VATUTUNKI, Russia — Germany’s first full day in Russia was one of sharp contrast, with sports and politics both vying for attention — only to materialise as inseparable once more.
To begin with though, football took precedence. The holders’ World Cup started with a morning session at their suburban, pine tree-lined training ground in Vatutinki (stress on the second syllable), 30 kilometres southwest of Moscow. The smooth feel-good grooves of KC and The Sunshine Band’s “That’s The Way (I Like It)” were blaring out the speakers as Joachim Low oversaw short, sharp exercises at the CSKA complex that went some way to ease some concerns.
Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, who had been a doubt for the opening match against Mexico due to a knee complaint, looked absolutely fine. Darty runs from Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) offered a vision of fluid attacking play and Bayern Munich defender Jerome Boateng, who had joined up with the squad in an unfit state two weeks ago, was visibly on it, spraying pinpoint diagonal passes and outmuscling attackers with little effort.
Low professed himself very content with his men’s collective progress at the news conference a few hours later, a minor complaint about the pitch (“the grass is a few millimetres too long”), notwithstanding.
“It was a very intense, challenging pre-tournament camp and we would have wished for the team to be a bit more dynamic in the friendlies (vs. Austria and Saudi Arabia) but the players have come back from their short break with the families with renewed energy,” he said.
The 58-year-old swatted away the inevitable unflattering comparisons between Germany’s idyllic base camp Campo Bahia on the seashore in Brazil and their current stay amidst socialist housing estates.
“This has the charm of good sports academy; we have everything we need here”, the manager said, adding that he has to field questions about the discernible lack of World Cup excitement every four years. “It’s always: ‘Where is the atmosphere?’ But the atmosphere comes with the games, with the results. You can’t have the euphoria and the full emotions a week before the tournament starts.”
The Bundestrainer’s message could be summed up as: Everything will be all right. And it probably will be, if his previous five tournaments in charge are anything to go by. But even Low’s ice-cool positivity about the immediate future could not wholly deflect from the troubling present.
The fallout from Ilkay Gundogan and Ozil meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in London three weeks ago continues to impact both the mood back home and on the players’ mental state, Low admitted.
“Ilkay was very down after getting whistled [by Germany supporters at the Saudi Arabia] game,” Low revealed. “We had to pick him up and cheer him up. Both have suffered, both have been affected (by the criticism)”.
In light of these problems, Germany’s manager was unapologetic in his wish to draw a line under the affair. Everything that needed to be said had already been said in private talks, he insisted, adding that his role as a coach was to get both players “in the flow”, by insulating them against the rumblings of discontent in Germany or possible booing in the stadium in Moscow on Sunday.
But it won’t be that easy. The topic’s too big for that, bigger than a few jeers at a pre-World Cup friendly. As Germany FA president Reinhard Grindel explained, the debate centres on complex subjects such as identity, dual citizenship and German chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy.
“It goes beyond the two players,” the 56-year-old said. “In 2014, integration was seen as something tremendously positive,” Grindel recalled. “But something changed in 2015 [with the influx of refugees]. People see problems and they expect clarity when it comes to a commitment to values and to our country.”
Immigration does not have to spell assimilation, Grindel went on, explaining that people’s unique backgrounds would be respected. But not at the price of going “against the values of the German FA”. But by endorsing the autocratic Erdogan, whose regime has imprisoned German journalists for merely doing their job as well as thousands of opponents, the two Gelsenkirchen-born players of Turkish origin had stepped outside the realms of acceptable behaviour for German internationals, he implied.
The duo were sent to a PR-friendly meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier two weeks ago and have since reiterated their allegiances but the FA’s crisis management has been hampered by any discernible lack of contrition: Neither Gundogan nor Ozil have publicly admitted to making a mistake of judgment. Perhaps that’s impossible to do now, too, for fear of recrimination in the country of their parents.
Football, however, mercifully offers a way out of this dilemma, Grindel believes: “It has the power of integration, it brings everyone together, to give their all for Germany. If someone refuses to provide answers in an interview, maybe he can provide them on the pitch instead.”
Low’s stony face suggested he could have done without Grindel putting extra pressure on Ozil — who hasn’t said anything to the media — and as the conference drew to a close, he tried once more to downplay the issue in terms of its sporting relevance.
“It’s not a topic inside the dressing room,” Low said. “They are both valued and respected because they’ve stood up and lived our values, and love playing for Germany.”
As ever with Low, it’s about faith, it’s about trust. Ozil and Gundogan still have his. On the eve of his sixth major tournament in charge, nothing and no one can come between him and his fundamental confidence in his team.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC’s German football expert and author of “Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story.” Follow: @honigstein