RIO DE JANEIRO – At the final whistle, after Germany claimed a fourth World Cup by beating Argentina 1-0 in extra time, Bastian Schweinsteiger collapsed to the turf, utterly spent. He had given everything, running to the point of exhaustion, the only holding midfielder in the Germany squad still standing by the end, and that only just, a stray arm from Sergio Aguero having caught him across the face leaving him with a gash on his cheek.
Eight years ago, when Germany lost in the World Cup semifinal to Italy, Schweinsteiger had come off the bench. Of those who played in this final, Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Per Mertesacker were also veterans of that heartbreak in Dortmund, while Lukas Podolski was in the squad. For them, the reward must have felt all the sweeter. Germany has, after all reached at least the semifinal of every major tournament since then, without ever going all the way.
Although the quality of Spain, which beat Germany in the final of Euro 2008 and in the semifinal of the 2010 World Cup must be taken into account, there was a sense that Germany had become perhaps a little too nice to be winners, that it lacked a little hardness. Perhaps some of the nastiness has returned. This side may not be the robust pragmatists of the early 80s, but there is an edge to it.
In the challenge Manuel Neuer made on Gonzalo Higuain to punch clear Pablo Zabaleta's ball just before the hour - clean contact with the ball, but disgracefully recess in the way his raised knee clattered into the forward's head - there was an echo of Toni Schumacher's notorious assault on Patrick Battiston in the 1982 semifinal, while the constant pressuring of the referee, the whole bench at times rushing to the edge of the technical area, was reminiscent of one of Franz Beckenbauer's teams.
Equally, many had wondered whether Jogi Low, assistant manager to Jurgen Klinsmann in 2006 and the head coach since then, was a good enough coach to bring trophies. His quality as a manager may still be in doubt after a final in which Argentina spurned three glorious chances, but what cannot be questioned is the success of the system. The changes Germany has made to player production over the past 15 years are remarkable.
Others, perhaps, would not even have noticed anything was wrong as Germany won Euro 96, as Borussia Dortmund won the Champions League in 1997 and Bayern Munich came within seconds of winning it in 1999. But as the number of German-qualified players in the Bundesliga fell, German coach Berti Vogts found himself naturalizing South African Sean Dundee and the Brazilian Paulo Rink, an unprecedented step.
Three Thoughts on the 2014 World Cup after Germany wins its fourth title
Is Germany positioned for a lengthy reign? What does the USA's future hold? And what more can FIFA do about head injuries? SI's Grant Wahl gives 3 thoughts on the 2014 World Cup.
In May 1999, Beckenbauer, the vice president of the German football federation (DFB); Erich Ribbeck, who had succeeded Vogts as national coach; and Dietrich Wiese, the DFB’s director of youth development, outlined a scheme to ensure the development of young German players. All clubs in the top two divisions in Germany were required to build academies, while 121 national centers were established to help those ages 10-17 with technical practice.
"We were forced to organize everything anew," said Horst Hrubesch, once a powerful center forward and now the national Under-21 coach. "We hoped that it could get better with training focusing on technical skills in addition to the training in the clubs. It worked out well. We all - associations, clubs and regional associations - now reap the fruits of the seed we sowed in 2000."
Citizenship laws were relaxed, the result of which has been the emergence of a number of top-class German-qualified players from immigrant backgrounds, while the economic dip of the early 2000s forced many German clubs to focus on youth. Last season, although the German economy has recovered, more than half of the players in the Bundesliga are qualified for Germany.
Often success at international level can seem slightly freakish, a matter of having the good fortune for a number of fine players to emerge at once. Yet there is something almost industrial about Germany's production of fine, technically gifted players. Such was its strength in depth, that it dealt with the injuries to Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan (before the tournament) and Sami Khedira and Christoph Kramer with barely a flicker.
Ideally, perhaps, there'd be an orthodox center forward emerging to reach the 36-year-old Klose, but then the winner was scored by Mario Gotze, one of a fleet of attacking hybrid midfielder-forwards who offer options as a false nine.
Germany's only problem, it turned out, was finding a balance between the slightly overly reactive football of 2010 and the proactive but defensively slack football of 2012. That openness was a problem even earlier in the tournament, but once Lahm had been moved to right back and the Schweinsteiger-Khedira pairing was restored in midfield, the pieces were in place. Khedira was forced to withdraw from the final with a calf strain sustained in the warm-up, but the scaffolding was there to provide support.
History will remember the 7-1 victory over Brazil in the semifinal rather more fondly than the final, but Germany's performances over the tournament made it a worthy champion. It might not quite be a great team, but with a young side and a fine production line in place, this could be the beginning of a great era of domination.