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Champions League losses give Spain pause

Changes in Germany's system for developing young players appear to be paying off.

May 04, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos falls to the pitch after Borussia Dortmund defeated the Spanish club in the Champions League semifinals.
Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos falls to the pitch after Borussia Dortmund… (Kiko Huesca / EPA )

If there are lessons to be learned from last week's Champions League semifinals they may not be fully understood until next summer's World Cup. But Vicente del Bosque, consider yourself warned.

Because while the losses of Barcelona and Real Madrid to German giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund don't necessarily mark the end of Spanish soccer dominance, it does suggest an antidote has been found.

Over the last five years Spain has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success, with Barcelona capturing two European club championships while Del Bosque's national team has won two Euros and a World Cup. And for the most part that success has been the product of a uniquely Spanish style of play, one that relies on short, precise passes and an overwhelming edge in possession.

That all unraveled in the Final Four of the Champions League when the German teams — most notably Bayern — decided to stand and fight. Rather than engaging in a game of keep-away it couldn't win, Bayern played two robust, physical games in which it lost the possession battle by a sizable margin but won a stunningly one-sided result over Lionel Messi-less Barcelona on the scoreboard, shutting out Europe's third-highest-scoring team in consecutive games while scoring seven times itself.

Dortmund was less dominant in its semifinal victory, turning defensive in the second leg and hanging on for a 4-3 aggregate victory that proved to be so tense club chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke locked himself in a stadium bathroom so he wouldn't have to watch the final minutes of the second match.

"I had to give up due to heart problems," the 53-year-old Watzke said. "I covered my ears and looked at my watch. I had all kinds of thoughts going through my head."

For Dortmund, the trip to London's Wembley Stadium for the May 25 title match will mark its first appearance in a Champions League final since 1997; Bayern will be returning for third time in four years, having lost to Chelsea last year and to Inter Milan in 2010. But this will be the first time two German clubs have squared off in the championship match, and that points to a much bigger trend that could have huge ramifications next summer in Brazil.

After a horrific showing in the 2000 Euros, which Germany entered as the defending champion but exited after the group stage without winning a game, the country's national federation ordered Bundesliga clubs to begin investing in youth academies. And though the early results were mixed — Germany made the final of the 2002 World Cup but failed to a win a match in the 2004 Euros — the federation didn't waver, spending nearly $1 billion on the development of young players in the last 12 years.

That investment is now beginning to pay off. Sixteen of the 34 players called up to the national team in the last year took part in the Champions League semifinals — including midfielders Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, who play for Real Madrid. And 18 of the 34 national-team players — including 20-year-old Dortmund midfielder Mario Gotze and Schalke teenager Julian Draxler — are younger than 25, meaning they've spent more than half their lives training under the new academy system.

But Germany's ascension — which is built around a playing philosophy perhaps best described as a steady, blue-collar professionalism — doesn't necessarily mean Spanish soccer is in decline. The most recent FIFA First XI — soccer's version of an all-world team — was made up entirely of players from Spain's La Liga, including six members of the Spanish national team.

No German players were selected.

And it was less than a year ago that Spain became the first team to win three consecutive major international tournaments by dismantling Italy in the Euro final.

To remain on top, Del Bosque and his team must now digest the lessons of the Champions League — a process that had begun even before the Barca players left the stadium Wednesday.

"This defeat needs to teach us how to learn from our mistakes," midfielder Andres Iniesta said. "For a number of reasons — their physical power, their positional play, and other things — they deserved to beat us. But defeats, if you use them well, are how to improve the future."

Clearly dynasties don't last long in international soccer. Hungary in the 1950s, Brazil in the '60s, the European domination of the 1970s and '80s — they all eventually faded, giving way to an era of relative parity in which just one country has appeared in more than one World Cup or Euro final since 2001.

That country was Spain, whose dominance is now being threatened in both style and substance. The question now is will it whither or will it withstand that challenge?

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