In the days leading up to the 2014 World Cup I made a bold prediction: Germany was going to win. Friends – friends who knew way more than me about international soccer – scoffed. There was no way Germany was going to win. The World Cup was in Brazil, where soccer is bigger than Jesus, and Argentina had the soccer messiah, Lionel Messi. The Cup, they told me, was going back to South America.
A month later, I was too shocked at being right to bother gloating. Especially since I knew nothing about the German team, coach, players, or tactics. All I knew was that they had come very close to the final in 2006 and 2010. I thought that it was their turn – that the football gods were going to be on their side. After reading Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot, though, it becomes apparent that divine intervention had nothing to do with it -- the German win in Brazil was a man-made football revoluation.
Honigstein, primarily a writer for the Guardian and ESPN, weaves a fascinating tale. At the heart of this short book is the 2014 German national team’s path to glory in Brazil. Surrounding that team’s story is the saga of German football in the last 20 years.
Beginning with the team’s pre-Brazil training, the author breaks the story into two parts: the 2014 World Cup campaign and the who, what, when, where, why of how everything changed. The World Cup story is told chronologically with each game having its own chapter. The backstory, told out of order, introduces the men who implemented the changes.
Honigstein uses his reporting skills to keep both storylines as focused as possible, making the book a relatively quick read. Previous knowledge of Bundesliga and German soccer isn’t needed either. He creates brief, vivid portraits of each main player, making them easy to track, while he provides just the right amount of backstory about the German national team, certain Bundesliga clubs, and the German youth development system so outsiders can understand the impact the changes made.
It’s impossible to spoil the World Cup chapters; everyone knows that Germany won. However, they provide a peek behind the curtain to show how difficult the team’s journey was. It’s refreshing to learn how players truly felt during and after each match – instead of the lip service usually given in post match interviews – and it’s interesting to about the plays and tactics connected to the team’s success.
The backstory, however, is where a reader will find more suspense since it wasn’t easy for the German system to change. And anyone who follows either the US Men’s National Team or the New York Red Bulls will want to pay special attention to these chapters. Despite the success of West Germany/Germany from 1974 to 1990, German coaching and tactical manuals went unchanged. As relayed in the chapter on Ralf Rangnick and Helmut Gross, the architects of the German high press, many saw their study of tactics and emphasis on training as too intellectual:
That was not the German (football) way. Its heroes were doers, not thinkers; men who could take leave of their critical faculties to run, shoot and score as if on autopilot, plugged into one big determination to succeed that existed independently of themselves.
One of the people who makes the struggle between old and new tactical thinking so familiar is Jurgen Klinsman. Everything about his short tenure as the German national team manager is familiar to those who follow the USMNT: the emphasis on player fitness, playing players out of position, punishing players by removing them from rosters, flying in from California just before matches and then leaving for California as soon as the match is over. Honigstein never makes an overt judgment about Klinsman or his time as Germany’s manager; he wisely allows the reader to come to their own conclusions about him. But what the book does illustrate is that Klinsman was less an architect of system change, and more of a foreman who oversaw part of the construction. The similarities of his time managing both teams leads the reader to wonder if he can make a difference time with the US program or if other leaders are needed to make substantial changes.
Das Reboot is strongest when Honigstein goes into detail about those other leaders for the German system. He devotes whole chapters to Rangnick and Gross developing the high press, Dietrich Weise creating the blueprint for the new German youth development, and the technology being used to develop player response time, study gameplay, and improve player connections. A personal favorite of the tech being used is the Footbonaut. Invented by Christian Guttler, it’s a real-life FIFA training exercise that, if it’s not being used by MLS clubs and academies, needs to be used immediately since Mario Gotze’s game-winning goal in the World Cup final was a result of his training in the Footbonaut.
For the American football fan the book creates several questions: Can we make similar youth development changes so more US children can receive the right kind of development? Where should the development focus – academies or high schools/colleges? How long will we need to wait for a new development system? And how long will it take for the players from that system to produce national team results?
Hopefully an American sequel can be written in ten or fifteen years and it’ll have its own World Cup happy ending.