Germany under-21s look to banish past and return to Olympic Games
When Germany's under-21 side meet hosts Czech Republic at the European Championship on Tuesday night, a draw will be enough for the team to go through to the semifinals. This would also mean that Germany have qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics men's tournament.
One would think both achievements cannot be too uncommon for a hugely successful football nation like Germany. But they are. In fact, if coach Horst Hrubesch's under-21s reach the last four, it will be a success of historic dimensions.
For one, there has been no German team at the Olympics since 1988 -- yes, for more than a quarter of a century. Over this span, most of the really big footballing countries have won medals: Spain (with Pep Guardiola) took gold in 1992, Italy (with Andrea Pirlo) claimed bronze in 2004, Argentina (with Lionel Messi) won gold in 2008 and Brazil (with Neymar) were silver medalists in 2012. Yet, Germany haven't been able to experience that success.
This ultimately has to do with a rule change. Until the 1980s, only amateurs were allowed to compete at the Olympics, that's why the German amateur national team contested the qualifiers. Usually, these were promising players who hadn't yet signed a professional contract. In 1972, the West German team included Uli Hoeness, Ottmar Hitzfeld and a few other future Bundesliga stalwarts like Bernd Nickel and Ronald Worm.
When the Games became open to professionals, a special Olympic national team was set up, the only criterion being that the players had not yet gone to a World Cup. In 1988, a squad featuring Jurgen Klinsmann, Thomas Hassler and Karl-Heinz Riedle won the bronze medal in Seoul.
However, FIFA decreed earlier that year that football players at the Olympics must be 23 years or younger starting with the 1992 tournament, with three exceptions allowed per team. This would mean that the European Under-21 Championship became the official qualification tournament for UEFA member countries.
That's when the problems began for the Germans, as they've been poor at these tournaments. There have been 19 European Championships at under-21 level since 1978 and Germany have made the semis only twice.
One reason for this dismal record is that Germany (or previously West Germany) has a long tradition of neglecting the level directly below the senior game. Until the mid-1970s, this team was known as the Junior National Team in Germany, essentially an under-23 side. As early as 1971, Kicker magazine harshly attacked the German FA (DFB) for treating the team like an afterthought as it didn't even have a coach of its own.
Editor Hans Fiederer said: "DFB, don't treat the juniors like stepchildren!" Elsewhere on the same issue, Heinz Wiskow asked: "Doesn't one of the biggest football associations in the world have enough funds to sign as many coaches as it needs?"
The DFB's reaction was not what the two men will have hoped for. In late 1973, the under-23 side was unceremoniously dissolved. Three years later, in September 1976, qualifying games began for the newly created European Under-21 Championship. A German team did well, reaching the two-legged finals against Yugoslavia. However, it was a team representing the GDR, East Germany.
Over in the West, the DFB couldn't be bothered to even set up an under-21 side. In fact, there would be no such team until October 1979. By that time, the qualifying games for the 1980 European Under-21 Championship were already underway, so (West) Germany missed out on this tournament as well.
One reason for the DFB's lethargy may have been the belief that the kids would sort out themselves, that no matter what happened, West Germany would always be competitive. The senior side had reached at least the semifinals at six major tournaments since 1966, so did it really matter how much effort you put into the under-21 side?
Also, when this team finally came into being, there was immediate success. Less than three years after the side was created, in September and October 1982, West Germany played England in the finals of the European Under-21 Championship. England won 5-4 on aggregate, perhaps also because German under-21 coach Berti Vogts couldn't field midfielder Lothar Matthaus and sweeper Gerd Strack in the home leg, as they were called up to the senior team to play in a friendly.
But this good showing soon proved to be a false dawn. In the qualifiers for the 1984 tournament, West Germany met Albania on the last matchday, needing a win to go through. In front of 16,000 fans, at the time a huge crowd for an under-21 game, Michael Rummenigge brought the hosts ahead, but Mirel Josa headed home from close range only two minutes later to see Albania through.
West Germany couldn't qualify for the next tournament either, even though everybody had high hopes for a team that included future World Cup winners Klinsmann, Jurgen Kohler and Stefan Reuter. But a 2-1 defeat in Sweden in September 1985 was costly.
After this game, the journalist Rainer Franzke said: "It can't work as long as the under-21s, in contrast to their opponents, won't be granted preparation time and friendlies. The Swedes recently spent a week in Israel and have played not only qualifiers but also three friendlies."
But even when the European Under-21 Championship became the qualifiers for the Olympics, the general apathy towards the team and the tournament didn't change. If anything, the situation may have become worse.
While the players generally loved the idea of going to the Olympic Games, their clubs felt differently. Having a talented player miss the preseason preparations because he was playing a tournament nobody cared about at the other end of the world just didn't sound enticing. Until Hrubesch almost accidentally became the under-21 coach, the team's best result at the European Championship finals was a fifth place in 1998. Then Germany failed to qualify again for three of the next five tournaments.
However, on October 15, 2008, things started to change for Germany. They were seconds away from yet another embarrassingly premature exit. The team faced France in the qualification playoffs and drew the home leg 1-1.
The second leg was scoreless until the final minute, which would have seen the hosts through on away goals. The result had flattered the Germans as their best player was goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who denied France again and again. Then, in the final minute of the game, the ball fell to Benedikt Howedes after a goalmouth melee and the defender knocked it across the line for a last-gasp winner
Only one month later, the team's coach Dieter Eilts asked the DFB to be let him out of his contract so that he could sign with second division Hansa Rostock. Hrubesch agreed to take over the side on an interim basis. Perhaps by the force of his personality, he managed what none of his predecessors had succeeded in doing -- Hrubesch went into the 2009 European Under-21 tournament with his best squad.
On the day before the first game, he said: "In the build-up [to a European Championship], the Under-21 team is often given second-rate treatment. But now we've had the players for a longer period of time and I'm happy how everything is going along."
Two weeks later, Germany won the continental title for the first time in history, defeating England 4-0 in the final. Hrubesch, true to his word, stepped down and Rainer Adrion replaced him.
Even though German football had gone through a revolution in the youth setup and was producing many talented players, it was back to normal for the under-21 side as soon as Hrubesch had left. In the next qualifiers, Germany suffered a 4-1 shock defeat in Iceland that shattered all of the dreams of the London Olympics.
Although the early August date of the game was unfortunate for the Germans as the Bundesliga hadn't yet begun while the hosts were clearly in mid-season form, Adrion himself was the first to admit that it was "a horror result." Yet, he was allowed to continue until Germany went out in the group stages of the 2013 European Under-21 Championship in Israel. He was sacked after that result and Hrubesch was recruited to take over the reigns again.
Now all hopes of finally breaking the Olympic curse and improving Germany's awful record at under-21 tournaments rest with the 64-year-old manager. He approaches the task with his trademark calm optimism.
"The lads are quite simply good," he said after the 3-0 win over Denmark on Saturday. "When they get rolling, they are difficult to stop."
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.