeed, Germany has to be careful on Wednesday not to be out Germanied by the Turks.