Update (July 13, 6:10 p.m.): Germany won the World Cup on Sunday, defeating Argentina 1-0 in extra time.
In the fall of 2000, 11-year-old soccer wunderkind Thomas Muller left TSV Pahl, the local team near his hometown of Weilheim in Oberbayern,1 and joined Bayern Munich’s youth academy. That same year, 22-year-old Miroslav Klose was co-leading the Bundesliga club FCK in goals, becoming a star in his own right. Fourteen years later, they’re both on the same Germany squad, with Muller chasing the World Cup goals record that Klose just tied. In Germany, one generation is being eclipsed by the next.
On Thursday, the United States will have to tussle with both. The U.S. faces Muller, Klose and the rest of the German juggernaut in a match that FiveThirtyEight’s World Cup prediction model gives the Americans only a 15 percent chance of winning.2 Die Nationalmannschaft ranks as the third-best national squad3 in the world according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), and it boasts the most potent offensive attack of any team. It is the United States’ most stout opponent yet.
Germany has been nearly this good for four World Cups running. It finished in the top three in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, a feat that’s usually only accomplished when a country is experiencing a “golden generation” of talent. That’s when a rare confluence of gifted footballers simultaneously spring forth to lead their national team to glory. Germany had one of those over the past decade, with forwards such as Klose and Lukas Podolski, defenders Philipp Lahm, Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker, and midfielders Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
By the time such a group is in its third World Cup cycle, though, its heyday is almost always over. Indeed, Ballack and Friedrich are retired, and the rest are either on the wrong side of 30 — Klose, while still on the national team, is ancient at 36 — or rapidly approaching it. But this year’s German side isn’t being carried by the dimming stars of days past. Rather, it has produced an entirely new golden generation, right on the heels of the previous one, and led by the likes of Muller. This latest crop of players could go even further than their predecessors ever ventured; the FiveThirtyEight model thinks the Germans are the third-most likely team to win the Cup, giving them an 11 percent chance.
The possibilities of this new era were apparent at the 2009 UEFA European Under-21 Championships, when Germany’s team navigated its way to the final and trounced England 4-0 to claim the tournament crown. Including Muller, eight of Germany’s 11 most-used players in this World Cup suited up for that 2009 U-21 side, either in friendlies or the Euro Championships. The talent of Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Mats Hummels was already apparent on that team.4
A half-decade later, the whiz kids of the 2009 U-21 squad are fueling a top World Cup contender. The Germans aren’t the youngest team left in the tournament, according to my calculations (although they are somewhat close). Their roster, however, is structured in a way that maximizes production from players in the primes of their careers.
For every team bound for the World Cup’s knockout stage (or more than 30 percent likely to advance, according to the FiveThirtyEight model), I computed the average age of the roster — and the standard deviation thereof — weighted by a combination of playing time and in-game performance.5 The Germans are the fourth-youngest team likely to advance by this measure of weighted average age (behind Nigeria, Belgium and Switzerland), but more important, they have the third-smallest weighted standard deviation of ages (trailing only Chile and Argentina). More of Germany’s players, in other words, are in their prime.
According to research from British journalist Simon Kuper,6 soccer players enter their primes sometime between age 23 (for attacking players) and 25 (for defenders), and they stay in relative peak form until age 31. Not coincidentally, by my measure above, only two other national teams (Chile and Argentina) have received a larger share of their contributions in this World Cup from players ages 23 to 31, and nobody has gotten more from its players between the ages of 22 and 30.7 Klose is the lone German outside of that age range to even take the field so far in the World Cup.
Granted, Klose, Schweinsteiger and Podolski are still highly useful players; last Saturday, Klose scored as a substitute against Ghana to tie Ronaldo for the all-time lead in career World Cup goals, and Schweinsteiger is likely to start against the U.S. with Jerome Boateng sidelined due to injury. But for a team coming off three deep World Cup runs, the last two of which leaned heavily on the same venerated group, Germany’s veterans are not being asked to play a very substantial role this summer. And that wouldn’t be the case if Germany hadn’t built an impressive infrastructure for developing young soccer talent.
As Nicholas Kulish wrote for the New York Times in 2012, Germany’s prolific soccer pipeline traces its roots back nearly a decade before its up-and-coming youth team met England for the Under-21 title in 2009. Following a nightmarish performance8 at Euro 2000, Kulish noted, German officials (with plenty of backing from top club teams) massively re-invested in the country’s youth soccer system, including the launch of new academies, training centers and coaching programs at an expense of almost $1 billion. Years into the future, the result is a booming Bundesliga — and a flourishing national team.
In many ways, Muller is the poster child for this reformation. When he enlisted with Bayern’s youth academy 14 years ago, it was almost precisely as German youth soccer was receiving its aforementioned stimulus package. Muller’s generation was the first to reap its benefits, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Germany’s current World Cup roster is so heavy with his contemporaries.
Whatever the cause, in five years, Germany’s current crop of stars has matured from promising prospects on that U-21 squad to the most instrumental members of the senior national team. Several weeks ago, the Germans were something of a dark horse among the top contenders in this World Cup field. Before the tournament, none of ESPN’s 18 polled panelists picked Germany to win it all; nor did any of those queried by the BBC or Sports Illustrated (one lone writer from NBC’s ProSoccerTalk went with Germany). Now it’s clear that there’s another golden German generation on the pitch, and it’s almost completely in its prime.