Germany have a problem—one many national teams would kill for, but a problem nonetheless. Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen is one of the very best goalies in the world, and yet he can’t get any gametime for his national team. Manuel Neuer, who not that long ago was handily the game’s single best keeper, starts in goal and captains the German national team, even though he’s no longer at his best. The struggle between the once-great, still-beloved, and steadily declining captain and his ambitious, currently superior understudy has now spilled over into the public.
It’s been obvious for a while that Germany had a problem on their hands managing the goalkeeper situation. The clearest example of this was at the 2018 World Cup, when manager Jogi Löw made the controversial decision to demote ter Stegen, who had slotted nicely into the starting job during Neuer’s prolonged injury absence during 2017 and 2018, and reinstated Neuer as Germany’s No. 1 keeper, even though the Bayern netminder had only returned from injury a couple months before.
Ter Stegen had every right to be demoralized by Löw’s choice, but if he was, he kept it to himself. Germany as a whole, and Neuer specifically, had an awful World Cup that summer. Germany could’ve used that disappointment as the impetus for some sweeping changes, like handing the gloves over to ter Stegen permanently, but instead the team has largely stayed the course, to similarly disappointing results.
Most recently, during Germany’s European Championship qualifiers against the Netherlands and Northern Ireland last week, ter Stegen once again had to watch from the sidelines. It was the continuation of a trend that has seen ter Stegen make only one appearance for Germany this calendar year, when he played 45 minutes in a friendly. In the match against the Netherlands during the last international break, Germany were routed by a score of 4–2.
This latest batch of poor results encouraged ter Stegen to speak out about his frustrations, admitting that it’s tough to play so well at club level and not be rewarded for it with the national team:
It is not easy to find an explanation as I am giving the best account of myself in each game to make the decision more difficult. I am trying [to become first-choice] anyway. But this trip with the national team has been a tough blow for me.
These statements of ter Stegen’s inspired Neuer to push back in the media as well. The German captain spoke to Sky Germany and made it clear he didn’t find his deputy’s comments to be helpful:
I think he’s a good keeper and he is performing well, but I’m not sure if that helps us. We are a team and should present ourselves as such. We have great goalkeepers. We have Kevin Trapp, Bernd Leno... these are all great goalkeepers who also want to play and then sit on the bench. We are a team. We have to stick together. The goalkeepers also have to stick together.
On Monday, ter Stegen was asked about Neuer’s statements in the lead-up to Barcelona’s Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund. He called the captain’s framing of his words “inappropriate”:
I would like to say something about this. You cannot say we have competition for the goalkeeper position and then expect the players to be happy with the situation if they don’t play. Football is about happiness but also disappointment.
Manuel Neuer does not need to comment on my personal feelings and measure them, I’d say. It’s my own opinion. If you think about the last few years, you realise that I always behaved well and what Neuer and other people have said is not fair.
His remarks were inappropriate but I don’t want to say much more. I want to end this controversy.
Objectively, ter Stegen is in the right here. He is a better player than Neuer today, and until or unless Neuer gets back to his 2014-era best, ter Stegen should be Germany’s starter. Nothing ter Stegen said was all that inflammatory, he only mentioned his totally justified frustrations, and he shouldn’t be painted as some selfish malcontent simply because he was asked a question and responded honestly.
However, as a tactic to get more playing time, this probably wasn’t the wisest strategic move. Everyone loves Neuer—the fans, the manager, the national team players, everyone. If ter Stegen hasn’t been able to beat out Neuer on the pitch, in spite of being the much better player, then he certainly has no shot of winning in the court of public opinion. If anything, ter Stegen’s comments will probably only solidify in the manager’s mind that a venerated leader like Neuer is the one who should stand between the sticks for Germany over a perceived selfish whiner. It seems more likely that ter Stegen just got further away from rather than closer to realizing his dream of becoming Germany’s starter.
Ultimately, it probably won’t be ter Stegen, Neuer, or even Löw’s opinions or actions that determine just how long ter Stegen has to wait before assuming his rightful place as Germany’s No. 1 keeper. That determination is in the hands of those in charge of the German soccer federation. The real obstacle preventing ter Stegen from wearing the gloves isn’t Neuer, it’s Löw, the manager.
Löw is on shaky ground coming off last year’s terrible World Cup and the unimpressive results leading into and following that debacle. If Löw can’t improve things on the pitch soon, he will be out of a job either before or after next summer’s Euros. Ter Stegen’s best chance at earning the starting job, then, likely isn’t in convincing the public or his current manager that he deserves it, it’s in biding his time until Löw is no longer in charge, and hoping the next Germany boss cares more about the present than the past.