They were the embodiment of soccer perfection. Until a few weeks ago, "We want to play like Spain" was the soccer catchphrase since 2008.
The Spanish played pretty soccer, popularly known as tiki taka — although it was mainly because they borrowed FC Barcelona's playing system and the bulk of their players — and they won major trophies.
"Let's play like Germany," is a battle cry that doesn’t tickle the imagination in quite the same way. Too bad. Because the team that ripped Brazil apart 7-1 on Tuesday in a World Cup semifinal is the model for modern day soccer. And the model that the USA is emulating moving forward.
Spain was a once-in-a-lifetime blip on the radar. La Furia Roja of pre-2014 were widely considered the best national team in the history of soccer. But they played a unique system (Barcelona's) run by soccer masterminds (Xavi and Andres Iniesta). And the fact that they triumphed in an age of unprecedented athleticism and speed in the sport added to their legend.
But it was never going to last. Remove the likes of Xavi and a couple of other Barcelona parts (like Carles Puyol) and we witnessed the system fall apart at the current World Cup.
Germany won't be going away quite so easily. They actually have never gone away.
While many are quick to laud the investment in the German club youth ranks over the last decade and overstate the "overhaul" marshaled by US national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann back when he coached Germany, the truth is they've been good forever. There was no soccer revolution that led to this success.
Germany have been at the World Cup 18 times and finished among the Top 4 in 13 of those tournaments. No revolution necessary.
It's the same old Germany: Tough, strong, athletic, powerful, hard-working, dynamic and skillful. That's the description you can apply to German national team players dating back to the 1970s. From goalkeeper to forward. It's the "machine" part of the German soccer stereotype you hear about ad nausea. But there's plenty of truth to it.
Take a look at German central midfielders over the years: They've had Lothar Matthäus, Michael Ballack and today it's Bastian Schweinsteiger. Aside from slight differences, they're all basically the same player.
Need a forward? Die Mannschaft have counted on Gerd Müller, Karl-Heinz Rumenigge, Jurgen Klinsmann, Oliver Bierhoff, Miroslav Klose and now Thomas Müller. Again, different hair, shapes and sizes. But all very similar.
Germany have never depended on a single system or formation (you saw proof of this over the last month). They've never depended on a single player like Brazil (Neymar) and Argentina (Lionel Messi) do — they didn't fall apart when Marco Reus went down just before the World Cup.
After their early World Cup exit, the pundits talk about how the US national team need their own Neymar or Messi to go deep in a World Cup. They're wrong. The USA just need 23 Thomas Müllers. That's what Germany have: 23 stupendous athletes who are relentless and, who by the way are also fundamentally sound with the ball.
The US already have the relentless part down pat and now they need more elite athletes (a la LeBron James). The ball part will come along (the Major League Soccer academies will help with that).
That's ultimately the not-so-magical soccer formula. So don't be fooled by the rhetoric. Winning at the World Cup is not about mentality. It's not about the American player pushing himself further.
When it comes to soccer, the USA will be Germany. It's just a matter of time.
Germany do not win all the time and they may not win the World Cup on Sunday. A once-in-a-lifetime player like Diego Maradona (see 1986) or Messi (this year) could still single-handedly beat them.
But it doesn't matter: German fans know their team will be a contender come next time. And the next time. And the next time.