Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Inner Flame, Mercedes-Benz website interview, March 2018

With its towering columns that disappear into the darkness, you’d be forgiven for supposing the old combined heat and power station in Berlin’s Mitte district was a cathedral as you looked around its interior. Puddles of water on the concrete floor reflect the fluorescent lighting that has been set up for production of the new World Cup advert for Mercedes-Benz. Joachim Löw – the world champion coach everyone will be trying to beat this summer – is here for the shoot. We spoke with him on set.

Mr Löw, you draw a distinction between defending the World Cup title and wanting to win it. What kind of mindset does a team need to become the world champion?

Joachim Löw: Above all, what you need is immense mental strength. When you compete with the best of the best, you have to be ready to encounter incredible resistance. Matches are often played on a knife-edge: a single mistake could spell the end. So we don’t start working just a few days or weeks before a tournament – we’re continually training for it.

You once said that the team needed a bit of time to digest the 2014 World Cup victory before being able to “obsess” over details again. Can you tell us what this was like?

It was a long process. The core of our team has been together since 2010. We were ridiculed in 2012 for losing against Italy in the semi-finals of the European Championship; we made mistakes that we had to learn from. And then there’s the enormous emotional aspect that a tournament involves. You give it your all; you’re focused and your eyes are on the prize – both as an individual and as a team. You’re pushed right to your physical and psychological limits. And then suddenly, you’ve won. You’re being celebrated everywhere you go. It’s a real thrill.

How long does it last?

Until it all starts over again in a couple of weeks. You’re back at zero. And even though you know that the things you’ve previously done are no longer what’s important, you can’t help but revel in the euphoria of it all. This brings the risk of thinking that it will all just happen again the same way. But that’s not how it works.

Angelique Kerber of Germany became number one in women’s tennis and then her game took a downturn. Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg resigned after winning his title, citing the enormous pressure he faced before races and the resulting loss of sleep. Enough was enough.

Success comes at a high price. You spend all this time preparing for something; you want it with every bit of your heart and every bit of your soul. With every cell of your body, you want to achieve your objective and you want to be the best. And then once it’s done, when you get there, you hit a wall. This is inevitable and natural: the body must ultimately respond to the pressure. You lose energy. You lose concentration and the ability to stay alert. This power slump is just as extreme as everything you went through at the other end of the curve. It can take quite a bit of time to absorb a victory, and everyone has to do it in their own way.

Is that why you’ve recruited a number of younger players – to pull off the feat again?

As a coach, one thing is clear to me: it’s difficult to repeat a victory at this level with the same recipe, the same team, the same people.

So world champions need to redefine themselves?

Football is constantly moving forward as countries learn from their results and improve their skills. Over a cycle of two or three years, you need new people, new blood. Mixing things up can prove to be fruitful.

You have recruited a total of 94 rookies throughout your career as head coach so far. How long does it take for you to know whether a young player is destined to be one of the best?

Well first of all, I like to experiment. If it works, good. If not, move on. You can make a judgment on a 20-year-old’s talent and willpower, but it’s hard to say what the future will hold. After they’ve played some good matches, there are a number of external factors that can affect what happens next: they become famous – everybody wants something from them, they’re offered new contracts. Before all that happened, they were able to simply concentrate on football. I can tell you from experience that some players fall down a hole at this point. Some of them get back on their feet, others don’t. Our standards are high – in fact, they don’t get any higher: we want to be the benchmark in international football. That’s why we’re always focused towards the best.

The best never stop wanting to learn. Do you agree with the saying, “the best never rest”?

Absolutely. For me, it’s important to know whether a player is willing to progress and to learn, whether they are willing to do more than is expected of them. Many younger players exhibit a really high level of professionalism. They give a lot of thought to their own performance, all day, every day. And one change I’ve noticed over my 12 years as head coach is that players today are more willing to learn than the generation before. Where some things used to be rather set in stone, the current generation is receptive, curious and scrutinising. They ask, “What else can we do? What else can we try?” And they’re capable of quickly executing new things too – that’s also important. They receive top-notch training at the club boarding schools and at performance centres, as well as a proper education at the academies – they learn how to learn.

You often talk about a plan that players need to follow. Where do you see room for improvement for yourself?

Oh there are plenty of things I could do better. Just like everyone else.

But, Mr Löw, you have won titles both at the World Cup and the 2017 Confederations Cup!

I take care not to develop tunnel vision in my job. I like to see the sport from a bird’s-eye view: I watch matches in other countries and send my coaches and scouts South America, Africa and Asia. How do teams train in other countries? How do they prepare their players? Is there anything that we haven’t seen before? Sometimes it’s just an observation or two that makes it into our training programme.

What keeps you going after all this time?

Probably the simple fact that I love doing what I do. I grew up with football, and I wasn’t able to fulfil my hope of a great career as a player. When the national team is together, I enjoy being there every day. And the players should feel good too – that creates the best results. I want to help them keep their inner flame alight and show them how to love what they do. That’s what keeps me going. Football is my life.

What makes your team so special?

We’ve made major progress in our game over the last few years. These days we play with a certain ease and creativity that allow us to keep pace with teams like Brazil and Spain. We used to have to face them with fight, commitment and willpower, but these are the new requirements for the job. After all, if you want to be a maths professor, you should be able to solve one times one. Above all though, our players have strong characters: they never give up and have developed winner mentalities.

Who will be the toughest rival for you at the World Cup in Russia?

Argentina has Lionel Messi and a number of other good players. France has progressed immensely in the last four, five years; they have many quick, young players who are both physically strong and technically skilled. I still regard Spain highly, and England is proving to be a worthy opponent. Just look at their youth teams’ victories.

And Brazil?

Brazil too. Especially Brazil.

Despite their 1:7 loss to Germany in the World Cup semi-finals? Are they not a bit traumatised?

That was obviously the biggest disaster in the history of Brazilian football. The entire country was alight with World Cup fever and the pressure on Brazil was immense. They sunk deeper and deeper into themselves with every goal we scored. Initially the Brazilians were in a state of shock – but they turned it around. They told themselves: “We never want to go through that again.” With a new coach and new players, they are a completely different team than they were three years ago. Brazil has always had great footballers with technical finesse, but now they’re in a position to work hard for success. We saw them play a few times in the qualification and observed how disciplined they were. Brazil will be one of the favourites. There’s no question about it. It’s really remarkable, and admirable to see.

In comparison to previous years, you seem incredibly relaxed as this World Cup approaches. Is that really the case?

Experience helps. I’ve been through quite a bit, from magical moments to crushing disappointments. And I’ve learned that even those major disappointments for which you get relentlessly criticised help you to progress. It’s important to remember that disappointment is just as temporary as success, and that the sport is always moving forward.

7 March 2018
Originally uploaded on the Mercedes-Benz website. Re-uploaded here for fair review and information purposes. No copyright infringement intended.

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