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Jun 1, 2014

Germany driven to distraction

Joachim Loew's preparations for the World Cup are not progressing as hoped.
Joachim Loew's preparations for the World Cup are not progressing as hoped.

The German soul sometimes allows nothing more than a bleak smile. Too many things stand in the way of an utterly positive outlook on the future. Too many things add up to yet another dark cloud on the horizon. Expect the worst, the German soul says. Rather than hoping for the best, seek out a disaster beyond all expectation.

- Schaaf: Kramer rising to the top
- Honigstein: Time running out for Germany

On Friday, Die Nationalmannschaft ended their 10-day training camp in the Italian province of South Tyrol. Joachim Loew's men had hoped to focus squarely on their preparations for the big task: finally bringing back the World Cup trophy, 24 years after Franz Beckenbauer's side claimed glory in Rome.

Only a year ago, their prospects of doing so could not have been better. Two German sides contested the Champions League final, as a highly impressive Bayern Munich ended their long hunt for the trophy against a Borussia Dortmund side that had won many an admirer en route to Wembley. That night, 11 potential Germany internationals started the match, and Mario Goetze, out injured, was not one of them.

A year on, with the first World Cup match against Portugal just over a fortnight away, the momentum is gone, and it is only partially down to the injuries the likes of Philipp Lahm, Manuel Neuer and Bastian Schweinsteiger have suffered. It is a more an overall feeling that something is wrong with Germany.

The current crop of players may be the finest Germany have had in a long time, featuring the likes of Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Neuer, Marco Reus, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller. That quality told as Die Nationalmannschaft, as always under Loew, stormed through their qualification group with nine wins and just one draw, the historic 4-4 against Sweden in Berlin.

So what is wrong? A fish rots from the head down, as the saying goes, and that line of thinking has been prevalent across the nation in recent months.

Even the team's World Cup accommodation is making waves. Campo Bahia, their base for Brazil, is a luxury resort on the Atlantic coast. Initially planned as a housing estate in 2011, the project only gathered pace when, over a year later, the DFB announced plans to set up camp there -- in the middle of what could be described as a nature resort -- rather than an official FIFA hotel.

It is reported that the general feeling among the inhabitants of Santo Andre is a lack of excitement about the resort and a concern over the accompanying rise in criminality, most of all the prostitution, which is said to have come to the area since the building phase began. Tobias Junge, one of the three German site engineers for the project, disputed the suggestion that Campo Bahia was responsible, telling Berliner Zeitung: "A whorehouse might emerge when you build a mine, but not because of a project of 3,800 square metres."

Another problem is the building costs, which differ from report to report but are directly connected to the compensation that must be paid for building a camp in the middle of a fragile ecosystem.

However, it appears that the biggest concern over Campo Bahia -- that the camp would not be ready for the team's arrival on June 8 -- can be brushed aside. "I'd like to think that everything will be ready in time," a source close to the DFB camp told ESPN FC. "They will not show any weakness there."

Similarly, there were reports that much of the construction was completed without a valid environmental licence. That has since been granted, but Lea Penteado, one of the representatives of the inhabitants of Santo Andre, told the German public radio Deutschlandfunk that carrying out the work with an expired licence could be compared to "driving a car without a valid driving licence."

It was a fitting analogy for the chaos that engulfed the German camp during their time in Italy: On Tuesday, news broke that Joachim Loew had his licence suspended for repeated speeding on the Autobahn.

Germany's team manager Oliver Bierhoff laughed the story off at a news conference that day: "That's nothing special, such things happen. We will talk to our general sponsor, Mercedes-Benz to make sure that, in the future, Loew only gets cars with cruise control."

Bierhoff was seated alongside three leading sports stars from other fields -- F1 driver Nico Rosberg, DTM driver Pascal Wehrlein and golf pro Martin Kaymer -- who had been invited to visit the training camp as part of the Mercedes-Benz sponsorship.

The DFB had planned a day of football, golfing and driving through the South Tyrol mountains. Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman Claudia Merzbach explained that the driving excursion was designed to be a "product presentation" rather than a "speed race" but, even so, Wehrlein crashed. Germany international Benedikt Hoewedes had been on board, with teammate Julian Draxler sitting next to Rosberg, who, according to a Die Welt report, had hit the brakes and forced Wehrlein to veer. Nobody in the cars was injured, but at least one spectator suffered serious injuries and was helicoptered to a nearby hospital.

The message that emerged in the aftermath was that the accident was down to nothing more than bad luck. Johann Ramoser, an Italian detective chief inspector, said the route had been "secure," while Bierhoff insisted including players in the activity had not been an unnecessary risk. "Cycling is also dangerous," he argued, "and you can also suffer injuries playing football."

Even so, Loew admitted on Friday that the incident had "overshadowed" the training camp, but significant shadows had already been cast. Just a few days before Wehrlein's crash, the German tabloid Bild revealed that Borussia Dortmund star Kevin Grosskreutz had urinated in a hotel lobby following the DFB-Pokal final defeat to Bayern Munich. He received a final warning from Joachim Loew, who reminded the player he was supposed to serve as a "role model."

However, when the news broke that Loew had had his driving license suspended, Der Spiegel commented: "Footballers and coaches all make mistakes -- just like everyone one of us. Why should Loew be more careful in traffic as someone who isn't famous? Maybe because he demands the strict respect of laws and morality from his players. Or maybe because other standards are imposed on celebrities -- if not them, who else? The Bundestrainer has for now discarded this role, and not only for six months [of his driving suspension]."

The German soul sometimes offers nothing more than a bleak smile. Beyond the injuries, Loew, Grosskreutz, Campo Bahia and the Wehrlein incident have added to the general discontentment ahead of a World Cup in which nothing but a title or at least making final may avert a dramatic change at the top.

Loew only recently renewed his contract until 2016 but, given the problems on and off the pitch, an early exit in Brazil could lead to the end of an era. "The contract was prolonged partly to avoid annoying questions and unrest during the World Cup," the former Germany captain Michael Ballack recently told Express. "It was a strategic decision by the DFB, but I don't think that Loew would continue after an early exit. The pressure on him would be too high."

Certainly the pressure is building. FAZ's coverage of the training camp on Saturday was headlined: "In a faraway world."

The broadsheet spoke of an "isolated" Germany setup "losing its grip on reality." Its assessment was stark: Die Nationalmannschaft has lost its self-control."

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