Germany team must turn nation from doubters into believers

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Germany;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Germany</a> fans at the recent warm-up match against Greece in Mönchengladbach.</span><span>Photograph: Thilo Schmülgen/Reuters</span>

If only the Germans had a word for “zeitgeist”. There’s a football tournament starting here on Friday, not that you would necessarily know it. Indeed, from a cursory trawl of Thursday’s media what was most striking of all was the absence of Euros-buzz, the suspicion that there are bigger priorities out there. “CANCER,” screamed the front page of Bild, just in case you were thinking of getting too excited. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is missing the opening game to attend the G7 in Italy. The sports bulletins were dominated by the sudden resignation of the Borussia Dortmund coach, Edin Terzic. On the Kicker website, the first Euro 2024 news appeared some way below a story about RB Leipzig’s summer transfer business.

None of which should necessarily be mistaken for pure apathy. Rather, there is a more complex melange of emotions at work here. Euro 2024 is still very much present, as long as you know where to look: the big town squares where overseas fans have begun to congregate, the television ad breaks where Joshua Kimmich is shaving his chin baby-smooth with a next-generation razor. Tickets for Germany’s open training session in Jena sold out in 10 minutes.

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But, among the great unconverted, there remains a certain tactical restraint. This is a public burned by past failures, who pledge primary loyalty to their club teams, who above all are wary of overcommiting too early. When even the great Toni Kroos lists France, Portugal and England as his three favourites, with the host nation in the chase group just behind, the attempt at expectation management is clear enough. Germany is not all-in on this team yet. By 11pm on Friday night, that could very well have changed.

Through history, Germany’s campaigns have often thrived or foundered on their opening game. Each of their seven previous tournament victories began with a win; indeed, Germany have never failed to reach the quarter-finals after winning their first game. Even now, Philipp Lahm is best remembered as the man whose curling shot against Costa Rica started the euphoria machine that was the 2006 World Cup.

By contrast, each of Germany’s past three tournaments has begun with a momentum-crushing defeat: to Mexico in 2018, France in 2021 and Japan in 2022. Lose to Scotland in Munich on Friday, and all of a sudden Sommermärchen 2.0 will take on a vividly different shade. “The first match is very, very important,” Kroos said earlier this week. “The last few tournaments have shown that in a negative way.”

One of the ironies of Germany’s slump at international level over recent years is that it has coincided with a rich vein of form for German clubs in Europe. Bayern won the Champions League in 2020; Eintracht Frankfurt the Europa League in 2022; Borussia Dortmund made this year’s Champions League final; Bayer Leverkusen were the best team in the world for large parts of this season, surrendering their unbeaten record only in their penultimate game, the Europa League final against Atalanta.

Meanwhile, the likes of Kroos, Antonio Rüdiger and Ilkay Gündogan have won practically everything there is to win at club level. Point being: this is a squad that knows how to rise to the big occasion. The issue, of late, has been doing so in tandem.

But over the short invigorating months under Julian Nagelsmann, the pieces have slowly come together. Rüdiger and Jonathan Tah have forged a strong partnership at the heart of defence, solving one of Germany’s longstanding issues at a stroke. “It just works,” Rüdiger said recently. Kimmich at right-back will have the job of dealing with the overlapping Andrew Robertson. On the opposite flank Maximilian Mittelstädt, who has had a breakout season with Stuttgart, provides an underrated attacking threat of his own.

Gündogan and Kroos, with Robert Andrich behind them, form a midfield to envy any in the tournament. The return of the all-conquering Kroos offers this team not just an unerring passing game and a champion mentality, but a certain sense of mission: an opportunity to elevate their teammate into the pantheon occupied by generational greats like Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Zinedine Zidane who won everything there was to win, who essentially completed football. Then you have the front three, with Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala providing the creativity and Kai Havertz the cutting edge up front. Niclas Füllkrug, Leroy Sané and Thomas Müller are more likely to make an impact from the bench but could feature more extensively later.

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This is, by any measure, a team capable of challenging. In fact, pretty much the only genuine selection dilemma for Nagelsmann is in what has traditionally been the strongest position of all. “We don’t need a discussion about our goalkeeper,” the sporting director, Rudi Völler, said this week. Yep, good luck with that. In reality the mistake by Manuel Neuer in the recent friendly against Greece – the latest in a string of errors by the 38-year-old – has reopened the debate over the No 1 shirt. In any other era Marc-André ter Stegen would probably have 120 caps rather than the 40 he has managed to scrape together in Neuer’s shadow. Neuer will start the tournament, but is by no means guaranteed to finish it.

All of which has unfolded against the backdrop of a certain cautious optimism, with the emphasis on caution. This is perhaps the first tournament for a generation where Germans are bearish rather than bullish on their chances: analogous in many ways to England in 2018, driven to cynicism by one too many tournament fiascos.

The fervour and focus of a home crowd can drive teams to places they never thought they could go, make them feel irresistible, make opponents feel peripheral. In a tournament stacked with contenders, Germany will need that surge of sentiment to push them over the line. Friday night offers their first chance – and perhaps their last – to convert doubters into believers.