Germany giving their Under-21s the chance to achieve
On Friday, when German national team coach Joachim Low announced his squad for Germany's upcoming two internationals, the surprise was that there was no surprise.
That is, unless you count the fact that Low called up Lukas Podolski, who is lacking both form and match practice, as a surprise. It isn't, really, because Low has always been supremely loyal to the handful of players who have been through thick and thin with him. But for each of the three international breaks after the World Cup, Low had called up at least one player who few observers had expected to see in the squad -- Antonio Rudiger in September, Karim Bellarabi in October and Jonas Hector in November.
So it's somewhat unusual that the national team coach isn't adding new blood to the squad now. Another unusual aspect, given how much German football is associated with youth at the moment, is that the squad for the games against Australia and Georgia has an average age of 26.4 years. That means it's higher than it was at the World Cup (25.7 years), even though the squad for Brazil included veterans like Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose, all since retired from international duty.
Are we to infer that Low has put the youth movement on hold, even though many people are saying he has to rebuild the team in the wake of the World Cup triumph?
No. There are two solid reasons why the national team coach goes into the international break with a rather conservative squad. The first is that Germany have already dropped five points in their Euro 2016 qualifying group, which means that the Georgia game on Sunday has become too important for the coach to experiment or hand out debuts.
The other reason is the European Under-21 Championship in the Czech Republic in June. In the past six years, Germany have shown astonishingly little enthusiasm for this tournament. The German Under-21s entered the Euro 2011 qualifiers as title-holders, but then finished in an embarrassing third place in their group, behind the Czech Republic and Iceland.
"We're speechless," centre back Mats Hummels told "kicker" magazine at the time. "We should have won this group. We have no explanation." One explanation which "kicker" offered its readers was that the Under-21s' new coach, Rainer Adrion, was "a technical, business-like analyst", whereas his predecessor, Horst Hrubesch, had been "a live wire" who drove the team to new heights.
Another reason, though, was that Adrion had to make do without many players who, while still eligible for the Under-21 team, had become part of Low's set-up, such as Mesut Ozil and Marko Marin. And during the qualifying campaign, Adrion then also lost Toni Kroos, Jerome Boateng and Thomas Muller to the senior side.
Two years later, Adrion redeemed himself by reaching the Euro 2013 finals in Israel. But again he was saddled with personnel problems. Kroos and Mario Gotze were injured, while Dortmund players Ilkay Gundogan and Moritz Leitner were rested following a long and taxing season.
Then there was the matter of the senior team's ill-fated trip to the United States. Low decided to take three Under-21 internationals with him, robbing Adrion of Andre Schurrle, Julian Draxler and Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
In Israel, the German Under-21s were then unceremoniously eliminated at the group stage. Three days after the end of the tournament, the German FA (DFB) sacked Adrion and made his predecessor his successor -- Hrubesch.
This year, things are going to be markedly different. In January, Hrubesch said that he desperately wants to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. To do so, his team has to reach at least the semifinals in the Czech Republic. However, Hrubesch added: "Primarily we want the title, then we can also celebrate reaching the Olympics."
This stated aim, winning the trophy in the summer, is why Low has called up only two men who would still be eligible for the Under-21s, Gotze and Shkodran Mustafi. And it's why Hrubesch, for once, has been allowed to nominate a really strong squad, featuring no less than seven players who have already spent some time with the senior side.
The Under-21s' two games during this international break -- against Italy on Friday and away at England on Monday -- may be just preparation games, but they are the only ones Hrubesch has between now and the finals in June. So he called up players like Schalke's Max Meyer, who's seen plenty of Champions League action this season, Hoffenheim's Kevin Volland, who has three full internationals under his belt, and Matthias Ginter, a member of Germany's World Cup-winning squad.
The coach also jumped at the chance to finally invite Arsenal's young midfielder, Serge Gnabry. The 19-year-old hasn't yet represented Germany at the Under-20 or Under-21 level because a knee injury sidelined him for seven months last year.
"The quality and the level of experience on the international stage we have in this squad are impressive," Hrubesch said. "I want to give every player another chance to put himself forward and make the decision for us coaches as difficult as possible."
The message is clear: Germany will not treat the 2015 European Under-21 Championship as nonchalantly as they treated the last two tournaments. Apart from Hrubesch's forceful and competitive personality, the reason for this newfound ambition may be traced back to Brazil.
The core of Low's World Cup squad must have felt like being on an extended class reunion trip. No less than six players who eventually lifted the World Cup -- Boateng, Hummels, Ozil, Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Howedes and Sami Khedira -- had been members of Hrubesch's team that won the European Under-21 Championship in 2009. (A seventh, Marcel Schmelzer, didn't make the World Cup squad because he was unfit following an injury-riddled season.)
So you could say that Low's World Cup team knew very well what it's like to win a trophy with a German national team against strong opposition. In 2009, they had squeezed past Spain (featuring Javi Martinez) at the group stage, before beating Italy (with Mario Balotelli) in the semis and defeating England (starring Joe Hart, Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott) in the final.
Maybe that little bit of shared history and experience made all the difference and helped end Germany's trophy drought in Rio de Janeiro. If so, it certainly makes sense that the DFB is now taking the game at the Under-21 level as seriously again as they did during the first years of Matthias Sammer's reign as the DFB's director of football.
Back in 2006, when he took up this post, Sammer said: "Players can build a winning mentality only through experience. Once you've had the experience of winning in youth football, you want to have it again." The World Cup in Brazil may have proved this theory right eight years later.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.