Germany’s Great Unraveling
Posted June 29, 2018 12:08 a.m. EDT
LONDON — For Germany, all things unravel in Russia.
Germany was slow. Germany was ponderous. Germany was out of ideas — just like its chancellor, Angela Merkel, in the twilight of her leadership. Some people in Berlin are calling this the “horror summer.”
The Mannschaft, so respected at World Cups and beyond for its never-say-die spirit, was timid. Out went the world champions of 2014 before the knockout stage, losing 0-2 to South Korea. This was the first time in 80 years that Germany has fallen in the first round.
“The biggest disgrace in German World Cup history,” the mass-market Bild newspaper proclaimed. It is hard to argue with that verdict. Joachim Löw, the dark-shirted coach who had signed a new four-year-contract in May, looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
He’d blown it, leaving Manchester City’s explosive young winger, Leroy Sane, out of the squad at the last minute, fielding an aging team, changing his selections for the three matches in an unsettling way, opting for Manuel Neuer — hero of 2014 — as goalkeeper although he’d been injured all season. Mesut Özil, the moody left-footed genius of the German midfield, was not alone in going on walkabout. Germany was spent.
That Neuer was way up the pitch, trying in desperation to conjure something, when South Korea rolled the ball into an empty net for its second goal summed up the German humiliation. Four years ago in Brazil, this team was “Weltmeister” — masters of the world. Its 7-1 execution of the Brazilian team in the semifinal was almost painful to watch in its terrible perfection.
That was the first World Cup victory of a reunified Germany (West Germany won three previous times). It was the triumph of a buoyant nation whose 20th-century anguish had been overcome.
Soccer has been a big part of the German national story over the past two decades. It was during the 2006 World Cup, played in Germany, that German patriotism — exuberant displays of the flag, expressions of national pride — became acceptable for the first time since 1945.
There was a fabulous spirit across the country. German flags doubled as sarongs. Angst, not a German word for nothing, evaporated. Italy’s 2-0 defeat of Germany in the semifinal, played in the caldron of the Dortmund stadium, was one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen. Even in defeat, then, there was pride.
All this was extraordinary to witness. When I lived in Berlin between 1998 and 2001, a debate still raged about whether any German could ever express “pride” about the nation of Auschwitz. By 2006, that discussion had been laid to rest.
And now? It’s not a good German moment. Merkel’s coalition is teetering on the brink of collapse in a dispute over immigration policy. The Volkswagen emissions furor is the scandal that keeps on giving. The European Union, Germany’s path to postwar salvation, is in crisis.
“This evening, we are all very sad,” Merkel said after the defeat. Well, yes.
From the start, things went wrong. Löw wanted to train in Sochi, but the German Football Association said it could not afford to build a facility there. There were tensions in the squad. Özil and his teammate Ilkay Gundogan, both Germans of Turkish descent, chose to pose for photographs with the autocratic Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prompting a political row.
The team looked sluggish and predictable in friendly matches leading up to the tournament. Löw insisted all would be well once things got serious. In fact, the Mannschaft just got worse.
The team lost 0-1 to Mexico in its opener, snatched a last-minute winner against Sweden through a beautiful set-piece goal from the midfielder Toni Kroos in the second match, only to collapse against South Korea. Even its one victory was clouded by appalling behavior from two senior team officials, Georg Behlau and Ulrich Voigt, who made obscene gestures toward Swedish players after the game. They were barred from the touchline for the last match.
Only Kroos, the engine room of Real Madrid when he’s not playing for his country, can look back on this humiliation without shame. He showed determination and belief, always the hallmarks of German sides, until now.
Italians say of the Mannschaft that they never give up, “not even when they’re dead.” Here, they never even engaged. Löw’s boys went sleepwalking out of Russia.
They leave a wide-open World Cup. Croatia, Uruguay, Belgium, Brazil and France all look menacing. Colombia is rising. Ronaldo’s Portugal lurks. If France beats Argentina on Saturday as the knockout rounds begins, I fancy their chances.
One thing is certain. Every team still in the competition will be relieved to see the Mannschaft go home. For Germany, the retreat from Moscow will be long and painful — but they will be back.
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