The champions curse. It has been a real fear among World Cup winners since it first struck in 2002, when France, the holders, crashed out in the group stage at the historic World Cup joint-hosted by South Korea and Japan. Although five-time champions Brazil avoided the same humiliation in 2006, fellow serial title winners Italy were disgraced in 2010 in South Africa, followed by Spain in 2014 – exactly four years after La Furia Roja won it on African soil and two years after they won their second European Championships in Poland to make it a treble of footballing prizes — Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012.
So when this summer’s tournament rolled around, there was concerns as to whether Germany could avoid the same feat. At the same time, there was the feeling that die Mannschaft would be immune – after all, although Brazil could not retain their title in 2006, the Selecao were not eliminated in the group stage like France, Spain and Italy, and these things just don’t happen to Germany. Although no team had won back-to-back titles since Brazil in 1962, Germany’s quartet was pretty manageable, with perhaps Mexico presenting the toughest opponent – and El Tri had long struggled to beat the four-time World Cup winners at prior tournaments.
Another tournament heavyweight, Italy, did not even qualify after shockingly losing a two-legged play-off against Sweden. Meanwhile, Spain were struggling to regain legitimacy after their embarrassing exit in Brazil four years ago, whilst Brazil themselves were hoping to avoid another meltdown after the infamous 7-1 hiding they suffered at the hands of Germany in the semi-finals. But it was not to be. Mexico, for the first time in their history, beat Germany at a World Cup. And although Germany managed to see off a staunchly defensive and stubborn Sweden, the reigning champions were rattled to the core, so much so that they offered little resistance against an already-eliminated South Korea. The Koreans were absolutely brilliant as they pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournament – perhaps only bettered by Russia’s defeat of Spain, or Croatia’s 3-0 trouncing of Argentina – to send Joachim Low’s men packing and make it three straight tournaments in which the reigning champions failed to clear the group stage.
A big part of Germany’s team also happens to play for Bayern Munich, meaning that when the Bundesliga season started, the wounds from the disaster in Russia was still raw. Jerome Boateng was heavily slated for his insipid showings in defence, whilst Thomas Muller’s woes up front were glaringly obvious for all to see. Manuel Neuer, meanwhile, was largely spared criticism although he was a shell of his former self against South Korea, with his decision to try to come out of goal to assist in Germany’s attack being punished brutally by the Taegeuk Warriors for one of their goals. However, it seems to have had little impact. And really that is no surprise. Bayern have turned the Bundesliga into a one-horse race since 2013, and they are expected to win the League title once again. Of course, they will have some bumps along the way, as no German team has ever completed a League campaign sans defeat and they could face challenges from Borussia Dortmund, who will again try to valiantly overthrow them, and maybe another surprise package along the way.
That being said, Muller has yet to really hit the ground running and get his shooting boots on. As for Neuer, he has seemingly regained his confidence as he aims to solidify his position as the No. 1 man between the posts – and Bayern will be heavily reliant on him as they hope to make inroads in not just the Bundesliga but of course, in the Champions League.
But looking outside the Allianz Arena, Germany’s 23-man squad from the failed Russia campaign have had mixed fortunes. Another striker, RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner has not taken off, either, and has had a slow start for die Bullen after a very disappointing World Cup this past summer that was supposed to be his breakout tournament, and possibly earn him a potential move to an even bigger club. By contrast, though, Marco Reus, who made a return to the international front after failing to make an appearance since Euro 2012, has seemingly shaken off his injury woes and has begun his campaign with Dortmund off brightly.
Repaying the faith Low showed in him after giving him a call up for the 2018 World Cup, Reus was not able to prevent Germany from bowing out early, but put in a Man of the Match performance during the 2-1 win over Sweden, scoring the equalizing goal and assisting the game winner for Toni Kroos. So far he has resumed in top form with Borussia Dortmund as the team’s skipper and given the potential he has shown over the years since bursting onto the scene a decade ago, both fans of the national team and die Schwarzgelben supporters will obviously hope he can stay fit – especially as he approaches the wrong side of 30 next May.
Hertha Berlin is one team who have really impressed in the opening months of the season and notably, Die Alte Dame have been the first team to beat Bayern Munich in League play. Of the 23-man squad Low opted to take to Russia, only Marvin Plattenhardt plies his trade with the capital-based outfit and at that time, he had just six caps to his name. Although he did not really get much of a chance to show what he could offer, he will hope that a strong season will help keep him in contention as Germany look forward to the inaugural Nations League and more importantly, Euro 2020.
The shocking failure in Russia doesn’t appear to have hit the Bundesliga too hard. Some players have struggled, such as Werner and Muller, but on the whole, it’s back to business in Germany’s top flight.
Uniting the factions
Germany weren’t the cohesive squad they needed to be in Russia, and those divisions played out on the pitch, Michelle Osei Bonsu writes.
One thing that seemed to become clear at the 2018 World Cup is that not everyone in the Germany set-up was pulling in the same direction, and it’s not just club rivalries that were the issue.
There’s a cohort largely comprised of Bayern Munich players who, regardless of where they originally hail from, take a very Bavarian approach, frowning upon flashiness. The outspoken, and under-fire, Jerome Boateng, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule among this group.
Then there are those who are happier to live their lives in public of which Mesut Ozil was one — and he found himself at the centre of a controversy and having to defend his patriotism after he posed for a photograph with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ozil was not alone in the image — he was joined by Ilkay Gundogan — but he came in for the most criticism after he was seen with Erdogan, who has been accused of dictatorial practices and the suppression of dissent in Turkey. Ozil, born in Gelsenkirchen but a third generation Turkish-German, retired from international football as a result of the furore, after what he claimed were ‘racist attitudes’ and an ‘overwhelming lack of support’ from higher-ups at the German Football Association [DFB].
Joachim Low reportedly travelled to London to convince Ozil to return to the fold but it was to no avail, and Germany will compete in the Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifying without one of their brightest attacking midfielders.
Germany’s World Cup exit underscored the need for everyone in the squad to be content and comfortable around their teammates, regardless of club affiliation or anything else that is happening outside the training camp. After all, they play under the German flag, and that’s all that should matter.
Joachim Low has been Germany Coach since 2006 but can’t go on forever. Michelle Osei Bonsuconsiders the candidates to succeed him from the Bundesliga.
Hoffenheim’s Julian Naglesmann was touted as a potential option as a replacement for Joachim Low by some or even for a spot in the Bayern bench but his side have stuttered in the opening months of the Bundesliga. Still, the man who at one point was the youngest Coach in the German top flight certainly has plenty of room to grow as he aims to steer his side through multiple fronts – including the Champions League group stages – and try to secure a top four finish again.
Meanwhile, Lucien Favre’s Borussia Dortmund are hoping to again usurp Bayern Munich, with Marco Reus as skipper. The 60-year-old Swiss is at the opposite end of the experience spectrum to the prodigal Naglesmann but has extensive experience in German football, and a style of play that would be embraced. He has a contract until 2020 with Dortmund, and a successful spell there could make him a prime contender.
Over at Bayern, Niko Kovac is tasked with maintaining a legacy of success, much like whoever takes the reins from Low would be. The strong core of Bayern players in the Germany set-up — something likely to continue given Bayern’s dominance — could be in his favour when the time comes.
Low was, though, promoted from within, having been part of Jurgen Klinsmann’s backroom team, and how Low’s time ends — with a bang or with a whimper — will do much to determine the profile of successor the DFB target.