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“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
It seems an age since former England striker Gary Lineker coined this memorable phrase – yet it reflects a reality that feels even further away following Germany’s latest World Cup embarrassment in Qatar.
Germany, once regarded as nailed-on certainties to go deep into major tournaments, bowed out of the World Cup on goal difference despite a chaotic 4-2 win Costa Rica, with Japan’s win over Spain proving terminal to their hopes.
This is the second World Cup in a row that Germany have failed to get out of their group, after they suffered the same fate at Russia 2018.
It had not happened in 16 previous tournaments before then.
Given that record, Germany now find themselves dangerously close to slipping into football’s ‘B List’.
The sight of Germany’s players gazing at a bank of empty red seats was the grim conclusion to a painful campaign, their fate already known before the final whistle and prompting many of their fans to vacate the premises.
It came at the end of a night that promised – for a few minutes at least – to be one of the most momentous in World Cup history, Costa Rica overturning Germany’s early lead thanks to goals by Yeltsin Tejeda and Juan Pablo Vargas.
This meant, for three heady minutes, that Costa Rica were going through alongside Japan.
Incredibly, Germany and Spain were heading towards the exit. What were the odds on that before a ball was kicked?
But it didn’t last. Kai Havertz scored twice to restore some semblance of order, with Niclas Fullkrug’s fourth of no consolation whatsoever.
Germany had the win they needed to give them any chance of survival – but it was to no avail. Japan’s victory over Spain made sure of that.
Germany head coach Hansi Flick looked devastated at final whistle, defender Antonio Rudiger slumped and veteran goalkeeper Manuel Neuer stared blankly – disbelievingly – into the distance.
Germany’s elimination stands as a shock, based on reputation and past history alone, but they can have no complaints, just as they could have no complaints in Russia when they finished bottom of a group that was topped by Sweden, losing to Mexico and South Korea.
So maybe this latest disappointment for a country with such a proud and rich history should not come as that much of a surprise.
Recent history has chipped away at their previous impregnable reputation, which saw them beat Argentina to win the trophy in 2014, but saw the first signs of the armour being dented just four years later.
Germany were average in Euro 2020, going out to England in the last 16 after an undistinguished tournament, and all the evidence points to there being none of the old fear factor associated with the famous white shirt.
Flick took over from Joachim Low in 2021 but the man who won the Champions League at Bayern Munich inherited a major rebuilding job.
They started badly in Qatar with a loss to Japan. This left them vulnerable and so it proved despite a hard-earned point against Spain and this win against Costa Rica.
Such is the demand for success – indeed the expectation of success – in Germany that this latest setback is sure to spark a lengthy inquest into how it went wrong and what is needed to put it right. This will be a shock to their system.
Flick and the Germany football hierarchy will want the rehabilitation to be swift and effective with the country hosting Euro 2024. A similar flop in front of their own support is unthinkable.
Germany have an outstanding young talent in 19-year-old Jamal Musiala and Chelsea’s Havertz is still only 23, but there are signs that the old guard who have sustained them through so many successes is just starting to fray at the edges.
Neuer is 36 and surely playing his last World Cup. Thomas Muller is now 33 and was taken off here, his main contribution missing an easy headed chance early on. Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan is 32.
Fullkrug, Flick’s World Cup wildcard, scored against Spain and Costa Rica but he is 29 and only found his way into the squad because of injuries to RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner and Wolfsburg’s Lukas Nmecha.
Joshua Kimmich, at 27, will be vital in the next stage of Germany’s development but there is sure to be some hard talking once they return home and recover from the failure in Qatar.
Havertz suggested there were issues to address in his post-match interview: “When you go out twice in the first round and once in the round of 16, it’s extremely bitter,” he said.
“We have to be honest and say that for four years, everything hasn’t been going well.
“Now we’ve been knocked out twice in the group stage. I don’t think we’re a tournament team anymore.”
Flick said: “We have just been eliminated. We can get up quickly and recover. We will see what the future looks like and how we can implement our ideas.
“We need to assess our World Cup and head in a different direction. This is the next step we will take and we will do it very soon. We need the basics again.
“I am a very critical person and we will assess everything.”
The bottom line is that throughout this tournament Germany have displayed none of their familiar solidity in defence and were complacent whenever they went ahead. It is a deadly combination in tournament football.
Germany’s air of invincibility has long since gone and these past couple of weeks were perhaps the final confirmation of that fact.
They fly out of Qatar as a fallen giant of world football.
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