JOachim Löw’s announcement that he will be stepping down as Germany’s coach after the Euro was not a surprise. If anything, it is a wonder that he managed, or even wanted to, continue for so long after the aftermath of the World Cup in 2018. After the title defense ended in the group stage, Löw and his team they were subjected to the usual combination of finger pointing and soul searching.
Löw kept his job, simply put, and pedaled through a new Germany, shedding some cornerstones of past success, most notably Thomas Müller, and promoting young players into a fresh team. Unfortunately for the coach, UEFA slapped the Nations League right in the middle of its roadmap out of the crisis and his team had to face failure very early, ending 2018 with disappointing results against France and the Netherlands before lose 6-0 to Spain in Seville last November. It was a humiliating defeat for Löw, Germany’s biggest in 89 years, but by now he has seen everything that can be thrown at an international coach.
His time at the top started off very well. After riding the wave of positivity created by the 2006 World Cup at home, Löw stepped out of the shadow of Jürgen Klinsmann and led the team in the short jump to neighboring Austria and Switzerland for Euro 2008. A skillful finish from Fernando Torres in the final prevented Löw from having the perfect start. It was a disgrace for Löw to face an exceptional selection from Spain, a team that would become a World Cup defender.
The seeds of Germany’s future success were sown on the fields of South Africa in 2010. The loss of Michael Ballack before the tournament seemed like a real blow at the time, but Löw was able to tap into a rapidly emerging pool of talents. More than half of the team were 24 years old or younger. Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil, Jérôme Boateng and, in particular, Thomas Müller quickly became household names, joining seasoned stars such as Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and the newly appointed captain Philipp Lahm.
Another pre-tournament injury, this time to René Adler, meant Manuel Neuer, Schalke’s talented goalkeeper with a handful of caps, had his chance. It’s fair to say that that decision was worth it.
Once warmed up, Germany jumped into the tournament, sweeping England and Argentina in knockout games before going head-to-head with an all-conquering Spain in the semifinals, again losing by the odd goal.
Any hopes Löw had of breaking his duck two years later in Poland and Ukraine was crushed by Italy in, you guessed it, the semi-finals. A double by a young Mario Balotelli did it for Germany in Warsaw. Any loss that deep in a tournament is tough, but especially this one. After their performances in South Africa, and with two more years on the legs of their youngest players, Germany was one of the favorites. But, as in 2006, Italy proved to be too much. Spain ended up winning its third consecutive tournament.
Löw’s record of two semi-finals and a final in his first three tournaments would be welcome in most nations, but it was not enough for Germany. Something was different in 2014. The stars of 2010 were now superstars and, for the legends who had been around since 2006, it was now or never. With Spain and Italy eliminated in the group stage, Germany would not have to face the teams that had beaten them in the last three tournaments. Grit saw them go through the group stage and a scare against Algeria in the second round was a wake-up call before the last three matches.
A nervous but solid victory against France in the quarterfinals set up tournament play against the hosts. If Germany had lost to Brazil in Belo Horizonte, it could well have been Löw’s last game. Another semifinal, another defeat, another disappointment. It would have been a big task to regroup and go again after four near misses. But this was not just any game. Sami Khedira scored Germany’s fifth goal within half an hour of play, giving Löw the opportunity to spend the rest of a tearful and surreal afternoon planning the final at the Maracana.
Löw had to suffer before he could celebrate. After 112 tense minutes in the final against Argentina, a left foot strike from Mario Götze gave him the glory he had been chasing since joining the national team a decade earlier.
Perhaps this should have been his last game. He could have gone off and chosen his jobs, or simply spent the rest of his career in and out of television studios, answering questions about why the current Germany team was not performing as well as their world champions had. On the other hand, why walk away from leading the best team in the world? Why not try to emulate Spain’s recent international trophy streak, or become the third team to successfully defend the World Cup, after Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962?
Unfortunately, that plan didn’t quite work. In truth, there have been few highlights from Brazil. Löw may wish he had come out on top, particularly after Spain topped Neuer with six in November. If there hadn’t been a tournament around the corner, that 6-0 Nations League win might have been the best for Löw.
Managing a national team has its advantages, but also its disadvantages. It’s hard to gain momentum after wins or bounce back after losses. If you’re in the middle of a tournament, a loss can put you on the plane home, and a poor qualifier or friendly is often followed by months of brooding and doubting before seeing the players again.
Four months have passed since Löw suffered the worst defeat of his tenure against Spain. A parting of the ways this summer was inevitable, whatever the result in the Euro. If Germany does well, maybe even win it, Löw will get a second chance to go out as long as things go well. Disappoint again and would have been sent packing. By announcing his intentions early, Löw is leaving on his own terms, both saving the DFB from a potentially awkward conversation and calming the waters with the tournament on the horizon.
But can it end up high? Of course. After all, this is still Germany, and tournament football is about hitting the sweet spot at the right time. A quick look at the potential team for the summer also adds to the optimism.
Neuer has been back at his best for a long time and although he has played behind better hindquarters, the rest of the field looks promising. As long as everyone stays in shape, a midfield with Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and an Ilkay Gündogan in supreme form looks strong. Thomas Tuchel has rejuvenated Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. Serge Gnabry has been one of the best players in Germany in the last two years. Löw will surely find a place this time for Leroy Sané, who is now finding his feet and form on the opposite flank at Bayern Munich. Add talented youngsters like Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz to the mix, and Löw can rest assured.
And then there is Müller. Regardless of whether Löw was right to cut him after the World Cup in 2018, the Bayern striker was nowhere near his best in Russia. However, since Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac at Bayern in 2019, Müller has returned to the frame and is almost irreplaceable. Not only has he formed a deadly attack with Robert Lewandowski and racked up more than a dozen assists in the league, but he appears to have rediscovered his mojo. Gone are the smart races, the joyous endings, the excitement of the playground, and his astonishing awareness of space.
The discussion about who could replace Löw has started. And although Jürgen Klopp has announced his intention to stay at Anfield, Ralf Rangnick seems like a popular choice for many, but possibly not in the long term. Many believe that the role could be filled by Flick, who spent eight years as Löw’s number two.
Whatever happens in the summer, and whoever finally takes over, Löw deserves credit. He has been in charge of Germany for just under 15 years, sending his team 189 times, across various continents, in all kinds of competitions, against all kinds of opponents. Anyone who has been in such a public position for so long can expect ups and downs, but a win rate close to 65% is not negligible.
Apparently Müller would be happy to play for Germany again if Löw gets close. Whether or not the longest-serving national coach in the world answers the phone could have a huge impact on how you are reminded of it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism