MOSCOW, June 27, 2018 – When Germany and Brazil played on the same day at the last World Cup finals the outcome demonstrated the agony and ecstasy of sport. Germany won their semi-final 7-1. Glory for them, devastation for Brazil.
This time around, in Russia, the devastation was German. Brazil defeated Serbia 2-0 in Moscow Spartak to progress to the knockout stage from one group a matter of hours after Germany, the holders, four-times champions, crashed out.
Losing 2-0 to South Korea in Kazan was not merely a defeat for Germany – any team, on any day, can lose – but a reminder of the fragility of the theories about achievement which coaches, sports writers and other assorted experts create to suit the fleeting facts.
The 2014 World Cup winners were dispatched in embarrassing fashion. Not only did they lose their last match in Group F but they finished bottom of the table. In 16 previous World Cups this had never happened.
Germany were poor throughout not merely the match in Kazan, self-styled sporting capital of modern Russia, but the entire tournament. They had displayed little by way of cohesion and penetration. Indeed, it was only in those desperate last minutes of last week’s last-gasp victory over Sweden that they had even shown the expected desire or commitment.
In the closing stages they were narrowly off target with a string of efforts. The fact that these were mainly headers – notably from veteran substitute Mario Gomez and central defender Mats Hummels – illustrated the hit-and-hope desperation to which they had been reduced.
They were put out of their misery by two breakaway goals from Kim Young-gwon, with the help of the video referee in the final minute of normal time, and then by Son Heung-min.
The Tottenham player ran away on his own with German goalkeeper-captain Manuel Neuer stranded in the Mexican half, lost and far from home, which somehow summed up Germany’s campaign.
Thus, despite having won the warm-up Confederations Cup in Russia a year ago in promising style, they succumbed to the World Cup holders’ jinx. The group stage had proved the endgame also for France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014.
Coach Joachim Low has an ongoing contract but it is inevitable that questions will be raised back home about whether the team has become stale under his management and a fresh approach is needed.
Sweden finished topped of the group after showing they can, after all, attack effectively. Second-half goals from Ludwig Augustinsson (his first for his country), captain Andreas Granqvist (penalty) and Edson Alvarez (own goal) edged Mexico into second place.
The Swedes now travel to St Petersburg for Tuesday’s second round against a Switzerland side who were held 2-2 by already-eliminated Costa Rica in the day’s earlier Group F tie.
That left Mexico to head for Samara on Monday to confront a steadily improved Brazil. The record five-times champions owed victory over the Serbs to goals from Paulinho and Thiago Silva and appear the most complete team on view thus far.
Brazil have shown more attacking creativity than anyone else with playmaker Philipp Coutinho outstanding – never mind the pace of Gabriel Jesus and particular talents of Neymar. But they also shut down space effectively in midfield and, as Serbia found, are tightly organised in defence.
And they could not say that four years ago.