Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein: Germany's most bountiful scorer can't sniff national team

Not long ago, the German national team was so short of decent center forwards that manager Berti Vogts had to dig out a German grandmother for (Brazilian-born Leverkusen striker) Paolo Rink and personally intervene with the government to secure Sean Dundee’s fast-track naturalization — even if the South African ended up never wearing the White and Black.

Little more than a decade later, “Nationalmannschaft” coach Joachim Löw has many more native talents to chose from. But a quick look at the leading goal scorers’ list in the Bundesliga shows that German No. 9s are still relatively thin. Alexander Meier (Eintracht Frankfurt), in second spot with 12 goals, is a deep-lying playmaker. Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller (sixth, nine goals) features predominantly on the right side of midfield. The rest are either foreigners (Robert Lewandowski, Dortmund, second, 12 goals), more midfielders (Marco Reus, Mario Götze, tied for eighth, seven goals each) or run-of-the-mill players like Bremen’s Nils Petersen (seven goals).

The good news, however, is that this season’s top gun with 13 goals in 18 games is indeed German. But guess what? Löw refuses to call up Stefan Kiessling (Bayer Leverkusen) to the DFB (German Football Association) squad. The 28-year-old has not featured since a 6-1 win over Azerbaijan in September 2010.

“I haven’t forgotten about him,” Löw insisted back in November, but then again, this omission obviously has nothing to do with memory loss. The national manager watched Kiessling contribute a goal in a 3-1 win over Frankfurt in person at the BayArena on Saturday, and it still wasn’t enough to sway him. Kiessling will not be invited to play in the friendly against France next week.

“We have two top strikers in Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose,” Löw said. “Stefan is behind them at the moment. We have a philosophy, and we chose the players accordingly.”

Kiessling has gotten so used to the perennial snubs that he barely shrugged at his latest rejection.

“I don’t care (if Löw was watching), all I can do is to perform well,” he said.

Not only is he the leading goal scorer of this campaign, he also has netted the most amount of Bundesliga goals in the calendar year (25). What’s more, Gomez and Klose, whom Löw both sees ahead of the Franconian in the pecking order, have scored fewer league goals combined than him for Bayern (two) and Lazio (10), respectively.

Something doesn’t quite add up. To be fair, Gomez has missed most of the season with an ankle injury, and the veteran Klose, 34, has been in scintillating form in Serie A. But shouldn’t the third-best striker in the country at least get some recognition? Why hasn’t he featured in Gomez’s recent absence?

Löw has praised Kiessling’s “great character,” there were no problems with him at the 2010 World Cup, despite his involvement having been minimal. In fact, it’s tough to find anyone with a bad thing to say about the 6-foot-2 but very mobile attacker.

“Kies,” as they call him in the dressing room, is a model professional who has made a point of settling in the sleepy city of Leverkusen — as opposed to neighboring Cologne or Düsseldorf — and recently self-published a cook book named “recipe for success” as a gift for teammates and friends. Maybe even Löw was sent one.

Löw’s line about the team’s “philosophy” is also hardly to square with reality. The out-and-out poacher Gomez and the wily, imaginative Klose are two very different strikers, yet they both fit said philosophy while Kiessling, a player who sits right in the middle of the two in terms of his playing style, doesn’t. He’s an excellent all-rounder: pretty fast, good in the air, technically sufficient, a good finisher and happy to combine with his teammates. Five assists in the league underline the last point.

Perhaps one has to delve a little deeper into Löw’s footballing mind to find the answers. One possible explanation, although it hasn’t been put forward yet, could be that the coach sees Kiessling most effective as a counter-attacking striker. His breakthrough at 1. FC Nürnberg certainly came in a counter-attacking side, and even second-placed Leverkusen’s easy-on-the-eye 4-3-3 system can be classed as reactive in nature: the team is set up to soak up the pressure with three holding midfielders and hurt opponents with quick balls into the feet of Gonzalo Castro, André Schürrle and Kiessling. Löw maybe feels that Kiessling is less effective without the same amount of space in front of him — his Germany dominates possession and mostly encounter deep-lying opponents. Klose, with his ability to find space between the line, and Gomez’s physical presence are indeed better fits in this regard.

Löw’s recent experiment with the “false nine” system against the Netherlands, when attacking midfielder Götze was the most advanced player, also suggests that the national coach is thinking about an even less direct approach in the future. If he does go on to copy Spain’s tactics to that extent, neither Gomez, Klose nor Kiessling will see regular action at the 2014 World Cup. If the real choice is actually between a system with one striker and one without one, taking two attackers to Brazil might well suffice.

Löw, it should be remembered, is a manager who abhors conflict. Kiessling’s present form more than warrants a call-up, but since Germany’s chief philosopher can’t foresee a future for the Leverkusen player, he’s saving himself from having to make an uncomfortable decision in the run-up of the World Cup in a year’s time. It’s a hard, dogmatic, unpopular line that might yet have to be changed in case of injuries. But it’s ultimately also a fair one, even if the best attacker in the league will understandably not see it that way at all.

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