The 2018 World Cup: Du Hattest Eine Aufgabe
Karl Marx, himself a German, said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce, and that seems like as apt a way as any to describe the two goals that torpedoed Germany’s stuttering and ultimately disastrous campaign at the 2018 World Cup finals yesterday afternoon. And the situation was already desperate, when they came. Sweden were home and dry with a win against Mexico. Germany were goalless against a South Korea team that was almost already out of the competition. They’d been surprisingly pallid against Mexico and they left it late against Sweden, and the fourth official had indicated six minutes of stoppage-time in this match, in which they’d reverted back to the mundane type of their opening match.
They were a minute into the extra six minutes when the ball squirted across the Germany penalty area and was poked over the goal line by Kim Young-gwon. The linesman’s flag went up, however, and the goal was disallowed, only for the Video Assistant Referee to step in and confirm that, in squeezing through a forest of legs, it could be seen that Toni Kroos had touched the ball – and likely intentionally, as opposed to an accidental deflection – into Kim’s path. The goal was stood. Germany now needed two, and whilst the first goal was really the knockout blow for this match, the second was added to the mix, as though a sop to the artform that is low comedy, with Manuel Neuer having decided to push himself up into midfield, whereupon he lost possession, allowing South Korea to simply thump the ball up the other end of the pitch for Son Heung-min tap over the line and seal Germany’s humiliation.
We should try to obtain little perspective, here. Germany (or West Germany) haven’t been knocked out of the World Cup at this stage for eighty years. If we discount 1962, when they were both beaten in quarter-finals that kicked off at the same time, and 1966, when they participated for the same of time, this is the first time that England have lasted longer than Germany in a World Cup finals. And it’s doubtful that even the wilder edges of the German press – which can be as savage as the British tabloid press – will scapegoat either Kroos or Neuer. This particular game was up before South Korea’s late intervention and is surely a matter of collective responsibility. All concerned have to pause, take a breath, and try to figure out how and where this failed, and how it can be put right.
Was the problem in the tactical system, which left the central defenders looking ridiculously wide open at times during all three of their matches? Was it the changes after changes made to the team itself, which meant that only three German outfield players started in all three of their group matches? Might it just be a matter of fact that the German method, which was developed a little over a decade ago now, is starting to look a little stale and that teams are starting to learn how to play against it? Could the problem be Jogi Löw, the company man coach who’s been in charge now since 2006? These are all reasonable considerations to take into account, but the likelihood is that the story is more complex still.
As ever, the morning after the night before brings further suggestion as to what the problems might have been within the squad. There has been talk of a division within the squad between the team that won the World Cup in 2014 and the relatively second string team that they took to last year’s Confederations Cup (and won), and that further there was unhappiness amongst other members of the squad over the decision of Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan to meet the divisive Turkish president Erdogan a few weeks before the start. Complacency after an extremely easy ride through the qualifiers, during which they scored forty-three goals in ten matches, has also been cited as having been a cause, with poor results in the friendly matches played since they ended having a disruptive effect on the team’s preparations for the tournament itself.
Yesterday’s result also fits a curious pattern of holders of the World Cup failing to get past the group stages of the following finals. France failed to do so in 2002 after winning it in 1998. The same thing happened to Italy in 2010 after winning it in 2006. And to Spain in 2014. Is there a weight of burden attached to being the holders that has become amplified in recent years? It doesn’t feel as though there is, so maybe it’s no more than a statistical anomaly, and it remains a fact that getting through the group stages of the competition shouldn’t be a huge challenge for a defending champion.
Mexico, meanwhile, were left on tenterhooks by events elsewhere after having almost pulled the mother of all chokes in their match against Sweden. It took until five minutes into the second half for Sweden to take the lead in this match, and by the time the clock ticked over ninety minutes that lead had been extended to three goals. Mexico themselves are a curiosity in international football. They have qualified for every World Cup finals since returning after a ban in 1994, and they have got to the Second Round of the competition every time since then. The events of stoppage-time extended that for another tournament. But they got very, very lucky indeed. Sweden, meanwhile, qualify as the group winners. They were accomplished against Mexico, a considerable improvement of either of their previous two performances, though they may consider themselves a little fortunate to have won the group.
There were no such worries last night for Brazil, of course. Following the struggles that other “established” nations have had, we might have expected them to labour against a Serbian team who’d been perky in their opening match and arguably a little unfortunate against Switzerland in their last match, but they made relatively light work of winning the match and the group, with Paulinho looking particularly sparkling, Philippe Coutinho continuing his apparent mission to become the most understated Player of the Tournament of all-time, and Neymar looking as though he’s starting to adjust to the idea of competitive football again after the crap shoot of Ligue Un and PSG for a season.
Serbia had decent chances but looked as though they snatched at them a little. Brazil, on the other hand, haven’t managed anything spectacular yet but are starting to shift through the gears in a manner that will definitely look ominous to watching competitors. For Serbia, this feels like something of a missed opportunity. Brazil, meanwhile, will be joined in the Second Round by Switzerland, whose two-all draw with Costa Rica felt like a game of little to no consequence, although Costa Rica’s two goals did at least have the please effect of ensuring that each of the thirty-two teams in these finals will returned having at least scored a goal, which is nice, though it’s unlikely to soothe sore German heads this morning.