Fifty seconds into Germany’s game against France, the crowd at Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park were cheering Florian Wirtz winning back the ball in midfield. That set the tone for a surprisingly uplifting evening. It was obvious the 61,000 in the stadium had not come as rubberneckers curious to witness the next national disaster but as supporters determined to help a demoralised side back to its feet.
Huge amounts of goodwill towards the players and especially interim coach Rudi Voller, 63, were palpable from the outset, and it didn’t take much longer before the willingness to help evolved into something that resembled pure joy when the team responded. “Rudi Voller, Rudi Voller,” they were lustily chanting after Thomas Muller (remember him?) had smashed in a half-volley to finish off a lovely move down France’s left in the fourth minute.
Voller brought in Muller as a centre-forward and Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen) and Benjamin Henrichs (RB Leipzig) as full-backs, but the whole XI looked like a completely different side. This was the famous new manager bounce, turbocharged by Voller’s charisma and nationwide popularity. Gone was the timidity and confusion. In their place came “work ethic,” as Muller said, organisation, commitment and clarity. Germany played a straightforward but effective blue-collar football that hit all the right notes with the audience and was enough to overcome an at best semi-bothered France team that couldn’t match the host nation’s effort and motivation. Superstar Kylian Mbappe never even made it onto the pitch.
“We wanted a simple structure today,” goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen said after the much-celebrated 2-1 win, hinting at muddled thinking during Hansi Flick’s abortive reign. “Sometimes, there’s perfection in simplicity. That’s better than trying to do too many things.”
Hansi Flick, basketball glory and the culture war enveloping German football
In less than 48 hours, Voller’s emergency assistants Hannes Wolf (U20 coach and head of youth development) and Sandro Wagner (U20 assistant) had found a winning formula and managed to explain it succinctly enough. The national team’s first win since March (2-0 against Peru) felt, in Muller’s words, “like an emotional act of liberation” for the players and the country as a whole. It brought back hope that next year’s Euros, held in Germany, will see a decent performance. Traditionalists and modernists were equally pleased, too, as the sharp upturn in form supported both camps’ main theories about what had been missing under Flick: Voller’s men embodied “the old virtues” of German football but they did so in a well-planned system and with skilful individualists allowed to show off their creative skills in attack.
The love-in for the man affectionately known as “Tante Kathe” (aunt Kate) because of his hairstyle was a repeat of the scenes in 2000, when he had first stepped in as caretaker and led Germany to the runners-up spot in the World Cup two years later. He hadn’t coached a single game since stepping down in the wake of the group-stage exit at Euro 2004, focusing on his role of sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen instead.
The German Football Association (DFB) had to coax him out of semi-retirement when Oliver Bierhoff’s departure last December made it necessary to appoint a new sporting director for the federation. Voller did agree on the understanding that it was a temporary engagement. This week’s intermezzo as caretaker manager was meant to be strictly one-off as well but the longer the German FA takes to appoint a full-time successor, the bigger the groundswell of opinion in his favour will become. “Nothing has changed for me,” he said after the game, adding he had found coaching very stressful.
Voller, the interim sporting director, will work hard to prevent Voller, the interim coach, from emerging as the best candidate to take over Germany in the coming days. “We will certainly present a solution in the next three weeks,” he said.
But he’s not out of the woods yet. Tuesday’s happy evening in Dortmund will have encouraged chairman Bernd Neuendorf and vice chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke to consider him a suitable back-up who might just be persuaded to step into the breach once more if everything else falls through. After the unobtainable Jurgen Klopp, Voller would certainly be the most popular choice.
(Top photo: Stefan Matzke – sampics/Getty Images)