Before his German squad played Greece in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal, coach Joachim Löw spoke about control, self-control. He was talking about himself but he could have been talking about his players: "I feel no pressure," he told 11 Freunde magazine. "Other people speak of pressure, but to me it's fun. Emotions run high, of course, and I do get angry during a game, but these things happen spontaneously. But when you talk about stress, I am at my best when there is no stress."
Löw certainly seemed stressed before he celebrated Philipp Lahm's superb opening goal against Greece just before halftime: his new-look strikeforce of Andres Schurrle, Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus linked dangerously in the area, but their spate of missed chances and saved efforts had left him twitching, pacing and punching the air in frustration on the sidelines.
The effectiveness of the changes Löw made certainly proved how deep Germany is -- Klose and Reus ended up scoring as Germany coasted to a 4-2 win in the second half -- but the stress was only just beginning: 10 minutes into the second half, Dimitris Salpingidis skipped down the right wing and crossed for Giorgios Samaras to level the score.
It made for an eventful passage of play for German captain Philipp Lahm, whose opening strike bore hallmarks of the first goal scored at the 2006 World Cup, a curling effort from the edge of the box in a 4-2 win over Costa Rica. But Lahm was caught pushing up too high on the Greek equalizer. Lahm, though was not playing in his preferred position. As well as being Germany's best right-back, Lahm is also its best left-back, though he did admit to Süddeutsche Zeitung "I feel a bit more secure on the right, especially when it comes to defending. Right and left ... Put simply, it's just not the same position."
Second-half explosion pushes Germany past Greece
Even at left-back, though, Lahm is an outstanding defender and he is in the midst of an incredible run. Germany has now won all 15 competitive matches since the 2010 World Cup under his captaincy, which, despite the results, has not always been a smooth one.
The nature of his appointment rankled his predecessor Michael Ballack, and it all came to a head just before the 2010 World Cup semifinal against Spain. Ballack had been injured for the tournament and Lahm wore the armband. On the day Ballack left the squad in South Africa, just before that Spain game, Lahm gave an interview saying he wanted to remain the captain after the competition. Ballack felt that was disrespectful and the pair fell out. "I was captain and I know how to behave in a group," Ballack told German station Sky Sports at the time. "It was a weird situation." (It was interesting to note that in his role as ESPN Euro 2012 analyst, Ballack did not go overboard on Lahm's goal at halftime, preferring to focus on the changes in Löw's lineup.)
Löw ended up siding with Lahm, who has not proved shy about expressing his thoughts.
Lahm was hit with a €10,000 fine when he dared to criticize Bayern Munich's recruitment policy in November 2009, suggesting that the club signed good players without thinking where they might fit in. Lahm had recently turned down an approach from Barcelona and having been at Bayern since he was 11, did not want to see his hometown club left behind. Bayern's board was angry, but ended up heeding his advice and has reached two Champions League finals since.
Last summer, there were even calls for Lahm to lose the captaincy after his autobiography The Fine Difference: How to Become a Top Player Today caused a stir with its frank assessments of former coaches Rudi Voller, Felix Magath and Jurgen Klinsmann, now the U.S. coach, were seen as breaking dressing-room codes of omerta. Lahm was surprised by the negative reaction and quickly apologized.
There have been no such hiccups in the last 12 months, and Lahm is now two games away from achieving something that not even Ballack managed: lifting Germany's first trophy in 16 years (back in Euro '96, it was Klinsmann who was the skipper).
He has come a long way from the kid who grew up in Germ, always asking his mother Daniela to play in goal in their concrete driveway, as he took shots from all angles. Daniela still works at amateur club FT Germ, where Lahm started out, and in 2005 she was handed an award for her voluntary work by Germany team manager Olivier Bierhoff.
His same will to win remains, as does the honesty. Respected as Germany's best defender, and still only 28 and captain of a side that's on a run of 15 straight competitive wins, it's hard to see how Lahm can upset anyone now.