I was lucky enough to play in two World Cups during my career, but I don’t wish I was still playing when another tournament comes around. I look forward to them as a fan now. I enjoyed every second of my career, but there is always a time when the next generation takes over.
I was part of that next generation once, and now it’s an experience for another group of players to enjoy.
The World Cups were where I learned the most in the shortest period. I remember my first World Cup, in France in 1998.
I went as the second-youngest player in the Germany squad, even though I was already 24 at the time. Spending six weeks or so with players who had won the tournament just eight years earlier—the likes of Jurgen Kohler, Jurgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthaus, Thomas Hassler and Andreas Moller—was eye-opening.
To work with these guys and see how such winners conducted themselves on the pitch and off it, how they prepared, that was a big turning point for me in my career. It made me realize what you have to do to be successful, what is required to take your game to the next level so you can compete on the biggest stages.
By 2002 I had gone from being one of the youngest squad members to one of the senior figures, which was a big transition in a short space of time. Suddenly, I was helping to guide the younger guys. But you could still learn things off them, too.
You have to be like a sponge when you are with World Cup winners or when you are with younger players who need a guiding hand. I learned a lot off managers during my career, but I probably learned even more from watching other players and how they operate while at international tournaments.
Training with established guys for a period of time for a young-ish player is priceless, and many will gain a lot from doing that over the next few weeks in Brazil.
Team spirit cannot be underestimated in a tournament. You have to pull together, all in the same direction. If you have cliques or little groups, it can be a problem.
Of course you are going to have players who are at the same club and so spend more time together than with others, but you need to try and foster a collective spirit. You need to be united, because it’s hard to win games at the best of times.
You won’t win a World Cup just with a good team spirit, but you can certainly lose one. We’ve seen that with Netherlands and France in recent years, undermining their own chances before they’ve really started.
Players have to put their egos aside as much as possible and do everything for the team. You can disagree with the coach’s decisions, but you have to accept them; there cannot afford to be any discord. Everyone—from the bus driver to the physios to the support staff—has to be pulling in the same direction. If you’ve got bad blood in the group, it can have a real effect.
There are different ways to try and achieve unity.
In 2002, for example, Rudi Voller said he did not want to see the same players sitting on the same table twice in a row, so if I sat with one group of players for lunch, I couldn’t sit with the same people for tea. That way you start talking to those outside your social group, and you get to know everyone better. That, then, in the back of your mind gives you a stronger bond with those you are playing alongside.
But in 1998 we had a bit of a problem, because Lothar Matthaus was a late call-up. Berti Vogts decided to add Matthaus to the squad because he had such a brilliant end to his club season, but there was always a bit of tension between him and our captain, Jurgen Klinsmann. They never really got along.
I think that was detrimental to team spirit—I’m not saying that the reason we did not get beyond the quarter-finals is because Matthaus went, but when two key players have a rift, it does filter through the rest of the squad.
We roomed on our own in 1998 and 2002, but the Germany team now has actually built their own training camp for this World Cup.
They couldn’t find a suitable hotel so they built one themselves, with bungalows that contain a few bedrooms and then a shared communal area. I think six players are together, with one senior player in charge of certain elements. That is a good idea, beneficial for team spirit.
Obviously, everything can be changed by that first game. You can have the nicest camp possible, but if you lose that first game, then you will really find out how strong that team bond actually is. Sometimes it can be superficial, team-mates claiming there is a good spirit when actually they don’t do a lot together.
The first game is a key moment, and the result is not vital, but it can be very significant. You don’t want to put yourself in a position where you have to win the second one to have any realistic chance of progressing. Obviously, most teams now will have a rough idea of how strong each opponent is, so you’ll know which are your likeliest rivals to progress.
If you are playing against the strongest opponent first, then defeat might not be the end of the world, but then you look back at 2002, when France were beaten by Senegal in the first game, and they could never recover from that shock.
On the other hand, Spain lost to Switzerland in their first game in 2010 and look how that turned out in the end—Switzerland went out at the groups, and Spain won it all. To do that you have to have a special team, and I’m not sure too many teams in this World Cup have that same strength and resolve.
Defeat can cause issues in the squad—subs thinking they should have played, starters pointing blame at others—so it is generally important to get off to a great start.
Along with Spain’s group and England’s group, Group G is one of the toughest and most competitive. There are no mugs in Germany’s group. I can see any combination of teams progressing; if someone suggested Team USA and Ghana will progress, I would say it’s unlikely but not impossible.
The interesting thing for Germany is that if they do not win their first two games, or even if they get three or four points, it will probably come down to getting a result against Klinsmann and the United States.
If you get into that game, then the pressure will be enormous, because falling at that hurdle—against a former manager—would be the ultimate embarrassment. So that will be in the back of some minds, and I think they really want to win their first two games and avoid that issue.
I’m not sure they will, but their first game against Portugal looks the toughest on paper. In some ways that makes it the easiest, because everyone will be fully focused and won’t take anything for granted. The big question mark is Cristiano Ronaldo—whether or not he is near 100 per cent. Without him in top form, it could be very tough for Portugal.
Losing Marco Reus is a big blow for Germany, because he’s effectively their Ronaldo—their best player and their most influential player going forward. Not having him in the side is a big blow because he’s a special, special player and even more important because Germany are short of specialist strikers.
Now I’m just not sure they have that reliable goalscoring threat, even with Miroslav Klose in the squad. If Germany needed a goal with 10 minutes to go in this tournament, then the ball was going to go to Reus, because he can be relied on to make things happen.
The others, I’m not sure are in the same league—Andre Schurrle is not, Mesut Ozil has had a poor season and so did Mario Gotze, which puts a lot on Thomas Mueller’s shoulders.
Team USA are on a terrific run of form coming into this tournament, and even Jozy Altidore is starting to score a few goals! The one thing you can guarantee with the United States under Klinsmann is that they will be as fit as anyone; he has brought in coaches to work specifically on that, and in these conditions that could give them a real advantage.
I think the group is more wide-open than people think, especially with the German team facing so many questions, especially in midfield.
I think it’s fair to say, whoever wins the first game, it is hard not to see them going through. Portugal played Germany well in Euro 2012—if Ronaldo is in tip-top shape, then I certainly think they will get something out of the game. But that’s still a real “if” at this point.