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Jul 12, 2014

Germany ready to seize the moment

Jeremy Schaap examines the key to Thomas Müller's success and his role in Germany's hopes for a World Cup Title.

Toni Kroos was the first one to see it.

"Don't worry," he told reporters after the 2-2 draw with Ghana, a tumultuous, unruly mishmash of a game with defensive lapses galore. Germany were as good as qualified for the knockout stages after the final whistle in Fortaleza, Brazil, and yet, they seemed more lost than before the start of the tournament.

They were visitors to a foreign land without a functioning GPS. Where were they, in footballing terms?

Joachim Low seemed unsure.

"Some things were good, some things were bad," the national manager said.

Captain Philipp Lahm didn't really know either, but he did know that the lack of certainty was unnerving. "We can't be satisfied," said the Bayern right-back/central midfielder.

Kroos, however, had the answer. He knew what Germany's potential was.

"Don't worry," the midfielder said with that Mona Lisa-esque half-smile of his that he puts on for every single interview, before and after every single game.

"We are strong," he added.

Three weeks later, Germany are in the final of the World Cup as the overwhelming favourites to lift the trophy.

It seems almost churlish to have doubted their ability. The 7-1 against Luiz Felipe Scolari's shambolic, self-destructive Brazil in the semifinal proved that.

Initially, they did not set the competition alight, but progressed with a combination of good organisation, well-honed collective movement, some deadly set pieces, Manuel Neuer in goal and five goals from the irrepressible Thomas Muller up front.

You can make a case for Manuel Neuer being the best player in Brazil this summer.
Manuel Neuer's brilliant goalkeeping has saved Germany in tight matches.

On a whole, it probably wouldn't be quite enough to win, say, the Champions League. But it looks more than enough to win the World Cup. They're not just strong but the strongest team in Brazil, even if it's all relative.

Sure, there are plenty of German people still doing the "national" thing. They warn of overconfidence and of Lionel Messi. But the overall mood has changed so much that it has become unrecognisable from the angst-ridden state the football nation found itself in at the start of the training camp in South Tyrol and also, to a lesser extent, after the barely avoided disasters of Fortaleza (Ghana) and Porto Alegre (2-1 vs. Algeria in extra time).

Back home, millions are getting ready to celebrate. A department store chain is offering the Germany shirt at a discount, with the line that it'll soon be out of fashion, so "last season." Because that fourth star above the badge -- it's coming. It must be coming, right?

There was a similar atmosphere of expectancy in most of Germany when Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Neuer, Muller, Kroos and Jerome Boateng lined up for Bayern against Chelsea in the Champions League final in Munich just over two years ago.

This would be Bayern's fourth European Cup, in their hometown, an echo of West Germany's triumph -- with six Bayern players -- against the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup final in the Olympic stadium. Everyone talked about the historic dimension of this game, of a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

But as Bayern struggled to break down the Blues, the pressure became ever greater. A chaotic penalty shootout -- many experienced players pulled out, so Neuer ended up taking one -- put paid to their dream. Afterward, the whole city seemed traumatised, in a daze, unable to come to terms with football not following the script.

Lahm et al were described as chokers after the Chelsea game. The result neatly slotted into a series of near misses with Germany since 2006. If Bayern hadn't won the treble the season after, one could have easily imagined the headlines ahead of this World Cup final. "The final chance," "the last chance," "unbearable pressure," etc., etc.

But they have won the Champions League in 2013, and so has Sami Khedira, with Real Madrid, seven weeks ago. That in itself wouldn't have been enough to change the outlook, but the manner of Bayern's win at Wembley was.

Coach Jupp Heynckes and sporting director Matthias Sammer had cleverly put a very different spin on the game beforehand. "This isn't about pressure," Sammer said. "It's about performing well, like we know we can. If we do that, everything will take care of itself."

Bayern performed well, weathered a scary period after Ilkay Gündogan's equaliser and won the trophy that had been coming their way for a while, with a late Arjen Robben goal.

Bayern Munich's failure in the 2012 Champions League final provided valuable experience to several of Germany's internationals.

The Dutchman won't be in action at the Maracana on Sunday, but Nicola Rizzoli, the Italian referee from the Champions League final in London, will be. And seven out of 11 Germans will go into the game thinking of the lesson of Wembley. Just perform. The rest will take care of itself.

Confidence is growing from Germany's population of 80 million for that exact same reason. They have seen Löw's men perform, in spite of all the scare-stories about the heat, the humidity, the transportation chaos and the tropical sicknesses.

Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Khedira, the trio of half-fit key players, are now back to full fitness.

Low, the incurable football romantic, has discovered the joy of a more pragmatic, realistic approach.

"We will bring out everything that we have in our bag, in terms of football, mentality and fighting spirit," Müller vowed on Friday. People in Germany are confident because they trust him that Germany will do just that.

The team's main sponsor has bought plenty of advertising space in the national papers. Its slogan -- "ready as never before" -- had become a bad joke, an embarrassment in the days of Germany's training camp. The team had looked less prepared in northern Italy than in recent memory.

Now, ahead of the appointment with destiny on Sunday, the strap line has magically started to ring true. Like the best advertising slogans always do.


Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is the author of "Englischer Fussball."