Germany finished bottom of Group F, under Sweden, Mexico and South Korea, with a negative two goal difference. Said without context that line would sound like the beginning of a dystopian sci-fi-football novel, where the world has fallen into disrepair, and the economic powerhouse of the European Union has crumbled and a new-world order of once-minor players is now ruling world politics. But this isn’t the year 2071. Germany lost 2-0 to South Korea on Wednesday in Kazan, in one of the most abject showing of international football the world has seen.
The opposite of sincerity isn’t apathy — apathy is merely the lack of it. Defending champions Germany played with the quiet complacency and disregard that would turn perfectly fresh milk sour. The crushing bleakness of the day was worn on the face of German youngster Timo Werner. But the look on the faces of Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil and the likes told a different story. To those in attendance, it painfully resembled watching a lumberjack cutting off the branch he’s sitting on.
In the build-up to the match, a team containing four multiple Bundesliga and Champions League winners was expected to waltz in and score the two required goals that would put it comfortably in the Round of 16. But what happened was South Korea, already eliminated in the competition, were the only team who played like it mattered. Even at the 94th minute, the world expected Germany to sneak in despite South Korea’s best efforts, simply based on the fact that they were Germany. A look at the highlights and one wonders if the German players fooled themselves into believing that too.
On the day Germany had 26 shots on goal, with only six on target and South Korean ’keeper Jo Hyeon-Woo was made to look like Lev Yashin, rebuffing waves after waves of half-hearted German attack. In the course of the game, the German team showed all the careful planning of a school-kid who put off working on his assignment all week long before it suddenly occurred to him it was perhaps a little too late.
Germany with Joachim Low have at least reached the semi-finals of all the major international competitions they have participated in. Even before Low, in the narrative of the World Cup, serial-contenders Germany have garnered for themselves the reputation of the Big Bad Wolf. It is around them that World Cup fairytales come to die; to impart a hard-hitting moral to the story. Most famously in World Cup final of 1974, traditional wet blankets Germany doused the philosophy of Total Football: A Johan Cruyff-led Netherlands’ World Cup win would have cemented the legacy of how beautiful football could win hearts as well as championships for centuries. But it wasn’t to be, and the romanticism in football was wounded and never the same again.
Against Sweden, Germany rode on the luck of the Big Bad Wolf, who in the uncensored version of the original Grimm Tales, always had its share of the spoils. On this occasion, the German team huffed and puffed but couldn’t bring South Korea’s straw house down. And as a result, they have somehow contrived to make sorry examples of themselves, of what happens when the rot and rust of complacency creep in the walls and the gears of an erstwhile well-oiled machine.
While this result may surprise you, it wouldn’t surprise Low. The signs were there against Mexico. Germany allowed themselves to be hit on the counter-attack with such ease that it’d have made you wonder if these group of players arrived in their respective cars for a Sunday kickabout in the park, only to find out that the venue was changed to the Luzhniki Stadium. The lethargy in the legs was apparent to the extent that it was embarrassing. Seeing Germany play against South Korea, in stretches, seemed like watching Looney Tunes re-runs of Wile E Coyote trying to trap Roadrunner in one of its diabolical, well-thought-out plans, but failing stupendously, repeatedly.
Both of South Korea’s goals were borderline cartoonish to concede. For the second goal, a supremely self-assured Neuer, playing auxiliary striker/midfielder, left his net open for a long punt and tap in from Tottenham star, Son Heung-Min. While for the first goal, the German team allowed the South Korea’s Kim Young-Gwon to stab home from a corner.
Low is a man of method, no doubt, but leaving the likes of Leroy Sane out of the squad, and not making wholesale changes to the team that lost against Mexico, was no meagre miscalculation. His blind faith in established names was a repeat of the 2012 European Championship faux pas, where he fielded a less-than-fit spine of Sami Khedira, Neuer, Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm.
German press will not hold back. A culture of critical-thinking, of Godel, Escher and Bach, will pin this result to a wooden board and dissect it until its dignity resembles that of a dead frog. There’s little doubt that some of these papers will commit the ultimate insult by comparing the national team’s incompetency to England teams of yore: one that was rife with super-egos, a lack of respect for the occasion, and misplaced priorities. And so it should.
Germany had the sixth youngest squad in the World Cup. These problems run deeper and its dynamics more complicated than what the shiny exterior of the German national team would admit to. Like the last time Germany were humbled, these issues won’t be addressed by repurposing more budget into the youth system. But trust Germany, of all countries, to ask themselves the hard questions and get to the bottom of a debacle, any debacle.