Wednesday, 15 November 2017

How Löw climbed to the mountaintop, 10.11.2017

The Times
10 November 2017

On July 26, 2004, after an ignominious campaign which included the nadir of a 0-0 draw with Latvia, the German Football Association appointed Jürgen Klinsmann as the national team's head coach. Given his total lack of coaching experience, much attention swirled around his choice of assistant.

Names in the frame included the experienced Bundesliga manager Ralf Rangnick, Jürgen Köhler, Klinsmann's World Cup-winning team-mate and the Iclenad manager Asgeir Sigurvinsson. But in the end Klinsmann went for someone who he knew from his days at the Hennes Weisweiler Coaching Academy, a man who had two fourth-place Bundesliga finishes with Stuttgart on his CV but had left two of his subsequent clubs in the relegation zone. "Believe me," Klinsmann said at the unveiling of his No 2 "he's not just here to put the cones out."

Thirteen years on, Joachim Löw, an unremarkable player and initially unremarkable coach, is one of the most recognisable figures in football. Since taking over from Klinsmann after the 2006 World Cup, he has led Germany to three major semi-finals, a European Championship final, a Confederations Cup win and won the 2014 World Cup.

Perhaps more remarkable than Löw's achievements is his longevity. England have had five permanent managers during Löw's 11 year and four month tenure. Löw has been in charge for so long that the first name on his first team-sheet, Jens Lehmann, was born four months after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, while his team for the match against England could feature three players (Julian Brandt, Leroy Sane and Timo Werner) born in 1996.

It is hard to think of an English analogue for Löw. Imagine a Sir Alf Ramsey for the mass-media age, and you would be somewhere close to gauging his renown. And yet, in an industry of charistmatic self-promoters, Löw, in his black v-neck and scarf, can cut an inscrutable figure. He does not engage in touchline theatrics, or make outrageous statements in press conferences, he is not a funky tactician. So who exactly is the man beneath the moptop?

"He's a very nice, laid-back guy," Lars Wallrodt, the chief football writer for Die Welt says. "In football you come across a lot of people who consider themselves superior to others. Löw is very down-to-earth, he has no interst in swanking around or pretending to be anything that he's not. He's very natural and likeable but oer the years he has become more assertive.

"Under Klinsmann, he was the tactics guy. Klinsmann was the motivator who would light a fire under them. But to say that he's merely a good tactician or a good analyst would be to sell him short. He has learnt how to lead the team.

"He suits perfectly the job of international manager, where he has one job to do, over a short period of time, with a collection of individual players from different clubs, to mould a team, not just in a playing sense, but mentally. The team that he has shaped considers itself a team in the truest sense of the word."

The most successful and adulated English sports coaches of their generation, such as Sir Clive Woodward and Sir Dave Brailsford. have been high priests of process. Löw is different. "When I make changes in the heat of a game, most of my decisions are not rational, but intuitive," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2014. "It is football's unpredictability that makes it so fascinating. I find myself permanently confronted by the question 'What now?'

Nor is he renowned as a harsh authoritarian. On the inexplicably vexed issue of whether players should be allowed to mix with their wives and partners during a tournament, he has been relaxed. His everyman approachability - and his fame - are reflected in the fact that he is almost universally known in Germany simply by the familiar mononym 'Jogi'.

"He has created a particular atmosphere whereby it is a privilege to be there, but it can be relaxed." Wallrodt says. "He has a natural authority, because his way of dealing with the players is very open, they see that what he is telling them makes sense. He doesn't scream at them, he is understanding, but has the final word. If a player steps out of line then he can be hard. But the players know that, and therefore they are very disciplined. It is hard to find anyone who has a bad opinion of him. He has even become something of a style icon in Germany; people talk about the "Jogi-Schal", a popular name for a man's narrow scarf.

It was not always thus. Löw's early results included defeats to Denmark and the Czech Republic. "When he took charge people were sceptical," Wallrodt says "He had a somewhat comical haircut, he has a somewhat comical accent and people sometimes make fun of him." When Germany lost to Italy in the Euro 2012 semi-final, Löw was under pressure again.

Naturally glory in Brazil silenced the doubters, but to survive for 11 years in he thin air of elite management requires more than success and popularity. After all, Klinsmann had both and he lasted two years as Bundestrainer, lamenting on his resignation "My big wish is to go back to leading a normal ife. I lack the power and strength to continue."

In his hometown of Freiburg, Löw tries to preserve the normal life that eluded Klinsmann. He goes to the cinema, eats at the Italian (despite the ribbing that followed the Euro 2012 defeat), plays football with his friends. He also has immense reserves of fortitude, and in trying moments, draws on a 2003 expedition in which he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

"We took a different route over five days," Löw recalled in his Süddeutsche Zeitung interview. "On the last night I was at my limits. We'd already been going for 12 hours that day and we were trekking in temperatures of minus 30C. I wanted to turn round but something drove me on. That night things went through my head that I wouldn't have thought possible. But by sunrise we reached the summit and I got this feeling that nothing in the world is impossible.

Germany are ranked No 1 in the world and are the favourites to triumph in Russia. No manager has retained the World Cup since italy's Vittorio Pozzo in 1938, and Löw, whose contract runs until 2020, wants to emulate him.

"If anything my motivation has increased in recent years" he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "After every tournament there's an emotional comedown and that was especially true of 2014, but i already had the feeling that the team hadn't peaked. THat's the challenge and the allure; to relive that feeling of triumph. We can achieve something historic."

On the Wembley touchline tonight, Gareth Southgate will, for the second time in nine months, come face to face with a man who represents everything an international manager could aspire to be: successful, popular, durable, even iconic. It must seem far in the distance. But if the story of Joachim Löw shows one thing, it is that, with a fair wind and the will to forge ahead through dark moments, even an ordinary man can lead his country to the mountain top.

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