Germany’ s head coach Joachim Loew, 56, faces one of the most important tournaments of his career.
After winning the 2014 World Cup, Loew now occupies a place among the country’ s football coaching legends. Despite the drop in motivation that plagued the German team after Brazil World Cup, expectations are mountain high ahead of Euro 2016 in France.
“It didn’ t really surprise me,” Loew said in a recent Xinhua interview, “what important is that we are all focused again and highly motivated. As a World Champion everybody expects us to win the title in France. And we want to.”
Xinhua: Mr. Loew, did you enjoy cycling in your pre-tournament training camp?
Loew: (laughing) Oh it was fun, thank you for asking. We found perfect conditions and will travel to France with a good feeling. However we know we still have some work to do. Cycling was part of the feel-good atmosphere. It’ s a nice little detail when you get in the saddle and ride to the training ground instead of hopping on the team bus like usual.
Xinhua: We mentioned cycling because every summer France stages the world’s most important cycle race – the Tour des France. Is the football European Championship something similar – well a race?
Loew: Well if you like, yes. You need a good preparation, a good start and it is a long way to go while you face flat roads and high mountains. It’ s important for cycling teams and it’ s important for us too, to work as a team and create team spirit. That was an important thing in Brazil and it will be an important thing again when Euro 2016 gets underway.
Xinhua: Did your team need a special amount of fresh input after the, let’ s say the drop in motivation and emotion, after winning the World Cup?
Loew: Every team needs fresh input, especially after a fantastic success like the one in Brazil. Every tournament is a new chapter and it would be a mistake to just rely on your success. Football is a game that develops rapidly, as do the teams.
Xinhua: Did the difficulties your team had after the World Cup surprise you?
Loew: I expected some, what you call difficulties. It’ s nothing unusual; every team has to go through a period like that. I expected that we wouldn’ t show the same quality as we did at the World Cup. Some players retired, some suffered injuries, we had to play with different elevens, and, yes, some players had to go through an emotional downturn. But it was nothing that bothered me much because I knew that the team can get their concentration level back up and become totally focused. We are all very much looking forward to kick off in France. Our team is ambitious and hungry.
Xinhua: So it is not a problem that your team is considered to be a favorite?
Loew: We know we have a very good team. And we know we can perform on a high level. But at the same time we know we are not unbeatable. I think it is important that we are aware of it in advance of a major tournament. You have to concentrate on every game and prepare for a long run. Starting as the World Champion, it’ s normal you are regarded as one of the favorites. We accept this and we see ourselves among the favorites in addition to several other teams such as Spain, France, England, Belgium and Italy. Many European teams are on a very high level. Details will decide who will make it to the top.
Xinhua: What have you changed in your team since Brazil?
Loew: Immediately after Brazil we had the feeling we lost several leaders when Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Per Mertesacker retired. That might have been another reason for a drop in performance in the first months after the World Cup. In the meantime, the structure of the team has developed and we have leading players like Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Oezil and Thomas Mueller. They all play on a very high level with their clubs and take responsibility. In advance of a tournament like the one in France, it is vital to create team spirit and having everybody working whole-heartedly for one another.
Xinhua: 2016 Euro is a tournament for 24 teams, eight more than usual. Does that influence your strategy?
Loew: We see two different phases at Euro 2016 for us. The first will be influenced by our group opponents, meaning we might have to face mainly defensively minded opponents. Poland, a top class team, will be the only exception. In the next round then we might meet the third placed side of another group and face a similar challenge. For our opponents in the first phase, playing us will be seen by them as a game of the century. What would you do?
Xinhua: Make sure my defense works?
Loew: So would I. Meaning, they try to destroy our game and look for counter attacks. That requires a special game. Then we will have to face the second part when teams like Spain, Belgium, France could be waiting. They will take the game to you and try to win. But don’ t forget, defensively-minded teams will do everything to beat you and are a hard nut to crack.
Xinhua: So what does your “two phases” theory mean in the end?
Loew: We need two teams in France. One for the first tournament phase, one for the second. That again shows how important it is to have a well-balanced squad of 23 players. You won’ t win a tournament like this with your so called “first eleven” .
Xinhua: To upgrade your squad, you nominated several youngsters such as Joshua Kimmich, Julian Weigl and Leroy Sane. What is your intention and what do you expect?
Loew: You can say the situation is similar to the one in 2010 when younger players like Manuel Neuer, Thomas Mueller, Mesut Oezil, Jerome Boateng and Sami Khedira developed on an international level. At some stage German football saw the need to develop technically highly-skilled players. The ones we just mentioned are on a similar good way. I was impressed how cool they reacted after they joined the squad. They’ re already a part of the team. Looking at their young age and their ability to take responsibility, I am impressed.
Xinhua: Are we wrong in saying one problem of big teams is to get speed in their game when they face more defensively-minded teams?
Loew: Keep ball football is not the final solution. At the same time you have to manage to get what you call depth in your game. You need players that can act in narrow spaces and solve one-to-one situations in order to get superior numbers in front of your opponent’ s goal. Our team is a passing machine, but sometimes we lack the ability to get into the spaces behind the defense.
Xinhua: You have players to do that job?
Loew: I think so. No, I’ m convinced we have. Many players face a similar problem with their clubs, meaning, they know what is required. I talk about players like Thomas Mueller, Julian Draxler, Andre Schuerrle, Lukas Podolski, Mario Goetze and Leroy Sane. In international football, a player like Neymar stands for that every second of the game. As soon as he gets the ball, even in little space, he goes into battle and his direction is always towards the goal. To be successful, you need these, let’ s say, one-to-one seekers, these nerds annoying the opponent’ s defenders.
Xinhua: You’ re happy to have your “two teams” together in your 23-player squad thanks to the well working academy system in Germany? The country seems to have a rich vein of young talents.
Loew: It was a long path and a lot of hard work educating the talents. And, yes we have several talents, but I don’ t think the vein is that big. We still need to do some work. I think about special position such as the left and right back, or a “playing” spearhead, scoring goals and supporting the game going forward with their passing. We’ ve started to change that and set additional marks in the education.
Xinhua: Striker Mario Gomez is back as well. What does it mean for your general game strategy?
Loew: We have an additional option for our game. He had a great year in Turkey with Besiktas Istanbul and is full of confidence. I’ m happy that he has made such a big improvement.
Xinhua: Let’ s get back to the biking which leads us to injury problems of some of your key players such as Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mats Hummels and Marco Reus…
Loew: … talking about Marco Reus we are of course sad that he had to leave the team due to his injury. Not having him around with his quality and speed will leave a gap, but we are confident we are able to fill the gap.
Xinhua: You have been criticized for nominating players like Schweinsteiger and Podolski. Some say they are not of the highest international class anymore.
Loew: Both play on a high international level. Both can turn to experience, on and off the pitch. They are, like other experienced players like Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Jerome Boateng, Mesut Ozil, important for the team structure. Looking at Bastian Schweinsteiger, I can say, the team follows his advice and benefits from his experience. In his case, we are confident to have him available right from the tournament start. For now we are on the way to getting him into the required tournament and game rhythm.
Looking at Mats Hummels we have to be patient and wait. But he will be available for us. Talking about Lukas Podolski I can say, he has a great value for the team as well. He is experienced. And he played a rather good season in Turkey by winning the cup there.
Xinhua: You recently mentioned, you wanted to shape an era, which would mean winning in France would help?
Loew: Of course we want to follow up our success. But in the first place, we want to develop our game and get on as a team. A tournament like the European Championships is a tricky case just like the Champions League. Just take a look at Bayern Munich. They managed to reach the semifinal of the Champions League three consecutive times but narrowly missed out on reaching the final. They played on a fantastic level though. In the end you always want to lift the trophy but it is important as well, maybe more important, to stick to your game philosophy. Doing that increases the possibility of being successful.