Germany revived by new generation

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Germany has regained its place among the great teams in the world even if Joachim Loew's young squad fails to win the country's fourth World Cup title.

It has done so with a flair rarely — if ever — seen in previous teams that relied on traditional German values of power and discipline.

While losing none of the strengths that always made Germany a feared opponent, this multicultural roster has brought something new into Germany's game: a lightness and creativity that has won it fans not only back home, but everywhere it plays. And with 13 goals, Germany leads the tournament heading into its semifinal matchup with European champion Spain.

"The semifinal was our target and we've reached it. Everything else is a bonus," said Miroslav Klose, the 32-year-old striker who is one of the few veterans on the team.

Klose typifies the German revival. With only three Bundesliga goals last season and more often finding himself on the bench than on the field for Bayern Munich, Klose has starred at the World Cup, scoring four goals and moving within one of Ronaldo's career record of 15.

Klose has benefited from the mercurial play of Mesut Oezil; from the space created by Thomas Mueller; and by the powerful runs of Lukas Podolski, another player with an indifferent Bundesliga season behind him.

Mueller is only 20, with just one full season behind him in Bayern. But perhaps the most remarkable is the newly found maturity and vision of Bastian Schweinsteiger, a midfielder whose career appeared stalled not too long ago.

Central defender Arne Friedrich is another player to peak at the right time. His Bundesliga club Hertha Berlin was relegated and Friedrich sank below mediocrity — only to become a source of stability in South Africa. He even scored his first goal for Germany in eight years in the rout of Argentina.

Klose and Friedrich are among the older players, but Podolski and Schweinsteiger also have plenty of international experience. They have more than 150 games for Germany between them although they are both only 25.

Loew stood behind his players as they struggled with their clubs and they have justified his faith by standing out at the World Cup.

Podolski and Klose played major roles in Germany's only blemish in the tournament, a 1-0 loss to Serbia. Podolski missed a penalty kick and Klose earned a red card, but Loew never criticized either one.

Since that loss, Germany beat Ghana 1-0 and dismantled both England (4-1) and Argentina (4-0), its two old rivals. Loew's team took ruthless advantage of the slow English and Argentine defenses, tearing apart and even toying with two teams that recently both beat Germany at home with ease.

"Of course I want to have good results, but I am more interested in how we play," Loew said. "We still have order and discipline, but we don't put players into corsets in which they can't move. We have a philosophy, the way we want to play. I had a script in my mind and I picked players who can implement what I want."

To supplement his trusted veterans, Loew turned to a crop of young players nursed through Germany's youth system, promoting six members of the under-21 team that won the European title last year to the World Cup squad.

Loew is now reaping the benefits of a program installed after Germany flopped in the group stage of the 2000 European Championship. The soccer federation began scouting talent across the nation and developed a specific style of play that would be built on at all levels. Promising youngsters often still at preschool age have their skills honed in nearly 400 soccer academies spread around the country.

The sons of immigrants brought their own style of play, different ball and dribbling skills that have made the German team more unpredictable and creative.

Loew's team plays a quick-passing game that is a joy to watch. Once the team gains possession, Germany charges forward at high speed, moving the ball down the flanks and getting behind defenders. Some of the plays are rehearsed, but Loew has also given his players the freedom to improvise, to come up with the unexpected. On one of his two goals against Argentina, Klose virtually walked into the net after the South Americans' defense was left flat-footed.

Germany had been successful in its past two World Cups, reaching the final in 2002 and finishing third at home in 2006. But the 2002 team plodded on and got through with stamina and hard work, relying on Michael Ballack to score decisive goals in the later stages of the tournament. Brazil had too much speed and cleverness for the Germans in the final at Yokohama.

Now, Ballack is sidelined with an ankle injury and many observers believe his absence has given Germany more options and more speed.

Under Juergen Klinsmann four years ago, the team provided some inspiring play and eliminated Argentina on penalty kicks before losing to eventual winner Italy in the semis.

Loew was Klinsmann's assistant and even then was responsible for devising shrewd game plans. In South Africa, Loew came up with clever tactics to beat both England and Argentina.

Schweinsteiger has become the team's leader on the field, taking the central midfield role that once belonged to Ballack. Schweinsteiger intercepts the opponents' moves, steals the ball and then launches his teammates forward with accurate passing.

"There are few midfielders today who are playing at his level," Loew said after the win over Argentina.

Before the tournament, captain Philipp Lahm said this was the best German team he's ever played on, despite being the second-youngest squad Germany ever sent to a World Cup, with an average of under 25.

Looks like he was speaking the truth.