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Running on empty

Say what you will, but it's been yet another entertaining Bundesliga weekend. On Saturday, there were two scoreless draws among the seven games - but the three-goals-per-game barrier got shattered nonetheless. And the game I attended yesterday evening, Dortmund versus Hamburg, was interesting before becoming downright tumultuous in the final quarter of an hour.

Dortmund were ahead, thanks to a flying header from defender Christoph Metzelder, when Hamburg's young Piotr Trochowksi equalised on 75 minutes with a fine left-footed shot from some twenty yards out. It had been an intense match until then, with maybe three clear-cut opportunities on either side, but after Trochowski's goal all hell broke loose.

On 77 minutes, Hamburg's Benjamin Lauth narrowly missed a low cross at the far post; two minutes later Sergej Barbarez attempted a swerving shot that was spectacularly saved by Dortmund's goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller. A few blinks of an eye after that, Tomas Rosicky should have made it 2-1 for the hosts but was denied by Stefan Wächter in Hamburg's goal, who somehow saved the Czech's shot from ten yards out. On 82 minutes, Lauth missed another chance for Hamburg, then Dortmund's Lars Ricken volleyed the ball straight into Wächter's arms, who wouldn't have stood any chance had the shot been halfway placed.

End-to-end stuff is what I think you call this, and there was hardly a report that failed to laud both teams for going for the full three points. Yeah, that's one way of looking at it. But you could also claim there were other reasons for the suicidal gung-ho football of the last fifteen minutes.

I don't want to speculate about the Hamburg players, because I don't see them every week - and also because they had had a taxing Uefa Cup game less than three days earlier. But quite a few of the Dortmund players simply looked knackered to me.

In Dortmund's 4-3-3 formation, the wide men in midfield and the wingers have to cover a lot of ground, otherwise there will be a huge gap in front of the back four, which the sole holding midfielder can't close all by himself. But the longer the match lasted, the less Dortmund's offensive players were able to fulfil their defensive duties. And it was in the zone mentioned above that the move leading to Hamburg's equaliser unfolded: Mehdi Mahdavikia did a bit of roaming, and then set up Trochowski.

Sure, there may have been other reasons (and there will have been additional ones) for the game's grand finale, but I know that I went home wondering why the Hamburg players, nine of whom had seen action in Sofia on Thursday, looked fitter down the stretch than their opponents. And I was reminded of those musings the next morning, when kicker magazine published an intriguing interview with Matthias Sammer.

'We need to reconsider building up the fundamentals,' Sammer told the reporter. 'How do you create fitness for a whole season? In other countries, those physical requirements are there.'

A generation ago, you would often hear the first sentence about German football, but never the second and the third. And back then, when somebody said Bundesliga players were lacking 'fundamentals', he meant technique or maybe tactical nous, or even finer points such as anticipation, but not stamina - never, ever. Because if there was one thing our teams had in abundance, it was fighting spirit and the physical ability to make it count, meaning: they could run forever.

But fitness is precisely what Sammer was talking about. It's become a hotly debated subject since Jürgen Klinsmann introduced fitness tests for his internationals, the last of which must have brought less than desirable results. It also brought bitter retorts from the club coaches, as you'd expect, who feel insulted because the national coach seems to suspect the players aren't in the best possible shape.

The funny thing is that most experts who are not, or no longer, directly involved with club football, agree with Klinsmann. 'What I have generally noticed is that our main strength - being able to play at a considerably higher pace than the opposition - is no longer there,' says Sammer. 'Disregarding our footballing deficiencies, why are we playing so little power football? How is it possible that Chelsea step up a gear after sixty minutes against well-trained Bayern players, the way Germans used to do in the old days?'

Those sentiments were echoed by Dr Heinz Liesen, who is responsible for the medical schooling of the German FA's coaches. An interview with him was published on the same day as Sammer's worried observations in a World Cup magazine called Countdown, whose editorial said: 'They don't smoke, they don't drink, they have - at least that's what we hope - a more healthy diet than ever. And they are not fit.'

Liesen gives, among other things, a quite unusual example for what happens when you lack fitness: 'If a player steps into a hole in the pitch, the knee will need a hundredth of a second longer for the stabilisation, the ligaments will tear. Tearing a cruciate ligament is atypical for a young player who is fit. These things usually happen when he is tired.'

A month ago, Dortmund's striker Jan Koller tore his cruciate ligament; a mere two weeks after the same mishap had befallen his team-mate Cedric van der Gun. They were Dortmund's cases number 17 and 18 in that injury department in the past dozen years. Okay, neither of them is a 'young player', but we have those as well: in July, a midfielder from the U18-team tore his cruciate ligament. Five months earlier, it had happened to Marco Rummenigge (son of Michael, nephew of Karl-Heinz). He was 16 at the time.

If this really hints at a lack of fitness, the reasons for it seem inexplicable. Sammer mentions our outdated training methods, and, as you know, I'm the first to chime in when that topic comes up. But Dortmund are coached by a Dutchman.

Many pundits say there are too many games for the top teams, but Dortmund are not playing in Europe and have already bowed out of the German FA Cup. Countdown magazine, which points out the great shape Premiership footballers are in, claims the young German players have lost the urge to work hard because 'by turning in only a little effort, they can earn between 50,000 and 100,000 Euros per month'.

Excuse my snigger, but many a super-fit Premiership bench-warmer wouldn't even tie his shoelaces for that. So, I have no idea what the problem is, but it would be silly to say it doesn't exist.

  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

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