Untested Germans seek Confed Cup thrills at theme park site
By ROB HARRIS
SOCHI, Russia (AP) Beyond one goal, there's the beach. Behind another, a theme park with its roller coasters and fairytale castle.
Germany's youthful Confederations Cup squad certainly isn't short of distractions away from the training pitch in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. And with the imitation of Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle looming over the Olympic Park, Germany feels right at home in the 2014 Winter Games host city where it will play two of its opening three matches.
"If we have a free afternoon perhaps one or two of us will go over there," Germany midfielder Joshua Kimmich said ahead of Monday's Group B opener against Australia.
The setting only reinforces the sense Germany is taking a more casual approach to this eight-team tournament than the Australians, who would regard winning this World Cup rehearsal as a major achievement.
For once Germany isn't so fixated on the trophy. Retaining the World Cup next year is the priority. And while the players might cross into the fantasy world across the road to try the extreme rides, they can't afford to ease up on the pitch if they are to return to Russia. Their every move is being assessed, judged on whether they have a long-term future in the squad.
"The Confederations Cup is a great gift," Germany coach Joachim Loew said Sunday through a translator, "because it will help us in the run up to next year and the following years to reach our goals and improve our players."
Many regular starters have been given the summer off to rest after a grueling couple of years, notably Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels, Thomas Mueller, Jerome Boateng and Mesut Ozil. Injury or illness ruled out other players, including goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and midfielder Mario Goetze.
"Our stars should not be fearful (of losing their places) because they have been playing at a top-notch level and are world champions," Loew said.
"But with world champions there comes a time when there must be changes. You need to evolve and grow the team."
Only three of the world champions from Brazil in 2014 have traveled to Russia: Shkodran Mustafi, Matthias Ginter and Julian Draxler.
"I don't think they have brought an under-strength team," Australia defender Milos Degenek said. "They could bring another three or four teams and it would still be the same. Obviously they are missing some of their biggest players, but that doesn't change much. They have got the same mentality."
Like the surrounding theme park, which was inspired by Russian folklore, the trip with the German national team is a dream come true. More than half of the traveling party in Russia is at its first tournament with Loew.
"We want to win it but that is not the end of it all," Loew said. "We can accept a tournament like this if we keep three or four players for the future - for the World Cup."
Some, like strikers Sandro Wagner and Lars Stindl, have had to wait until their late 20s to get a chance in the senior squad.
"Every player wants to take a step further by showing his quality and leaving a good impression so that he may be involved in future tournaments," said the 28-year-old Stindl of Borussia Moenchengladbach "Then you must go on to show some good progress in your club team."
Kimmich has the opposite problem. A lack of playing time at Bayern Munich has frustrated the versatile 22-year-old who has still become a regular in the Germany starting XI. The Confederations Cup will undoubtedly provide the platform for Kimmich to convince Carlo Ancelotti to use him more at German champion Bayern.
"I think he knows what I can do," said Kimmich, who operates as a defensive midfielder or across the back line. "I've already played under him for a year. "He knows I can play in a lot of different positions. It's obvious I'm not happy with how my season went, as you've already said, but I'm hoping that next season I can start more games. I've featured in many games, but not from the beginning. So that's clearly my aim, to start games for Bayern."
For now it's all about the Confederations Cup, which features the World Cup holders, six regional national team champions and host Russia.
"We're a new squad and I think with each training session and with each game we're getting more confident," Kimmich said.
Confident enough perhaps to take on the giant roller coaster next to the Fisht Stadium.
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
More AP Confederations Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup
Updated June 18, 2017