In Doha it was just before 8 p.m. on Wednesday evening when the bus in which the German national soccer players were sitting left the Khalifa Stadium. It was back to the team headquarters, which is around 80 kilometers north of the Qatari metropolis. Hansi Flick was sitting in front on this warm Wednesday evening. It was a bitter return trip for the national coach.
It is quite possible that the 57-year-old will not be able to travel to the capital, where all World Cup games will be played, with his players after the 2-1 draw against Japan in the first preliminary round – in any case, he can still do so in the further group games against Spain on Sunday (8 p.m., ZDF and MagentaTV) and against Costa Rica (December 1), both of which will be played in the coastal town of Al-Khor. But whether it is enough for the knockout round is extremely questionable after the embarrassing start to the World Cup tournament.
A situation that brings back memories of the embarrassing World Cup four years ago in Russia, when the German team lost 1-0 to Mexico. A happy 2-1 draw against Sweden followed, before a 0-2 draw against South Korea sealed the historic preliminary round loss. Now the end is threatening again, this time for the first time after only two games. Midfielder Leon Goretzka said on Wednesday evening that his memories of Russia “have been pushed to the back”. But he also said about the situation after the Japan debacle: “It doesn’t feel good.”
With Hansi Flick, who followed Joachim Löw in July last year and with whom he won the 2014 World Cup title in Brazil, everything should get better – and Qatar should also have a better start to the World Cup. Of course, the debate about the “One Love” captain’s armband overlaid the past few days, but that doesn’t excuse the defeat in the end. On the contrary: things looked good in Doha for a long time on Wednesday. The German team had the opponent under control, as the ball possession rate of 78 percent in the first half shows. The lead from Ilkay Gündogan’s penalty in the 33rd minute was well deserved. Everything seemed to fit.
Schlotterbeck lost the decisive duel
Even the defence, in which Nico Schlotterbeck was surprisingly given preference over the internationally much more experienced Thilo Kehrer, was good. But not the whole game. In the end, Schlotterbeck, who switched from SC Freiburg to BVB in the summer, also played his part in the fact that the Japanese were able to turn the game around with two joker goals: First Ritsu Doan from Freiburg scored (75th), then Takuma from Bochum Asana (83′). Before the last hit, Schlotterbeck lost the decisive duel. “The individual mistakes that we made simply mustn’t happen,” said the disappointed Flick.
But it wasn’t just the defensive performance that caused a lot of discussion after the final whistle – also the lack of chances. Serge Gnabry, Jamal Musiala and Gündogan missed the best opportunities. And Flick made an unfortunate change: Eight minutes after his double substitution, Gündogan and Thomas Müller being substituted, the equalizer came, and another eight minutes later it was 1-2.
The national coach was frustrated. And upset with his defense. He said about Niklas Süle’s behavior before the second goal, which he had set up for the first time as a right-back: “If we hold the line, he’s offside. Niklas just has to be careful. He cancels the offside because he falls two or three steps too far. These are individual mistakes that we have to pay for today.” The defensive line wasn’t good enough that evening.
Gündogan, the captain of Manchester City, then went to court with himself and the team. “The way the goals were conceded was far too easy. Especially the second one – I don’t know if an easier goal has ever been scored at a World Cup,” said the midfielder. With a free kick from their own half, the Japanese had completely outplayed the German team. “That mustn’t happen, we’re at a World Cup,” said Gündogan: “We largely dominated the game. We had incredible opportunities and didn’t score the second goal.”
It was clear words that Gündogan chose after the defeat. Very clear. “We don’t play badly in those positions, but we lack conviction. Holding the ball, moving, offering. You got the feeling that not everyone wanted the ball.”
“We have the quality to beat Spain”
And that at a World Cup? Flick did not leave Gündogan’s statements uncommented. When asked about it, he said: “It’s a statement from Ilkay, he’s welcome to say it. It is important to me that the team draws the right conclusions and takes responsibility.” It was brutally disappointing, added the national coach. “We had a lot of possession and were more than deserved in the lead. Then we had a lot of chances that we didn’t take – Japan clearly beat us in terms of efficiency and therefore scored one more goal,” he said. “We have to do certain things better and are now going into the analysis. We still have the quality to beat Spain.”
Time will tell. As far as Spain is concerned, no good memories are awakened either – in the last meeting so far at the end of 2020 there was the 0-6 debacle in Seville, before that two duels ended 1-1. A draw on Sunday would probably not be enough, a defeat would be the end if Japan didn’t lose to Costa Rica at the same time. After just one World Cup game, Germany already has its back against the wall. “I’m assuming that we need two wins,” said Thomas Müller before the end of Spain’s game against Costa Rica, which the Iberians won 7-0 in the end.
Captain Manuel Neuer was also frustrated. In the goalkeeper’s opinion, the missed chances and insufficient defense were the reasons for the defeat. “It would have been much better with better passes and more confidence. We made the opponent strong. If you don’t make any passports with a statement, at some point you’ll get a return carriage, we brought that on ourselves,” said Neuer on MagentaTV. “I’m frustrated and upset that we gave up the game. Now we have the trouble. We have to do better against Spain and show what potential we have.”
It won’t be easy. Mueller knows that too. “Loss at the start is exactly the opposite of what you need,” he complained. “It’s easy to analyze from a sporting point of view, but hard to grasp emotionally. Now we have an absolute disadvantage. We almost have to win against Spain. We really didn’t want to put this pressure on ourselves.” But now it’s there.