The result was unexpected, but the pain felt familiar. As Germany digested a shocking 2-1 defeat to Japan on Wednesday, many fans and commentators thought back to the opening match of the World Cup four years ago, when the reigning world champions lost their first match against Mexico. “It looks like Russia has rebooted,” one fan told ARD television as he left the stadium.
Now, as then, there were those who blamed off-pitch events for messing with German players’ heads. In 2018, a controversy erupted over two Turkish national team players, Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan, who posed for pictures with strong Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of the tournament.
This time around, it was the furor around FIFA’s threat to sanction the OneLove captaincy that the German FA had waived, but its players commented by covering their mouths in a team photo before kick-off.
“There was too much drama in preparation, too many issues that were more important than football, just like four years ago,” international record holder Lothar Matthäus, who has never been ashamed of his opinion, told the Bild tabloid. “Things like that get in the way of your concentration, distracting – and thus you may be missing an important five or ten percent.”
The sobering result was picked up by those observers who found the World Cup debate to be dominated by moralizing postures. “The defeat of Germany against the average opponent was like a cold shower for the German complacency that has seeped through every pore of our media in recent weeks,” wrote the conservative newspaper Die Welt.
Berlin tabloid BZ ran the same thing on its front page, with players covering their mouths in one image, and a group of fans closing their eyes in the next: “You go… we go…” read.
On German television, former international Thomas Hitzlperger was not convinced. He said it was “too easy” to blame the off-field debate. “They are [the players] didn’t include him in the match, they played too well for that in the first 60 minutes.”
Much of the sports criticism has focused on Germany coach Hansi Flick, who has won three of the last 10 matches during his tenure and whose substitutions – or lack thereof – have puzzled some commentators.
“Flick first removed the pre-eminent Ilkay Gundogan, and then replaced the young genius Jamal Musiala,” writes Der Spiegel. “And any minute the flow, the goal, the certainty are gone. It’s easy to say that the coach drove himself to defeat, but in this case it’s true.”
If there was any cautious hope for this German side’s prospects, it was because two years ago, under the spell of Flick at Bayern Munich, their backbone showed they could beat the best players in Europe and win the Champions League. More puzzling to some commentators was the manager’s starting line-up, which included the relatively inexperienced Nico Schlotterbeck in central defence, and left Bayern midfielder Leon Goretzka on the bench.
Die Zeit recalled Germany at their home World Cup in 2006, “a combination of promising future stars and the B team”. “Meanwhile, the Champions League winners are left to watch from the bench,” the flyer said, asking why Flick shuffled his attack but settled on a defense that started to look bad in the first half. “You can call it an experiment. Or just by accident.”
Germany’s lack of responses on the pitch was seen by some as oddly reflective of its half-hearted political gestures off the pitch. “The Germans could have signaled, but they would have had to risk something to do so,” said the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who was not convinced by the team’s pre-match announcement. “His helpless gesture only shows that they politely keep their mouths shut when it really matters.
“Another German self-delusion was their belief that they were back to world class,” the paper added wryly.