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  • Germany's past title defenses have not gone well, and its federation has been turning over new, unlikely and innovative stones to help Die Mannschaft avoid the pitfalls of past champions and succeed again on the world stage.
By Brian Straus
June 12, 2018

Der Kaiser may turn out to be right, eventually. But it certainly won’t be in the timeframe or manner he imagined as he lorded over the football world at the helm of a West German national team that’s very different from the one about to take the field in Russia.

It was the summer of 1990. The Berlin Wall had fallen (figuratively, at that point), and Die Mannschaft had just won a third World Cup title, emerging from a grind of a tournament that suited its style of efficient, mistake-free and occasionally dour soccer. The defensive tactics on display at Italia ’90 led to the introduction of the back-pass rule and three points for a win. And the final—forgettable for everyone but the triumphant West Germans—featured more red cards than goals.

But those were mere details for Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary German defender and coach who became the first man to captain and then manage a World Cup winner. At the post-final press conference in Rome, when asked what would happen once Germany had access to players from both sides of the dissolved Iron Curtain, Beckenbauer confidently apologized to the rest of the planet and declared that Die Mannschaft henceforth would be “unbeatable.”

A quarter of a century later, Beckenbauer’s bravado echoes. Both Germans who spoke to SI.com for this story referenced the quote unprompted. It remains a traffic light, a warning sign, a symbol of arrogance and complacency to which German football refuses to return. Because Die Mannschaft became beatable. Apart from the Euro ’96 crown secured with a shootout win over England and then Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal in the final, Germany endured two decades of uncharacteristic (and relative) failure. The run to the 2002 World Cup felt like an outlier. Instead, the touchstones became quarterfinal upsets in 1994 and ’98, and disastrous Euro 2000 and ’04 appearances that ended in winless group-stage exits.

“We believed [Beckenbauer] and for 10 years, we patted ourselves on the back without getting better and without acknowledging that France was passing us by, the Dutch were passing by,” said Bierhoff, the former forward who’s now Die Mannschaft’s general manager. “There was less technique, not as good players. The league was getting worse. In sports, you don’t feel immediately the decline. You can just live some time with it. Then we said, ‘We don’t have to make these same mistakes.’”

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Bravado was out, to be replaced by diligence, investment, a turn-over-every-rock ethos and most of all, humility. German soccer’s structural overhaul, chronicled exhaustively in the aptly-titled Das Reboot by Raphael Honigstein, was anchored by a collaborative approach between the Deutscher Fussball-Bund and domestic clubs. Player development was prioritized. Pro teams were required to field academy sides, while the DFB invested in hundreds of training centers and scouting networks that covered the country. Reserve squads were introduced into the Bundesliga pyramid. Interest and investment in cognitive and psychological development and sports science were increased substantially, leading to innovations like the footbonaut, the incredible room-sized machine that enhanced players’ trapping, passing and shooting precision and dexterity.

Under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a younger national team played a more dynamic, entertaining brand of football and won bronze at the 2006 World Cup. Several more close calls followed and finally, in 2014, Die Mannschaft earned that elusive fourth star. Of the 23 men who triumphed in Rio de Janeiro under Klinsmann’s long-serving successor, Joachim Low, 21 were products of the revamped academy system.

German football became the envy of the world, their renowned will to win now wrapped in a stylish and charismatic package. What was essentially a ‘B’ team that included 12 players 23 or under won the Confederations Cup last year. Their U-23 side took silver at the 2016 Olympics and the U-21 team is European champion. And Germany enters this World Cup, which it'll kick off Sunday against Mexico, as a favorite to repeat.

But don’t tell them that. The DFB is well aware that no World Cup winner has repeated since 1962, and that its own title defenses have been relative disasters. And they’re mindful of the high cost of self congratulation. Improve or get left behind. Evolve or die. So Germany has continued to push the envelope. This is a federation that built its own hotel and training camp in Brazil before the 2014 World Cup. It'll try anything, and it's willing to learn from everyone. Now, that search for self-improvement has taken Germany to the United States, and to an MLS club that, in its own way, also is seeking to modernize, branch out and get better.

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“The DFB is humble for sure, and it’s important for the DFB to keep the big picture in mind. We know success doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come quick,” said Nicolas Jungkind. “Humility has to be part of our DNA. Therefore, the DFB does everything to ensure they’re one step ahead.”

The fancy term used by the DFB and its American partner, the San Jose Earthquakes, is “hybrid resource model.” But you can call him Nicolas. He was raised outside Heidelberg, Germany, but came to the U.S. to attend the University of Florida, where he played tennis. A job at software company SAP led to a lot of transatlantic travel, time spent in Silicon Valley, and an externship at the DFB, which is an SAP partner. In 2016 he joined the federation full-time, and this year, he became the DFB’s managing director for the Americas. Jungkind lives outside Philadelphia. It’s a geographic compromise between Frankfurt and San Jose, which is at the heart of Silicon Valley and the home of the DFB’s primary U.S. partner, the Earthquakes.

Why is one of the most successful and ambitious soccer organizations in the world partnering with a middling club, in a modest league, in a country that still has a lukewarm relationship with the game?

“We had the feeling that sports technology is more advanced in the U.S. in general, so there was a motivation for the DFB to focus on the North American market,” Jungkind explained. “The Earthquakes have an understanding of what the future should look like and what they want their team to be made up of—what values the team has. … Given the fact that they’re in the center of Silicon Valley, that also means something. The fact that the Quakes have that ecosystem, all those thought leaders around them, means they’re continuously inspired by new ideas, new technology. That leads to the fact that Jesse can say with good conscience that they are provoking thought, because of exactly that scenario. That’s a situation the DFB admires.”

Jesse is Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli, who was hired in January 2017. He’s Swiss, speaks five languages and was educated in his native country, the U.K. and Towson, Maryland. He’s worked as a banker, a player agent and in a variety of technical positions at Samsunspor, Lazio and AS Roma. Fioranelli has connections throughout the football world and is full of ambition and ideas, and he seems like a good fit for Silicon Valley. He believes technology and data represent the way forward. He’s fixated on innovation and intelligence. And he seamlessly slips between soccer talk and phrases like “hybrid resource model.” Fioranelli is a walking, talking power-point presentation. No wonder the Germans want to work with him.

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Fioranelli first made an impression on Bierhoff while working at Roma. They had a player in common, Antonio Rüdiger, and the conversations began there. Bierhoff said he was impressed with Fioranelli’s candor and interest in reaching out in an effort to better understand the defender—“clubs are usually very closed shops,” Bierhoff said—and a relationship was formed that followed Fioranelli to San Jose.

As far as the DFB was concerned, Fioranelli couldn’t have found a better landing spot.

“The whole world is going over there. It’s a great motor which is moving now, with new technology, new ideas,” Bierhoff said. “If you want to have a more open mind and see the latest developments and technology, you have to have a foot in Silicon Valley. It’s very interesting and inspiring for our people.”

Said Fioranelli, “We have very fertile ground. The DFB is working with San Jose, because San Jose is taking bold initiatives similar to ones that made Germany the World Cup champion.”

The Quakes aren’t a champion trying to hold off challengers, however. If anything, they’re the opposite—an organization that’s failed to realize much of its potential. Since relaunching in 2008, San Jose has finished above sixth place in MLS's Western Conference just once—that stirring Supporters' Shield season of the never-say-die Goonies in 2012. That was hardly dynamic, technical football, however, and it was an outlier. The Goonies missed the MLS playoffs in each of the ensuing four seasons and fell behind in an increasingly ambitious league.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

The architects of that 2012 campaign are long gone. A new stadium, Avaya, has risen, and Fioranelli has been charged with leading the Earthquakes into modernity. He’s trying to broaden the club’s horizons. In Silicon Valley, they care about what you can do more than where you were born. There’s a Swedish coach (Mikael Stahre), a Spanish director of methodology (Alex Covelo works on establishing continuity in style, tactics and approach between the academy and the first team), and a Brazilian head of scouting (Bruno Costa), among other diverse appointments.

It’s been slow going so far. A knockout-round loss last year has been followed up by a 2-9-3 start this season. But Fioranelli intends to play the long game. Like the DFB, San Jose is investing in, and relying on, youth development. And like the DFB, the club is enamored of technology.

The Quakes' most interesting investment so far is in the products of Second Spectrum, a company more well-known for its work with the NBA. Second Spectrum installs cameras throughout the stadium that capture game play from all angles, in three dimensions and in real time. There are 15 such cameras at Avaya, and they feed immense amounts of data into computers that can look for trends, flaws, matchups and patterns based on parameters and preferences provided by coaches. What would’ve taken hours of scouting to learn before, now can be determined in seconds by the computer. That sort of efficiency is of particular interest to a national team planning to play deep into a tournament, where you find out only a few days ahead of time that you’re facing Brazil or France in a semifinal.

“That’s huge in a World Cup,” Jungkind said.

Want to provide your players with tailored, team-specific information on where 2-v-1s might develop against a certain kind of press, or narrow down the off-the-ball runs that pulled a particular left back out of position? Curious about what passes weren't made, rather than just plotting the ones that were? And you need the information today? Ask Second Spectrum. The Earthquakes have installed it—it’s believed they’re the first soccer club in the world to do so—and the Germans are going to leverage their relationship with the American team to learn how to use it. It’s the centerpiece of a partnership that was formalized last year.

Bierhoff acknowledged that the Quakes are far from the world’s biggest club. But big clubs aren’t always nimble, and often are tied down by politics or old ideas.

“They want to be part of this process that we’re doing with the [DFB]. They can help us with their network, with the risks and development in these areas,” Bierhoff said. “So we’ve chosen to do this, with a person like Jesse. It’s much more important to have a partner that’s willing to work with you, then a partner with a [famous] name but isn’t open to developing new ideas.”

Said Fioranelli, “What helped us was acknowledging the validity and being a platform for the German federation to work on machine learning. It’s not certain that Germany eventually will work with Second Spectrum specifically, but they love the idea we’re taking the lead on this and they’d like to know more about it. That’s the tip of the iceberg. That’s where the movement is going. That’s video analysis 2.0, and we’re in the very beginning chapters.”

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U.S. fans and media have seen a multitude of international partnerships announced before, and they usually wind up amounting to little more than a press release and a friendly. The Quakes and the DFB intend to break that mold. In addition to the DFB getting access to San Jose’s machine learning resources, the two sides already have launched several other initiatives. Fioranelli and Quakes staff attended a sports analytics conference in Frankfurt in November, and German officials, including Bierhoff, have come the other way to speak at Stanford and make the rounds of Silicon Valley innovators, from the Oakland A’s (think Moneyball) to Tesla.

DFB coaches have spent time with Earthquakes academy staff and in November, San Jose representatives will head to Germany to follow one or two Bundesliga clubs and Die Mannschaft through their respective paces. The month before, in October, the two sides plan to co-host a congress at Avaya Stadium that’ll bring together coaches and technical people from professional clubs, federations and youth organizations from the USA, Canada and Mexico. Companies like Second Spectrum and others interested in machine learning, data, analysis and virtual reality should have a captive and eager audience. Further out, research and development projects, games, and additional exchanges are on the agenda.

All of this is has been a bit of a shock to the system in San Jose. Perhaps it mirrors the evolution of the area itself—which once was a blue-collar, agricultural region (and still is, in some ways)—to the technological capital of the planet. The Goonies are no more.

“I feel there is a transition—a transition where we really want to stake our identity,” said Earthquakes captain, icon and East Bay native Chris Wondolowski. “We’re trying to take all the things San Jose is, and that’s still what we are, but try to progress. The great thing about soccer is that it’s ever-evolving. Once you think you’re the best at a certain thing, there’s a new way someone comes in and tries to fix it or build it up or burn it down.”

The Valley, Wondolowski said, is a “great melting pot, kind of like this team. We’ve got a lot of different ideas and different people, and through trial and error we’ll see what works and what doesn’t.”

Germany isn’t as much of a melting pot, so where there was status quo and stagnation, Bierhoff and the DFB are introducing new ideas and influences. And they now refuse to stand pat. A significant part of the next “Reboot” is the construction and development of the $160 million DFB academy in Frankfurt, which is slated to open in 2020. It’ll house and train coaches, players, and those involved in everything from athletic performance and physiology to analytics and finance. It’s the most significant infrastructure undertaking in DFB history—including the 2014 World Cup training center and resort in Bahia.

Daimler

“I would like to see it become the Silicon Valley and Harvard of soccer,” Bierhoff said. “Wherever you are in the world, if you want to know something about soccer and you want to have access to the best knowledge, your first idea has to be to come to us. That’s our goal.”

What the Germans learn working with the Earthquakes, and in the real Silicon Valley, in the coming years will play a significant role in establishing that foundation. Most of it will need time to take root, but there will be at least an indication or two of the DFB’s interest in silicon as it mines for gold in Russia. For example, the Germans worked with consultants on a proprietary app designed to take advantage of the new rule allowing coaches on the bench to communicate with colleagues in the stands during games. Within seconds, they’ll be able to break down tactical or personnel problems with film, screen shots and statistics, using synchronized tablets to examine potential solutions.

If Germany eventually becomes unbeatable, it won’t be by declaration or reputation. It’ll be because it restlessly pushed through boundaries. Those boundaries could be scientific, technological or cultural. The DFB’s willingness to look toward the U.S. and the Earthquakes for help says a lot. Appreciation for what it doesn’t know has replaced the arrogance of old.

“They won it all, but they still speak with humility. ‘Hey, we’re still hungry. We would like to be No. 1 by seeing what other benchmarks are out there,” Fioranelli said. “For us, we’re not world champions. But if you know something about San Jose, it’s that it’s a hard working area, and our humility is acknowledging where we stand in the soccer hierachy. We are not the DFB. But in America, we can strive for more if we align ourselves with another value we share [with the Germans], and that’s provoking thought and provoking the status quo.”

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