How we won the World Cup, by Lahm, Muller and Neuer

Philipp Lahm, Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller tell Uli Hesse about picking housemates, avoiding apes and wearing dresses...

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The build-up

“We weren't going to Brazil to drink a few Caipirinhas: we were very focused”

Philipp Lahm: It was almost exactly a year before, towards the end of 2013, that I decided to retire from international duty in the summer. I would be 30 years old, and I felt that was a good age. So I knew the World Cup would be my last big tournament and that I would give it everything I’ve got. I didn’t tell anyone connected with the team about my decision. But I guess that some of the players, those who know me very well, had an inkling. It’s not that I ever directly told one of them that I would be stepping down, but I think a few of them could read between the lines.

We wanted to win the World Cup. If that isn’t your aim, why take part?

- Manuel Neuer

Manuel Neuer: We wanted to reach the final and win the World Cup. If that isn’t your aim, why take part in the tournament? We’re professional athletes and we’re very ambitious. Telling yourself that all you want to do is reach the quarter-finals is a bit meagre. In the previous tournaments, we had always been among the last four, so we considered ourselves one of the favourites.

Thomas Muller: The general feeling was: we were not going to Brazil to drink a few Caipirinhas, see if maybe we can win a couple of games and then fly back home. We were very focused and hungry for the title.  

PL People sometimes ask me if I would have changed my mind [about retiring] if we had gone out early. But everybody who knows me, even if just from the interviews I have given over the years, knows that I’m a realist. I know there’s no guarantee for anything in this game. There have been many great players in this country who finished their careers without having won a title, let alone the World Cup. Having said that, our aim was to stay in the tournament until the very end.

TM We wanted this cup. But at the same time we tried to be relaxed. You have to find the middle ground between being too tense and too loose. Of course a good atmosphere is no guarantee for winning, but it’s a good starting point.  

Limbering up in the Tyrol

Limbering up in the Tyrol

PL We also had the quality, a very strong squad. Funnily enough, we were respected very much abroad and most people outside of Germany considered us joint favourites. It was only in Germany itself that some people said “Oh, they will fall short again” and that the media concentrated on a number of small problems we had. For instance that Basti [Bastian Schweinsteiger] and Manu [Manuel Neuer] were injured or that I was sidelined.

MN Some of the pessimism at home came from the results in the preparation games, which weren’t so good. But to be honest, I wasn’t really worrying about that, because at that point I was more concerned with myself than with anything to do with the team. I was preoccupied with getting in shape in time for the tournament. A month before the World Cup began, I had suffered an injury in the cup final. On the next day, we celebrated winning the double on the Marienplatz in Munich, so we didn’t take MRI scans. It was during this one day that I was slightly anxious. I didn’t really know how badly the shoulder was hurt and so there was a bit of uncertainty. But the scans were made on the next day, and when we knew exactly what the problem was we could plan ahead.

PL None of those injury problems couldn’t be solved or worked around. We knew that all those players who were nurturing injuries or coming back from injuries would regain their fitness in time for, or during, the tournament. So I didn’t worry about any of that. We also didn’t worry about particular opponents at that stage. Of course we knew that it was supposedly statistically impossible for us to win the World Cup, because no European team had ever done that in the Americas.

MN I was very much aware of the set-up of the tournament. I looked at the groups and figured out who we might come up against. I knew that we would probably meet Brazil somewhere down the line.

People had to subordinate their personal interests to the common goal

- Philipp Lahm

PL What we concentrated on in the weeks leading up to the tournament was becoming a team. And when I say team, I don’t mean the 23 footballers. I mean everyone working with or for the national team. I think there were about 70 people in Campo Bahia, our camp on the Atlantic coast. All these people had to subordinate their personal interests to the common goal, which was having success. Historically, this togetherness has almost always been a hallmark of German tournament squads.

TM The foundation was laid even before Campo Bahia, during the training camp in South Tyrol. There was a golf course just a hundred yards from the hotel. Golf is one of my hobbies, so I played the odd round with one of our physios. When you’re holed up for more than 10 days in such a camp, you have to make sure the mood doesn’t go sour. So the physio and I made a bet – the loser of the next round had to serve the team at dinner. Dressed in a skirt. We did it for a laugh, as it made the golf more interesting. But it was also at the back of my mind that it’s good for the team and the atmosphere if there’s a bit of action to liven things up. Well, I lost the round. 

Muller takes his golfing forfeit like a man... sort of

Muller takes his golfing forfeit like a man... sort of

MN Not for nothing do people think of Germany as a tournament team, a side that becomes better from game to game and is somehow suited to the format. I think the reason is that German teams always manage to close the ranks and present themselves as just that, a team. This summer was certainly no exception. There were sides that very much relied on one player – Brazil on Neymar, Portugal on Cristiano Ronaldo. But we were always a team.

The camp in Brazil

“Four years ago, we’d had problems with that Bayern-Dortmund thing. This time was totally different”

PL Campo Bahia was important. We spent a lot of time outside, we were having breakfast or dinner and we were watching football games together out in the open, because it was warm and pleasant. It created a very special atmosphere. Of course there were moments when somebody felt like retreating and went to his room to be on his own for a while, but by and large we were always outside and together. When you went for a walk, you always ran into someone and had a chat with him.

Normally I’m not an early riser. Maybe it was the tropical climate. And the apes...

- Neuer explains what gets him up

MN In terms of team-building, it was perfect. I never even went for a walk on my own. I was only ever alone a few times when I woke up very early and then had breakfast before everyone else. Normally I’m not an early riser, maybe it was because of the tropical climate. And the apes, of course. My balcony went out towards an area where sometimes the apes began to run around early in the morning. There was also a bird’s nest that would wake me up.

TM Togetherness is always important in football, but especially during a tournament, because it’s often the little things that make the difference. I don’t know why we always manage to create this team spirit. Maybe it’s because Germans are less hot-headed and more willing to sacrifice their egos for the whole. Or maybe because it’s we don’t have one player who stands out, no Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.    

Standing together at Campo Bahia

Standing together at Campo Bahia

PL We stayed in four villas. Before everybody moved in, four senior players – Basti Schweinsteiger, Miro Klose, Per Mertesacker and me – went into one of the houses, sat down and discussed who should share a place with whom. What we didn’t want to happen was that the Bayern players would stay in one villa, the Dortmund players in another. So instead of, say, keeping a Dortmund player away from a Schalke player, we instead tried to come up with a colourful mix without having to tear good mates apart.

Instead of sitting on the 18th floor watching a movie you already know by heart, it was almost like a rural community

- Thomas Muller

TM Four years ago, we may have had some small problems with that Bayern-Dortmund thing. But it was totally different this time. That’s not to say we wouldn’t have won the World Cup if we had stayed at a different place. At the end of the day, what counts is what happens on the pitch. But it was very nice to stay outdoors with the rest of the team, instead of sitting on the 18th floor of a hotel and watching a movie you already know by heart. It was almost like a rural community.      

MN I shared a villa with Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was what we called our house captain, Benedikt Howedes and Julian Draxler from Schalke, Dortmund’s Kevin Grosskreutz and Matze [Matthias] Ginter from Freiburg. With my Schalke background, Kevin was pretty outnumbered. But he got himself some reinforcements, because while we were there it was becoming likely that Matze was about to join Dortmund. We got along just fine. I think it’s very important that you get the chance to talk things over, leave some things that might have happened in the past behind and move forward together.