Published May 23, 2013
PARIS – In football, is Germany a nation of chokers?
The big surprise about the Champions League final on Saturday isn't the teams — Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, both superb. It's that it took so long for such an all-German contest to materialize.
With the largest economy and population in Europe, modern stadiums heaving with fans, financial backing from industrial giants, an impressively run league with a fat balance sheet and mostly profitable clubs, and a web of academies hot-housing young players, German teams should be all-conquering, regularly scooping up trophies in Europe's top tournaments.
But German football's motto, especially in the decade since Bayern was the last German champion of Europe in 2001, could be "close, but no cigar."
A poster-boy for German underachievement is Philipp Lahm, captain both of Bayern and the national team. His trophy haul from two World Cups and three European Championships with Germany, plus two Champions League finals (2010 and 2012) with Bayern, is precisely zero.
Asked recently by a cheeky British journalist if he knows the term "chokers," Lahm professed or pretended that he didn't. But that unkind tag will be stickier than glue if Bayern loses its third Champions League final in four years at London's Wembley Stadium.
If Lahm, one of the world's best full-backs, had been Spanish, it would have been a different story. At 29, the same age as Lahm, Andres Iniesta has a World Cup and two European Championships with Spain and three Champions League winner's medals with Barcelona.
So forget former England striker Gary Lineker's famous quip that football is a game the Germans always win. That will, of course, be true on Saturday but it hasn't been — and nor is it about to become — the rule.
A more accurate description would have been that football is a game the Germans play brilliantly, making them a threat at every tournament and getting them within spitting distance of a trophy more often than not. But, for various reasons, they don't convert the opportunities they create for silverware as often as they should.
In 1976, Bayern won its third consecutive European Cup. This was a golden age for German football. Die Mannschaft won the 1974 World Cup, captained by Franz Beckenbauer and beating the Netherlands of Johan Cruyff in the final, and reached three consecutive European Championship finals, winning two — in 1972 and 1980.
But in the 36 years since Bayern's three-in-a-row, the picture is more mixed. In European Cup finals, there have been eight German losses to just three wins — Hamburg in 1983, Dortmund in 1997 and Bayern again in 2001. English teams, in contrast, have won 11 and lost six; Italian clubs have won eight and lost nine; Real Madrid and Barcelona have together won seven for Spain and, with Valencia, lost a total of five.
At the World Cup, the last triumph was as West Germany in 1990. Since the reunification of East and West Germany later that year, the national team has added just one more major trophy, at Euro '96.
So an all-German Champions League final isn't the start of a long period of German domination, it's simply long overdue. The Spanish (Real Madrid vs. Valencia in 2000), the Italians (Milan vs. Juventus, 2003) and the English (Manchester United vs. Chelsea, 2008) have already been there, done that, before Bayern-Dortmund.
After coach Pep Guardiola's Barcelona ran rings around Alex Ferguson's United in the Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011, and Barca players starred in Spanish triumphs at the 2008 and 2012 Euros and 2010 World Cup, the focus in European football was on Barcelona's winning philosophy of quick passing and pressing and use of homegrown talent. Journalists trooped to Barcelona's La Masia academy as though it were a shrine.
Now, German football is supposedly European football's next big thing, especially after Bayern vaporized Barcelona 7-0 over two legs in their Champions League semifinal and Dortmund hammered another nail in what turned out to be Jose Mourinho's last season as Real Madrid manager, winning their semifinal with an aggregate score of 4-3.
In Bayern-Dortmund, some see a victory for German sobriety and common sense. They draw parallels between European football and the continent's economic crises, with simplistic suggestions that Germany is both weathering the financial storms and is guaranteed Champions League victory at Wembley because the country and its football clubs are soundly managed and don't overspend wildly.
Such arguments gloss over the fact that Dortmund was facing insolvency as recently as 2005; "it was the edge of the cliff, you couldn't get any closer," Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke said last week. And Bayern, especially, is no different from other top European clubs in that it, too, spends massively to buy success and has used its wealth to weaken rivals, notably vacuuming up Dortmund midfielder Mario Goetze for next season.
Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert offered a fair assessment that put any talk of a German power shift into perspective.
"We are proud to have two teams in the final but it doesn't mean we have 18 teams on the level. For 10 years the discussion has been why we have no chance to win the Champions League," he said this week. "You can't say 'Wow, look what we have achieved.' But in the last few years we have done more right than wrong."
To argue that Saturday's final is the shape of all-German things to come, one would also have to believe that the likes of Barcelona and its four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi won't bounce back next season. One would have to ignore the Qatari wealth that is turning Paris Saint-Germain into a force and the fact that Premier League clubs will have even more money to lavish on top players thanks to broadcast deals which could earn 100 million pounds ($152 million) next season for the English champions.
Let's also not forget that Dortmund reached the last four with an offside goal. Had its quarterfinal opponent, Malaga, advanced to face Madrid then the talk could have been of continued Spanish success, not German conquests.
So sit back, perhaps knock back a German beer or two and enjoy Saturday's show from two fabulously dynamic and deserving teams.
But don't make the mistake of reading too much into it.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester