The result was surprising, but the pain felt familiar. As Germany digested Wednesday’s shock 2-1 defeat at the hands of Japan, many fans and commentators were reminded of the country’s World Cup opening match four years ago, when the incumbent World Champions lost their opening match against Mexico. “It looks a lot like Russia reloaded,” one supporter told broadcaster ARD as he exited the stadium.
Now, as then, there were those who blamed events off the pitch for messing with the German players’ heads. In 2018, it was the controversy around the two internationals of Turkish ancestry, Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan, who had their picture taken with Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the run-up to the tournament.
This time, it was the furore around Fifa’s threat to sanction the OneLove captain’s armband, which the German football association had backed down over but its players commented on with by covering their mouths in the team photo before kick-off.
“There was too much drama in the build-up, too many issues that were more important than football, much like four years ago,” the never opinion-shy record international Lothar Matthäus told the tabloid Bild. “That sort of thing disturbs your concentration, it distracts – and thus means you may lack the crucial five or 10 per cent.”
The sobering result was lapped up by those columnists who had found the debate around the World Cup to be dominated by moralising postures. “The German defeat against an average opponent felt like a cold shower for the kind of German smugness that has been dripping from our media’s every pore in recent weeks,” wrote the conservative broadsheet Die Welt.
The Berlin tabloid BZ bundled the same sentiment into its front page, with one image showing the players covering the mouths and the next a group of fans covering their eyes: “You go … we go …,” it read.
On German television, the former international Thomas Hitzlsperger was not convinced. Blaming debates off the pitch was “too easy” he said. “They [the players] didn’t take it into the match, they played too well for that in the first 60 minutes.”
Most of the sport-focused criticism concentrated on Germany’s coach, Hansi Flick, who has won three of the past 10 matches under his tenure, and whose substitutions – or lack of – puzzled several commentators.
“Flick first took off the until then outstanding Ilkay Gündogan, then he replaced the young genius Jamal Musiala,” wrote Der Spiegel. “And from one minute to the next the flow, the purpose, the confidence was gone. It’s easy to say that the coach brought on his own defeat, but in this case it’s true.”
If there had been some cautious hope in the prospects of this German side, it was because its spine had shown under Flick’s spell at Bayern Munich two years ago that it could beat Europe’s best to win the Champions League. Even more puzzled were some commentators by the manager’s starting line-up, which included the relatively inexperienced Nico Schlotterbeck at central defence and left Bayern’s midfield motor Leon Goretzka on the bench.
Die Zeit was reminded of Germany at its home World Cup in 2006, “a mix of prospective future stars and a B-team”. “Meanwhile, Champions League winners were left looking on from the bench,” said the broadsheet, which questioned why Flick reshuffled his attack but stuck to a defence that had started to look ill-fated in the first half. “You can call that experimental. Or just haphazard.”
Some felt Germany’s lack of answers on the field was oddly reflective of its half-hearted political gestures off the pitch. “The Germans could have set a sign – but they would have had to risk something for it,” said Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which was not convinced by the team’s statement before kick-off. “Its helpless gesture only shows that they politely keep their mouths shut when it really matters.
“Their belief that they were back to world class was the Germans’ other self-deception,” the newspaper added, wryly.