The final World Cup devastation derby of emotional turbulence ended with Japanese elation, Spanish relief, Costa Rican wonder at what could have been, and a German football nation limping painfully in introspective despair.
The judicial inquiry – for the third time in four and a half years – began immediately. The German public broadcaster ARD brutally questioned a few minutes after the final whistle. Moments later, team director Oliver Bierhoff received the same treatment. What went wrong? What would you do differently? Are the players good enough? Are you the right man for the job?
The pain is more bitter for the hopes raised by the struggle with Spain.
Costa Rica-Germany rollercoaster ride
For neutrals, the entertainment was incomparable. Top athletes pushed to their limits on the highest podium, in the most tense circumstances: how do top athletes react psychologically to simultaneous events from another stadium? Changes that change the live risk-reward calculations at their own game? Ask Spain. They lost after 50 minutes, but were still moving forward; being eliminated twenty minutes later with the same score; and qualify again moments later, their own game still unchanged.
And the game was sprinkled with the irrational, first-will-be-lasted justice that only football offers. As Costa Rica led Germany 2-1 after 70 minutes, they would progress at the expense of Spain – the team that defeated them 7-0 in their opening game. To get the measure of the whole group, swallow the fact that in the history of World Cup statistics only two teams have ever lost when attempting more than 700 passes in a game: Japan against Germany a few days ago; and Japan vs Spain tonight.
Then there was Japan’s controversial winner: apparently the full “curvature of the ball” did not cross the line. But this will hardly be a footnote for Germany.
A few days ago, Germany wrestled a very talented team from Spain to a deserved draw. Today they scored four goals and won. They dictated the rhythm against every opponent in the group. Jamal Musiala hit the post twice and Germany could have scored several times. Is it really that bad?
2014 World Cup winners Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira weren’t shy about suggestions in the immediate post-game comments. Elite mentality and elite football skill are simply missing. Schweinsteiger named Toni Rudiger Germany’s lone top-flight defender after highlighting David Raum’s mistake leading up to Costa Rica’s equaliser.
At the end of a dominant first half in which Costa Rica appeared to be in damage control mode, the comedic defending of first Raum, then Rüdiger and then Niklas Süle almost turned the tide. Germany did not heed the warning. Costa Rica found their batteries, Joel Campbell’s heist made him look like Didier Drogba, and suddenly they had purpose and intent for the break. The game exploded and Germany failed to gain traction.
The post-game discussion continued to pinpoint the core of Germany’s failure. Despite the possession statistics and despite the Champions League experience and football quality of the team’s Bayern stars, the national team lacked a real leader to control the game at key moments.
Germany should have buried Japan and Costa Rica’s games before halftime. But they let their opponents back in, lost control of their own form and rapprochement at the game’s tipping points, and lacked the mental agility to recover.
Who will be Germany’s leader on the pitch when they host the European Championships in two years’ time? Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller and İlkay Gündoğan will certainly go further. Can Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, often outspoken, master a world-class football game? Will Jamal Musiala – the only sparkling spark of the German tournament – put the finishing touches to bury teams he only teased in Qatar? And what about the big hole in the team, the striker?
In search of deeper meaning
After Flick was challenged over his use of Müller for Niclas Füllkrug, Bierhoff had to answer the deeper structural questions: why does Germany not have a world-class centre-forward? Are they failing to develop players? Is this a generational problem? Interestingly, not all players would be aboard the One Love pre-match protest in Japan. Did this destroy their mental composure?
Germany “should” have done more. But maybe all the soul searching will have to conclude that sometimes that’s just football. This World Cup has been wonderfully full of setbacks. While some of global football’s established powers have stumbled but then got back on their feet, others have barely shown up. Perhaps this tournament represents a shift in the balance of power in the world?
When Morocco led a group consisting of last World Cup runners-up Croatia and third-placed Belgium – whose golden generation can meet Germany at the airport – it was another sign of Qatar’s level playing field. While none of Africa’s five representatives at Russia 2018 made it to the group stage, Morocco and Senegal have already made it through this year, Ghana is in a prime position to progress and Tunisia was unlucky not to beat reigning champions France.
Japan’s progress at Germany’s expense may have been devastating in Berlin, but for a more competitive and entertaining world game, it was gold.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Moritz Müller
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