In Germany, the 2006 World Cup is still fondly referred to as a "Summer's Tale", after the title of Sönke Wortmann's documentary about a tournament that proved nothing less than transformative, in a political and a sporting sense. More than seven years and 100 games in charge as head coach later, Joachim Löw can be proud of having made youthfulness, excitement and attacking football permanent features of the national side.
But lately all the fluid, fast-passing combinations and the many, many goals – they scored a record 36 times in the World Cup qualifiers – have left Löw's compatriots noticeably a little cold. It is not so much a case of Germans having become blase about the brilliance of the football, it is just they are just not quite sure if it really matters. No longer are they merely content with the beauty and the magic. What they want is a happy ending: Germany's first trophy since Euro 1996.
Since the second world war, Germany have never had to wait more than 18 years for success in major tournament. Löw is acutely aware that patience is running out, which is why he has been at pains to tone down expectations over the past few days. "I know that the longing for a trophy is strong in [our] country but I also know there's no automatic right [to win] simply because we haven't won anything for 18 years," the 53-year-old told Süddeutsche Zeitung. "The other day, someone said: 'There's no choice but to win titles with this German team.' Whoever says that is a fairy [story] teller for me."
For good measure, Löw repeated that belief before Friday night's 1-1 friendly draw against Italy. "Do not believe the fairy tellers," he warned, after listing a myriad of reasons why it will be "insanely" difficult to win the World Cup in Brazil.
Löw's problem is that he is increasingly preaching to the converted, at least to an extent. Despite Germany's consistently strong showings in recent years – reaching three semi-finals and one final since Löw first became involved as Jürgen Klinsmann's assistant in 2004; only Spain are ahead of them in Fifa's ranking – unbridled optimism is hard to locate. Some of the manager's concerns – the weather, the travelling, Brazil's home advantage – are being shared but an increasing number of supporters are worried that Löw might have become an obstacle to success.
The dark mutterings started after the traumatic semi-final defeat at Euro 2012 at the hands of nemesis Italy. Löw disappointed even his staunchest loyalists with a capricious line-up, the blatant defects of which were ruthlessly exploited by the Azzurri. The "historic collapse" (as the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger called it) in the 4-4 draw with Sweden 13 months ago in Berlin – Germany were four goals up after 56 minutes before a series of mistakes and a pervading sense of fear enabled the Swedes to snatch the unlikeliest of World Cup qualifying points – was less relevant but even more embarrassing. The team's capitulation at the Olympic Stadium reinforced long-held doubts about Germany's defensive and mental resilience. Löw's team won all the other qualification games but the suspicion lingers that his side lacks balance and character.
Perception plays a key role in all of this. In the early years of his reign, the urbane, espresso-drinking thrill-seeker – Löw has climbed Kilimanjaro and paraglided in the Alps – was feted like a pop star. But his marked sense of style, and that of his team, became to be seen as partly responsible for Germany's failure to make the final step. Löw, the accusation went, was too concerned with producing aesthetically pleasing football to address the team's defensive deficits: his aversion to practicing dead-ball situations, say, citing "a lack of time" and the need to focus on more important things. That led some to suspect that he somehow saw ordinary goals from non-open play as less desirable than sharp, Barcelona-style possession play. (Maybe Löw is simply aware of the statistical futility of said exercise: Chris Anderson and David Sally, the authors of the The Numbers Game, have shown that the average Premier League team needs almost 50 corners to score a single goal).
"I don't think people say: 'We are playing too beautifully to win anything," he said. "I think they enjoy our playing style. They enjoy a 5-3 win more than a 1-0." That might be true. But while most of his compatriots revel in the international admiration of their team, German football is yet to warm to the concept of losing gallantly. Winning is everything.
Löw, to his credit, has admitted to past mistakes. "I get it wrong when we lose, but I also get it wrong when we win sometimes," he said last week. "I probably get something wrong every week; every day, even." He claimed with, some justification, that worries about the back-line have been prevalent before every big tournament and that intense practice in the weeks before Brazil would whip the defence into shape. The task has become slightly more difficult in view of the widely different ways that Bayern Munich (Philipp Lahm, Jérôme Boateng), Borussia Dortmund (Mats Hummels, Marcel Schmelzer) and Arsenal (Per Mertesacker) defend; most of the 13 goals Germany had conceded before Friday's Italy game in 2013 were the products of miscommunication.
Before Tuesday's visit to Wembley, it was noted that Löw seemed more focused and determined than usual. "Of course I care [about the view of others] but I am the manager of the national team," he said. This was aimed at Bundesliga club managers and officials, who worry about their players either featuring too much or too little. Löw has not only resisted demands to call-up the Bayer Leverkusen striker Stefan Kiessling but also adopted a slighter harsher tone towards his regulars. Team spirit was not great during the 2010 tournament, as some members of the squad have privately admitted. And it has not been perfect since, either. Contrary to perception, there is no real tension between the Bayern and Dortmund camps but one or two talented individuals who have reacted badly to finding themselves outside the starting XI have been reprimanded. Löw, who abhors open conflict, needs to show that he can enforce discipline at the World Cup. The depth in the squad is such that some big names will inevitably end up on the bench.
Despite a few misgivings, the former Freiburg striker still enjoys the overwhelming support of the German FA, the DFB, and last month extended his contract until 2016. "Team and manager are like a unit, it could hardly be better," said Franz Beckenbauer on Friday. "The world envies us for the football we play."
Löw is Germany's most successful manager ever in terms results, winning 68% of his matches. But his place in history – and the outcome of next summer's tale – will rest on one or two key matches in Brazil. He will either be the man who wins the fourth World Cup for Germany, or the one who will be blamed if they do not.