It was a “winter nightmare” (Süddeutsche Zeitung), an “enormous embarrassment” (Bild), a “new low point” that revealed the four-times world champions to have shrunken into a “football dwarf” (Spiegel). The morning after the Nationalmannschaft crashed out of the World Cup at the group stage for the second tournament in a row, German front pages made for blunt reading.
On paper, Germany’s exit was a marginal affair. A 20-minute loss of shape and focus in the opener against Japan, leading to two goals conceded within eight minutes. A ball that had stayed on the pitch by millimetres before Japan scored their winner in a 2-1 win against Spain that rendered Germany’s result against Costa Rica meaningless. If Dani Olmo had equalised for Spain in the dying minutes of the parallel game, Germany would have gone through.
But that was not how the match has been digested in Germany the day after. Whether the ball had crossed the line in the Japan-Spain match was barely discussed in the TV postmortem and a secondary concern for most newspapers.
Instead, the time had come for soul-searching questions about the philosophy of the German football since its World Cup win in 2014, or the lack of one.
In the TV studio, Bastian Schweinsteiger said that the German players didn’t seem to have the same “burning” desire for success as others, explicitly naming Costa Rica but seeming to imply his own heroics at the Maracanã. The DFB, Germany’s football association, needed to train and produce more Führungsspieler or “leadership players”, he added.
The coach, Hansi Flick, impatiently shrugged off Schweinsteiger’s suggestions but conceded that old certainties once attached to German football had evaporated into thin air. “We didn’t have efficiency in this tournament,” he said.
Newspapers were less willing to reach for national mythologies. “This had nothing to do with bad luck or incompetence, lack of concentration or not craving success,” wrote Die Welt. “A 7-0, which would have guaranteed progress to the knockout stages, would have been possible.
“What remains is an embarrassing World Cup exit from a group containing Japan and Costa Rica. The German national team has once again fallen far short of its own aspirations, it has arrived in grey mediocrity.”
Süddeutsche Zeitung agreed: “Couldn’t we, maybe shouldn’t we, have gone for an 8-0,” the broadsheet asked. “That result would have sufficed and after the opener there were chances aplenty.”
Flick and the national team director, Oliver Bierhoff, were the central target of criticism, and calls for a fresh start before the 2024 Euros in Germany are likely to grow more vocal in the coming weeks and months.
“Flick’s most basic shortfall,” wrote Die Zeit, was that he didn’t seem to know which players he really trusted in. By substituting Ilkay Gündogan, “he incomprehensibly took off one of his best, and certainly the most intelligent player for the third time in three matches.
“That way the coach practically obstructs the team in the process of developing hierarchies and responsibilities.”