Wednesday’s Germany vs. England Friendly — Just Another Dog & Pony Show?

When you are a fan of Die Mannschaft and there is no summer tournament going on, it’s hard to get excited for national team football. Germany was banned from the 1950 World Cup and failed to secure one of the four spots at Euro 1968, but since 1970 Die Mannschaft has always made it to the big show. Qualifiers are nothing more than a mundane task to the German public, since you can count the number of Germany’s all time Euro and World Cup Qualification losses (10) on two hands.

Home exhibition games against the big football nations were always a welcome distraction from those boring Qualification campaigns. In November of 2016 my buddies and I watched the most recent “big ticket” Germany friendly. Twenty minutes into the game, non-football related discussions arose and some pulled out their smartphones to distract themselves from a pathetic scrimmage. Back in the days “ITA vs. GER @ San Siro” would have had us on the edge of our seats and glued to the screen. There were sellout crowds, full strength squads and prestige on the line. Those factors made friendlies against good teams “must watch” TV.

In 2016 only 45.000 bothered to purchase tickets to one of world football’s biggest rivalries (San Siro seats 80.000). It seems that people in Milan are smart and didn’t fall for the marketing hype. And indeed, the game turned out to be yet another glorified practice session. Gigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele De Rossi, Thomas Müller and Mats Hummels were the only holdovers from the epic Euro 2012 and Euro 2016 semifinals on display that night. Italy at least showed a little effort and attacking spirit in front of their home fans, while the German players were going through the motions in “injury prevention mode”. Ultimately a scoreless draw was the fitting result for such a waste of time and energy. Moreover, on that dull evening in Milan, the Italians and Germans faced each other for the third time within the last eight months which did not add to the excitement.

Inflation of High Profile Matches

Baresi, Maldini, Klinsmann played in front of a sell-out crowd in 1994

“Freundschaftsspiele” are big business in Germany and the DFB charges domestic TV networks five million Euros a game for TV broadcasting rights. Tickets aren’t cheap either. Since people would be reluctant to pay premium prices to see Kroos, Boateng & Co. play Slovenia or Morocco, greedy DFB officials pick opponents solely based on financial reasons. Ahead of big tournaments, the DFB needs whipping boys and plays small nations, but during odd-numbered years they mostly host France, England, Holland, Italy or Spain.

1994 Germany Exhibition opponents:

Italy, United Arab Emirates, Austria, Canada, Russia, Hungary

2016 Germany Exhibition opponents:

England, Italy, Slovakia, Hungary, Finland, Italy

In 1994 Germany had only one “high ratings” opponent on the schedule all year. There even was a seven-year stretch (1996-2003) when Germany and Italy didn’t play each other at all. That scarcity of premium matchups made each one a special occasion. These days, DFB PR-strategists and TV networks try their best to gloss over the long lists of absentees and the glaring lack of effort with marketing hype. But I don’t know anybody who’s hyped for the upcoming “dog & pony show” versus England.

A quick look at England’s recent football history shows that the Three Lions haven’t reached a major semifinal since 1996. For football aficionados emerging powers like Belgium, Chile or Portugal would be more intriguing opponents. But from a business standpoint England is the best team the DFB can get. English supporters love to travel and spend a lot of money wherever they go, while Premier League stars help with global TV audiences. Given the DFB’s recent history of cashing in on friendlies, it’s quite easy to understand why the DFB has scheduled yet another exhibition match Wednesday against England in Dortmund (streamed on ESPN 3 at 3:40 pm EDT). Before money was the only important factor, the DFB and FA did not schedule a single friendly from 1993 to 2007, but now we’re getting a “Klassiker” every other year. The upcoming game will be the fifth (!) time in ten years, in which the German and English FA put on a yet another friendly based more on spectacle, the high profile of the opponent, and… financial gain.

Die Mannschaft played in South Africa shortly after Nelson Mandela became president

I miss the days when former DFB Präsident Egidius Braun made sure that the DFB team did “the right thing” for once. There were fewer dog & pony shows, but the DFB would go on interesting trips that even carried political weight. Take 1997 for example, when Germany only played two friendlies all year. Braun chose not to monetize those two dates and rather sent Germany’s stars to play South Africa and Israel. Braun understood that Die Mannschaft’s global popularity had to be utilized to for something bigger than making money.

DFB skipper Jürgen Klinsmann and coach Berti Vogts in Yad Vashem

The DFB’s match in Johannesburg drew attention towards South Africa transition from Apartheid to a free society. During the Israel trip, Braun made sure the DFB stars would pay respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance center. Moreover, every retired Germany skipper would get a proper farewell match featuring Die Mannschaft. Sadly, Oliver Kahn was the last Germany Kapitän do receive the proper send off he deserved.

Michael Ballack, who had carried Die Mannschaft for a decade, was forced to host his own farewell match in Leipzig and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s had to say “Auf Wiedersehen” in Gladbach’s Borussia Park in a game against Finland.

Unfortunately, Egidius Braun is gone and so are his ideals. “If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense” appears to be the mindset at the Frankfurt DFB headquarters these days. Since “Germany vs. England” makes them more dollars than a playing in Israel or sending off a legendary player, that’s what the DFB does.      

Joachim Löw’s role in all of this

Löw doesn’t care about entertainment value

Jogi is one of the most respected coaches in world football, but few Germans truly love him. His unapologetic attitude and his refusal to care about test matches is one of the main reasons. Bringing Die Mannschaft to places like Kaiserslautern used to be a good way to connect with fans at home. For 99% of Germans it’s virtually impossible to watch Germany play in a tournament abroad. Very few are lucky and wealthy enough to snatch up World Cup tickets, pay for travel expenses and clear their schedule. Home friendlies are the only realistic option for middle and lower class Germans to see their idols in real life. So you can understand that many Germans feel cheated whenever Jogi fields disjointed reserve squads. Especially when those squad experiments yield embarrassing results like USA (1:2), Australia (2:2), Argentina (2:4), Cameroon (2:2), Norway (1:2), Denmark (0:1).

Löw’s disregard for friendlies also shows up in the stats. As of April 2016 Löw has won less than half of his exhibitions (48%; 25W-14D-13L) but emerged victorious in four out of five games with points on the line (79%; 61-8-8). Fans who buy tickets to Germany friendlies, often leave the stadium with a bitter taste in their mouths. Too many Germans have spent their hard-earned cash on tickets to see Toni Kroos and Manuel Neuer and ended up getting Marc Andre ter Stegen and Emre Can instead. This is especially tough on little kids who don’t understand the cynical mechanics of world football and expect to see their idols.    

Will the UEFA Nations League fix the problems?

The good news: Since the UEFA Nations League is right around the corner, friendlies will be a thing of the past pretty soon. And at first glance, that new format looks interesting. Four teams will secure a Euro berth via the Nations League, so at least there is some incentive to perform well. The bad news: the Nations League does not replace or reduce the Qualifiers and therefore will be dead on arrival. Because of UEFA’s (over) expansion of the Euro from 16 to 24 teams, it’s virtually impossible for Die Mannschaft, La Roja or L’Equipe not to win a Euro berth during Qualifiers.

So as far as powerhouse nations are concerned, none of them will give a sh*t about the Nations League. The tournament offers nothing to them besides a Euro berth, that they’ll secure anyways and a meaningless trophy nobody cares about. Clubs like Chelsea, Real and Bayern will also make sure that their national federations won’t take this competition seriously. A proper name for the Nations League would be “UEFA Dog & Pony Show Cup” because the big team matchups won’t be any less uninspired than friendlies are today. Superstar players will get “sick” right before the games as usual, Jogi Löw will tinker with lineups as usual and fans will get scammed into buying tickets as usual.

The biggest losers of this so-called “reform” will be small overseas nations, who will now have zero chance to host one of the great UEFA nations for a friendly. Once there is peace in Syria, it is unlikely that Germany will ever play there, since they got “important Nations League business” to take care of.  Additionally, with the DFL putting forth great effort to build the Bundesliga’s profile outside of Germany, having the German national team, filled with Bundesliga stars, not playing in these smaller countries seems counterproductive to the DFL’s efforts. 

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