If England supporters had reason to be concerned that their run of not having been knocked out at the opening stages of the World Cup finals since 1958 mind come to an end, then the question of what might be running through the minds of German supporters this evening probably also merits our consideration. Germany last failed to get through the opening round of the World Cup finals in 1938 and, unlike England, they have qualified for every tournament since then. Yet the precariousness of their position has gone curiously unmentioned in the British press. If Germany fail to beat Ghana this evening and Serbia beat Australia, Germany, who had everyone singing their praises after the opening match hiding that they dished out to Australia, will be out in the first round of the World Cup finals.
Ghana, meanwhile, remain as enigmatic as anyone else in this most peculiar of World Cups. A late penalty saw them beat Serbia in their opening match, but their 1-1 draw with Australia surely felt more like two points dropped than one point gained after they played sixty-five minutes against ten men when Harry Kewell was sent off for the penalty that brought them back into the match. They are top of the group going into the final match without having scored a goal from open play, and perhaps is their youthfulness – theirs is the youngest team in the tournament – that is the reason for that. Still, there they are, top of the group and needing only to avoid defeat to get through to the second round of the competition. In other assorted curiousness, Kevin Prince-Boateng of Ghana and Jerome Boateng of Germany play against each other this evening – the first brothers to do so in a World Cup finals match.
Whereas other teams may have been overawed by the occasion and the prize on offer, Germany and Ghana see out a first half that swings from end to end like a rowing boat on choppy waters. One moment, the ball is in the German penalty area, a position in which Ghana do occasionally seem to lose their nerve, passing where the shot is on and making bad positional decisions. At the other, meanwhile, Germany maraud and threaten without often seeming to stretch the Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson. Perhaps the most decisive moment of the first half comes just after the half hour, when Asamoah Gyan’s header is turned off the German line by Phillipp Lahm, the German captain. A couple of television replays confirm that Lahm’s arm was involved, and had the referee seen it it would almost certainly have resulted in a red card for the German captain and a penalty for Ghana. No whistle, however, comes.
Indeed, as the half-time whistle blows, there is something slightly unsatisfactory about it all. The passing is crisp, the positional play is excellent (at times, it looks as if they are playing on the biggest pitch in the history of the game), but there is too little end result. There doesn’t seem to be an enormous amount of urgency on the part of either team, almost as if they are both over-confident that results elsewhere will see them through, but this is surely an optical illusion of some sort. It’s a massively high-risk strategy for both of them, since goals in both games could see either of them eliminated altogether. It has been an almost surreal forty-five minutes of football.
The second half starts in a similar fashion – fifteen minutes of high quality pinball, with few real chances. Neuer shoots straight at Kingson. Germany start to push the Ghanaian defence back. The feeling of one team attacking and one team defending lasts barely two or three minutes, and then… Germany score. Thomas Müller collects the ball and rolls the ball back to Mesut Özil, who crashes the ball past Kingson and into the top right-hand corner. It’s a fabulous strike, though Kingson may have been nominally unsighted, and suddenly the scales have tipped in the opposite direction – it’s now Ghana that are hanging on, dependent upon the result of the other match to ensure their place in the next round of the competition.
Ghana start to look a little rudderless, as the evening takes a turn for the strange. Australia score against Serbia (which suits them) and then score another (which doesn’t) in the other match. With a considerably better goal difference the Australians (against whom they tied), a 1-0 lead for Australia benefits them as it effectively nullifies Serbia’s chances of making the second round of the competition. However, the second Australian goal reduces the goal difference between the two teams to just two goals. If Australia score again and Germany score again, Ghana will be out. Possibly they are aware of this and it is also likely that they are starting to tire, having played the previous seventy-five minutes at such a high velocity. Their passing starts to look a little sloppier, while the Germans, having got the goal that they so desperately needed, are starting to take their feet off the pedal. An attacking substitution indicates that they are aware that they need a goal to generate a little security for themselves, but yet…
With five minutes left to play, the other match swings away from Australia as Serbia pull a goal back. One more Serbian goal will now eliminate Ghana. The German players are now playing as if they are running down the clock, yet they are still attack-minded enough push forward into the Ghanaian penalty area. Around the stadium, however, ears are pressed to radios and mobile phones are gripped ever more tightly as the clock runs down. There is no need to panic, though. Germany are comfortable with what they have and Serbia are unable to find another goal. Germany and Ghana are through to the next round.
We are now guaranteed a semi-final from the group of nations that we may have defined before the start of the tournament – Uruguay, South Korea, United States of America and Ghana. Meanwhile, Germany will play England and the winners of that match may well end up playing Argentina in the quarter-finals. Should Germany have pushed on for the second goal that would have seen them avoid this scenario? Well, possibly, although it is worth pointing out that they will have seen little from England that will strike fear into their hearts ahead of Sunday’s game. This evening, they were attractive to watch and well-organised. They will start the match as favourites to win, but if England can continue the improvement that they demonstrated earlier this afternoon, it’s not beyond them either. Ghana, meanwhile, will play the United States of America – a match that feels too close to call. They will perhaps be concerned at still not having scored from open play, but will fancy their chances against the occasionally porous American defence. Still, a curious and tense evening has ended with the best two teams in this group edging through to the knockout stages.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.