The World Cup’s latest demolition derby of emotional turbulence ended with Japanese elation, Spanish relief, Costa Rican wonder at what might have been, and a German soccer nation limping painfully into introspective despair.

The inquest – for the third time in four-and-a-half years – began immediately. German public broadcaster ARD brutally interrogated an exhausted Hansi Flick within minutes of the final whistle. Moments later, team director Oliver Bierhoff got the same treatment. What went wrong? What would you do differently? Are the players good enough? Are you the right man for the job?

The pain is more bitter for the hopes raised by the battle with Spain.

Costa Rica-Germany rollercoaster ride

For neutrals, the entertainment was incomparable. Elite sportsmen, pushed to their limits on the highest stage, in the most tense circumstances: how do top athletes respond psychologically to simultaneous events from another stadium? Changes that alter live risk-reward calculations in their own game? Ask Spain. They were losing at 50 mins, but still progressing; being knocked out twenty mins later with the same scoreline; and qualifying again just moments later, their own game still unchanged.

And the game was sprinkled with the irrational, first-will-be-last justice that only soccer provides. When Costa Rica led Germany 2–1 on 70 mins, they were set to progress at Spain’s expense – the team who beat them 7–0 in their opening game. To get the measure of the whole group, swallow the fact that in the history of World Cup statistics, only two teams have ever lost when attempting over 700 passes in a game: Japan vs Germany a few days ago; and Japan vs Spain tonight. 

Then there was Japan’s controversial winner: apparently the full “curvature of the ball” did not cross the line. But this will barely be a footnote for Germany.

Performance culture

A few days ago, Germany wrestled a very talented Spain team to a deserved draw. Today they scored four goals and won. They dictated the rhythm against each opponent in the group. Jamal Musiala hit the post twice and Germany could have scored multiple times. Is it really that bad?

Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, 2014 World Cup winners, were not shy with suggestions in the immediate post-game comments. Elite mentality, and elite footballing skill, are simply lacking. Schweinsteiger named Toni Rudiger as Germany’s only truly top-level defender after highlighting David Raum’s error in the lead-up to Costa Rica’s equalizer. 

At the end of a dominant first half in which Costa Rica seemed in damage-limitation mode, comical defending from first Raum, then Rudiger, and then Niklas Süle nearly turned the tide. Germany did not heed the warning. Costa Rica found their batteries, Joel Campbell’s hold-up play made him look like Didier Drogba, and suddenly they had purpose and intent on the break. The game exploded and Germany could not get a grip.

The post-game discussion went further in pinpointing the nub of Germany’s failure. Despite the possession statistics, and despite the Champions League experience and footballing quality of the team’s Bayern stars, the national team lacked a real leader to control the game in key moments. 

Germany should have buried the Japan and Costa Rica games before half time. But they let their opponents back in, lost control of their own shape and approach-play at the games’ tipping points, and lacked the mental dexterity to recover. 

Who will be Germany’s on-pitch leader when they host the European Championships in two years’ time? Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, and İlkay Gündoğan will surely move on. Can Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, often willingly outspoken, control a world-class football match? Will Jamal Musiala – the one bright spark of Germany’s tournament – possess the finishing touches to bury teams he only teased in Qatar? And what about the big hole in the team, the center forward?

Seeking deeper meaning

After Flick was challenged on his use of Müller ahead of Niclas Füllkrug, Bierhoff had to answer the deeper structural questions: Why doesn’t Germany have a world-class centre-forward? Are they failing to develop players? Is this a generational problem? Interestingly, not all the players were said to be on board with the One Love protest before the Japan game. Did this negate their mental composure? 

Germany “should” have done more. But perhaps all the soul-searching will have to conclude that sometimes that is just football. This World Cup has been wonderfully full of upsets. While some of global soccer’s established powers have stumbled but then found their feet, others have barely shown up. Perhaps this tournament represents a shift in the balance of global power?

When Morocco topped a group that included the last World Cup’s runners up Croatia and third-placed Belgium – whose golden generation can meet Germany at the airport – it was another sign of Qatar’s level playing field. Whereas none of Africa’s five representatives at Russia 2018 passed the group stage, Morocco and Senegal are already through this year, Ghana are in a great position to progress, and Tunisia were unlucky not to while beating the reigning champions France. 

Japan’s progression at Germany’s expense maybe devastating in Berlin, but for a more competitive and entertaining global game, it was gold.

Photo credit: IMAGO / Moritz Müller

Guide to World Cup 2022

Here are some resources to help you get the most out of the biggest event in soccer!
TV Schedule: All the info on where and when to watch every game
The Groups: We breakdown each group and all the teams
The Kits: Check out what every team will be wearing on the field this fall
Predictor: Play out every scenario with our World Cup Predictor
World Cup Bracket: Map out the entire tournament, from the groups to the final