After Germany's disastrous World Cup 2018 performance, will footballing giant redeem itself in 2019?
As far as footballing heavens go, Germany pretty much has played the gatekeeper, the ones you must pass to earn your right. This year they finished bottom of their group.
After West Germany won Italia 1990, the coach Franz Beckenbauer said, ‘German football would be unbeatable for a while’. So mechanised had been their stroll towards the cup, England’s Gary Lineker was thrust towards further hopelessness. “22 men run after the ball for 90 minutes, but in the end, the Germans always win,” he famously said. It must be a measure of the stature of a footballing nation then that England’s brightest night of football since 1990, came not in a World Cup but in a qualifying fixture against Die Mannschaft. Un-fancied England beat Germany 5-1, in Munich of all places, on a night that went down in folklore, not for England’s performance but Germany’s strangely insipid traipsing around the Munich arena. A year on though, natural order was restored, as Lineker believed it would be. Die Mannschaft were in the World Cup final whereas the Three Lions had been sent back home by the team that would eventually be crowned champion – Brazil. That history, its discernable ethos, however, evaporated this year.
Germany has always been compared to a well-oiled, despairingly – like their language — efficient engine that motored through qualifying campaigns and the tournaments that follow. Traditionally, they have operated and offered their best on the biggest of stages. In 2002, for example, despite having a squad thin on superstars – except Michael Ballack and Oliver Kahn – the Germans muscled past ties while the likes of the more fancied Italy and Spain bit early dust. If it was Kahn in 2002, no player perhaps better embodied the German spirit than Bastian Schweinsteiger. A player of marginal talents but incredible efficacy in whatever Germany won and lost since his debut in 2004, Schweinsteiger was central, until his retirement in 2016. If Germany lost, Bastian was the most red-faced, if they won, he was the most bloodied. Schweinsteiger, like Germany, made a team as much as the team made him. German football has forever seemed like a house that grows its own food, generates its own power and never perpetually runs out of either, the kind of organic schema, the world would give up one leg for.
All of that, however, changed this year. When Son Heung-Min tapped the ball into an empty net at the Kazan Arena, the lasting, proverbial image could be drawn from the moment that preceded it. Germany’s avant-garde goalkeeper, the imperious Manuel Neuer who has practically reinvented goalkeeping all on his own, was seen on the edge of the Korean box scampering, like a headless chicken, to prevent the ball being kicked up-field. It was a moment that atomically, pointed to friction within the machine and more than anything else the desperation of having run out of ideas for a change. This was unlike Germany and by extension a world cup unlike any other. Germany weren’t there, Italy hadn’t even arrived. Die Mannschaft exited the world cup for the first time in 80 years at the group stage. This wasn’t just unprecedented but horrifyingly uncharacteristic. As far as footballing heavens go, Germany pretty much has played the gatekeeper, the ones you must pass to earn your right. This year they finished bottom of their group.
The signs were there. Germany had lost a game in qualifying for the first time in decades. They were poor in friendlies leading up to the tournament. The brightest young talent in German football at the time, Leroy Sane, wasn’t named in the squad altogether. The best striker they had was forgotten-man Mario Gomez. But beyond paralytic circumstances that can cripple any footballing nation in transition – they entered the tournament as holders remember – you couldn’t associate Germany with farce or fracas. This nation hardly ever fires its managers, hires outsiders or has had the kind of embarrassingly self-destructive episodes like France in 2010. They are after all the polished version of a footballing dream, a system so smooth, equitable and just, it probably doesn’t have space for the flamboyance of a Neymar or the marketing gimmicks of the presumably superior English Premier League.
Germany has known and believed in its ways, and for good reason. And so when Toni Kroos swung his right foot to score and win in the last minute of the game against Sweden, one assumed sense and normalcy would be restored. The engine had had its hiccup, its pistons would now kick in. That it would be like waking up a year from that 5-1 loss to England in Munich, back in a world where the tyranny of predictability would resume, and with it the swagger of the German national team. But it did not.
Germany’s performances were symptomatic to an extent, but the fissures gallingly appeared after the tournament ended. Mesut Ozil, once a lone German maverick was cast out and suddenly football’s most endearingly modern team found itself labelled medieval and racist. All the more contradictory considering how the German chancellory seems to reserve hope for an exceedingly regressing Europe. The civility of old had been abandoned. Bizarrely, Ozil, rather than receive the support of his teammates got the boot. On club level, Bayern Munich, the quintessential German club began the domestic season poorly, seeped in turmoil of its own. Things, though, only get worse. Germany was relegated from the newly formed Nations league in November, a footballing nadir not even the nation’s fiercest rivals could have imagined for them.
For the first time, first ever perhaps, Die Mannschaft has had to ponder sacking their manager. For the first time they go into a qualifying year (Germany have been drawn alongside the Netherlands in European qualifying – the team they have lost to twice since the World Cup) not as favourites. The wise heads of Philip Lahm and Bastian Shweinsteiger are gone, the old guard has receded into the background but it watches over, with the weight of history beaming through their eyes. This nation isn’t used to suffering and neither is football used to watching its wares spread out like clueless bits of a jigsaw in the garage of footballing hell. It has been overwhelming to see the Rome of football collapse. 2019 will tell us if there is a Maximus that can usher in a quick resurrection.
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