Philipp Lahm gazes over the pitch he called home for a decade and a half, and allows the memories to flood back. It was June 2006 and the first day of the long, roasting, transformative summer that brought the world to a modern and outwards-facing Germany. He had feared missing the opening game of the World Cup, at Allianz Arena of all places, after elbow surgery and there was a feeling of quiet exultation at being passed fit to play. So the elation was unconfined when, six minutes after kick-off, he cut inside two Costa Rica defenders and scored a sensational goal that set the competition on its way.
“The referee had to test my splint in the dressing room right before the match,” he remembers. “When he said, ‘Yes, no problem, you can play’, that was the greatest thing. I was born about five kilometres away from here, my whole family was in the stadium and many friends too. I didn’t score many, so the goal was a very special moment for me. I released all my joy and didn’t know what to do with my feelings.”
At 22 Lahm could never have predicted that, 17 years after firing the starting gun on one of football’s showpieces, he would be charged with organising another. He is the tournament director for Euro 2024, which Germany will host next summer, and the fruits of his labour will begin to crystallise after the draw takes place at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie on Saturday. Lahm’s life used to involve crisscrossing the continent with Bayern Munich and an all-conquering national team; now he can pour forth regarding the ins and outs of site visits, venue checks, discussions about infrastructure and fine-tuning details with sponsors.
He also knows how a football tournament can change perspectives for ever. In 2006 Germany was still finding its way after reunification and dealing with the stigma brought by the second world war. “Those were special weeks,” Lahm says. “As a society we grew together again, became more connected and were able to present ourselves to the world. We could show people who we are. We have a history in Germany that is not very positive but everyone got to know us in a new way.”
Lahm is told the story of a fan in the crowd, again at this venue, who could not hold back tears when the national anthem played before Germany’s win over Sweden in the last 16. It was hardly an isolated scene. “After the first game people dared to wave the national flag and sing the anthem again,” he says. “It wasn’t normal before, but that changed through football and its values. That’s what a great event can do, and we have a great opportunity next year to create a community throughout Europe again in the same way.”
These are not the platitudes of a politician or bureaucrat. Lahm saw it all with his own eyes back then, shaping the course of history with a vibrant Germany side that finished third under Jürgen Klinsmann. Players and nation fed off each other and rode the wave together. “We were a good team but without that enthusiasm we couldn’t have gone so far,” he says. Outsiders discovered levity and warmth not freely explorable before; in Munich, the central square Marienplatz would become its own heaving league of friendly, often pleasantly inebriated nations. German football would become a model on and off the pitch; a smooth handover between generations resulted in a World Cup win eight years later.
The challenges are different today, and not only because Germany must find their way again quickly after unthinkably early exits in their past three tournaments. War has stalked Europe at a scale not seen for three-quarters of a century, and nobody seriously believes a month of football will bring victory to Ukraine or forever quell far-right extremism; the sport itself has changed, its relationships with money and geopolitics thickening to a point where major events have become soft power vehicles for the dizzyingly wealthy.
“Earlier in my career football was still unencumbered, so to speak, in contrast to nowadays,” Lahm says. “Today you have completely different issues with money and the situations we saw around Qatar for example.” He was strident last year, writing in these pages, in calling the hosting of the 2022 World Cup a “mistake”; he has similar concerns about the waving through of Saudi Arabia’s 2034 bid and fears football’s cultural value is being tainted.
“If we look back to Qatar and Russia, football was partly used in a negative sense,” he says. “But we have to use big events to show our own values, to reflect how we in Europe want to live together. Football, for me, is also about culture and tradition. All of that just wasn’t there in Qatar.
“Football should be about more than just earning money. It’s for children, adolescents, lovers of the amateur game, culture, the fans. I would always give a tournament to a democratic country. We must make sure we use next summer to strengthen ourselves, to strengthen Europe.”
It is not hard to see how Germany, with its storied stadiums and depth of sporting legend, can pitch itself as the breath of fresh air amid tournaments whose awards have ranged from the deeply questionable to – in the form of the delayed and Covid-stricken Euro 2020 – the simply strange. Lahm, a one-club man who became wealthy through football but never succumbed to its airs and pretensions, is an agreeably homespun ambassador. He aims to put on a “big party where everyone feels good” and wants youngsters such as his son Julian, who has continued family tradition by playing for the grassroots club FT Gern, to feel assured that top-level football remains accessible to those outside the most rarefied climes.
“The bad thing is, he’s 11 and he’s never seen a successful German national team,” Lahm grimaces. It leads to recollections of the dressing room behind their near miss in 2006: big characters such as Jens Lehmann, Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack supplemented by the youth of Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lahm himself. When the elders later stood down, those tyros stepped up to form a core that underpinned most of the next decade. Lahm retired from international football after captaining them to global supremacy in 2014 and believes their recent woes owe to a failure in succession planning. There was no set of strident personalities in waiting.
“After the World Cup success I don’t think we really worked on it,” he says. “They didn’t make the new generation responsible for the team. You need a core, a heart, for people to know who is in charge, and it didn’t develop automatically. There were a lot of changes but the core I’m talking about never took shape.”
It made for a dramatic fall from grace: group-stage exits in 2018 and 2022; a comprehensive defeat by England in the second round at Euro 2020. A squad featuring Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sané, Ilkay Gündogan, Joshua Kimmich and Antonio Rüdiger should have no business among the also-rans. Julian Nagelsmann, perhaps gambling his career by taking such a high-profile national team role at 36, took over in September but last month’s friendly defeats by Turkey and Austria were a regression. Lahm said last year that the success of Euro 2024 would depend on Germany’s performance in Qatar: if that remains true, the carnival mood at home may be severely diluted.
“He’s a very charismatic coach with a clear idea of how to play,” Lahm says of Nagelsmann. “You can never say how it will work out but of course I’d like it to be a turning point.” Is winning the continental title for the first time since 1996 beyond them? “Well, we have the players for it. We’re a football nation and that will always be the case. People believe that with the enthusiasm in the country, with the experience of 2006, we can go far.”
Not that Lahm is overly occupied with parochial concerns. Listening to him talk about a spread of issues affecting the present-day game, particularly the pressure being put on players by a congested calendar and the need for Germany’s Bundesliga to guard its “50+1” ownership rule jealously, it is natural to wonder what comes after the Euro 2024 curtain falls in Berlin on 14 July. Lahm is coy about the future, save for confirming he intends to stay in football, but appears the kind of grounded and genuinely football-steeped administrator for which the game he loves is crying out.
The immediate task, though, is to deliver a summer that extols the virtues of international competition, a scene he always approached with special relish, at a time when club football exerts an ever tighter squeeze. “The strongest football countries still have the best leagues, they will get the most money and that’s how club football has developed,” he says. “But a national team is something completely different for me. It shapes a whole nation. When I look back in 2016 with Iceland, 2021 with Denmark, or Croatia at the last two World Cups, it’s amazing to see smaller countries have such big success.”
Lahm has watched the qualifiers religiously: he asks himself whether the playoffs, which will complete the lineup three months after the draw, will throw up a fresh name or two to sit alongside the established powers who will be hoping for a kind-looking passage on Saturday. He wonders whether, down at the far end of the stadium, someone will follow him in carving their name into history when Germany contest another opener here on 14 June. And he hopes for a summer to at least match the one that sent his career into the stratosphere.
“It has to be safe, that’s the most important thing, nothing bad should happen,” he says. “Then, I want people to come together to celebrate. Football is always a reflection of society and I firmly believe it can build bridges.”