Hummels finds harmony at last
"2012 is over," Mats Hummels said after his winning goal against France in Friday's quarterfinal.
Not exactly a bold statement. Everyone can figure out the current date in the calendar. But for this Germany team, "2012" isn't just a year that has passed into recent history. Those four numbers stand for a variety of issues, problems and conflicts. And if you want to understand why things are different now, and why 2012 might indeed be over, as the Dortmund centre-back insisted, you have to begin by looking back.
Two years ago, at the Euros in Poland and Ukraine, Germany were heading for their first trophy in 16 years. Then Italy's Mario Balotelli knocked them out. The striker's first goal in Warsaw came from an Antonio Cassano cross. Hummels had been close to the little fantasista -- very close -- but still failed to block the centre.
Joachim Low, who was put through the grinder by the German media after the 2-1 defeat to Italy, implicitly blamed the then-23-year-old Hummels for the goal, and the player felt hard done by, and not for the first time. Low had publicly rebuked the Dortmund defender for playing too many long balls out from the back prior to the tournament, and there was more than a suspicion that the conflict-averse coach had not taken kindly to the player's very confident demeanour, too.
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"I'm not the kind of guy who straight away goes to the back of the queue, where I should have been at the time," Hummels said a few weeks ago. "Maybe I saw myself in a higher position in the [team's] hierarchy than I really was. It's possible that I came across a little insubordinate in the beginning."
It's not just possible -- that was certainly the case. "At the German FA, they don't like criticism," Hummels said in September 2013. A bemused Low replied: "He needs to explain that to me."
It wasn't just his personality. Hummels, the most elegant, skilful centre-back that German football has produced in a very long time, was at the centre of tension in the national team because of his background, too. He used to be a Bayern Munich player as a teenager and his father worked for the club as a coach. In 2008, when Jurgen Klinsmann was in charge, Bayern loaned him to Borussia Dortmund and then they sold him, in February 2009, for a mere 5 million euros. They didn't quite believe in him. Two years later, Hummels was a mainstay at the Signal Iduna Park for Jurgen Klopp's wonderful title winners. Bayern tried to buy him back with the help of an option in his contract, but he publicly refused. The Bavarians didn't appreciate getting turned down in that manner.
In 2012, Hummels was the outspoken leader of the Dortmund group (including Marcel Schmelzer, Mario Gotze, Ilkay Gundogan and the Dortmund-born Marco Reus, who was about to move back to his hometown after the tournament) within the German squad. The Bayern contingent came into the Euros on the back of a soul-destroying Champions League final defeat to Chelsea in the Allianz Arena and two second-place finishes behind Dortmund in the cup and championship. The fight for places became political, factional.
On top of this Reds vs. Black and Yellows split in the camp, there were individual players who didn't accept being on the bench. "It was very bad," says one unnamed member of the squad who is still a regular today.
The problems didn't go away after Germany's exit at the hands of Italy, however. If anything, they became more pronounced. Hummels, like Klopp, would talk about Bayern players getting preferential treatment ("It's easier to get into the national team if you're at Bayern," the defender said). Low didn't make much effort to hide his preference for Bayern's slower, more possession-based buildup, either.
Hummels found himself on the bench in key World Cup qualifiers. He wasn't happy and let his frustration be known inside the dressing room. The German FA has managed to keep the full story under wraps to this day, but the situation was so dire that the players' council had to intervene. All those words of warning from Low and some of the more experienced players -- telling everyone to "get in line," as Philipp Lahm said, in the months before the World Cup -- were, to some part at least, directed at Hummels.
Per Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng were set to be partners in the heart of the defence in Brazil, so Hummels' willingness to wait for his chance was bound to come under the spotlight. It didn't work out that way, though. Lahm's move into midfield saw Boateng fill in at right-back, and Hummels was back in the team. We'll never know if he's really learned to be more of a team player -- Mertesacker clearly did get fully behind the team from the bench when he was left out against France -- but it's his actions on the pitch that matter.
Hummels has not only scored two goals but has also become the de facto leader of the defence and surprised everyone with his consistency. He used to have an unfortunate habit of trying to look too nonchalant. No more.
"The way he fought for the ball was sensational. He's always in the right place," Low said after the 1-0 victory over France. Hummels had won 71 percent of his duels, and centre-backs very rarely manage a better success rate. Gazzetta dello Sport described him as "a giant."
Hummels, clever guy that he is, played down his defensive masterclass. "I was just lucky to be in the right spot," he said after a performance that was well worth his Man of the Match award. He has become the face of this team, one of three players who have fully convinced in Brazil and taken Germany within two wins of writing history. Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller are the other two.
On a relationship level, things have changed as well. "Low and I needed some time to get used to each other," Hummels said recently. "Now the process is over."
You sense that the manager has learned to trust the player and vice versa. It's helped that there is less of a power struggle between the big characters behind the scenes, and tactically, Low's undogmatic approach -- he still preaches possession but is no longer opposed to a more direct route to goal if the opportunity arises -- has also blurred the battle lines.
It would be foolish to believe that the good vibes at Campo Bahia could survive a third successive semifinal defeat at a big tournament, even if the atmosphere is indeed much less fraught, compared to the Euros in Eastern Europe. But for 2012 to be truly over, Hummels and Low must first consign that defeat to Italy to the history books and turn to a new page. Getting past Brazil in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday would do the trick.