Even the careers of World Cup winning managers are likely to end in failure. Perhaps that was a consoling thought for Joachim Loew as the darkness of Germany’s 2-0 defeat to South Korea descended in Kazan.
The alchemy required to be world champions cannot stretch over four years. The last team to repeat their success were Brazil in 1962, and they did so after having to find a replacement for an injured Pele in Amarildo. Too often since then, defending champions have tried the same formula as before.
And since the turn of the millennium, all but one holder has folded in the group stage. Back in 2002, France captain Marcel Desailly booked his family’s arrival to Japan and Korea to coincide with the quarter-finals. He was headed home ten days before they kicked off.
In 2010, at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, Marcello Lippi paid the price for attempting to defend Italy’s title with the players who had been hardened veterans even four years before. “I take full responsibility,” he said after losing 3-2 to Slovakia confirmed the Azzurri’s shame. “If I was part of the success in 2006, I have to take the blame for this failure.”
Those were words echoed by Loew in the aftermath of Wednesday’s historic exit, his nation’s first ever from the group stage of a World Cup. “We didn’t deserve to win the title again, we didn’t deserve to make the last 16,” he admitted.
Eight years ago, out of desperation, Lippi played Andrea Pirlo, his damaged thigh muscle strapped up, and the maestro could not rescue matters. There were echoes of that in Loew’s decision to plump for Manuel Neuer, despite his goalkeeper having not played for Bayern Munich since injuring a foot in September.
As Son Heung-min scored the Koreans’ second, Neuer was marooned upfield, the conceit of his desire to be more than a keeper exposed. A goalkeeper going up for a corner is a common enough sight in football, though not one favoured by all managers, but the sight of him acting as an auxiliary playmaker will always jar, especially when it proves so costly.
Neuer ended up joining the too-clever-by-half goalkeeping school of shame that Colombia’s Rene Higuita formed in 1990 when being caught out playing silly buggers by Roger Milla. And Neuer’s shaky shot-stopping, so imperious in 2014, had not justified his selection when Marc-André ter Stegen, Barcelona’s keeper, who has a similar style of play as a “sweeper-keeper”, was an outstanding reserve.
Loew won last year’s Confederations Cup with a young squad that was testament to the quality of talent the Bundesliga churns out, yet stuck faithfully to those who had brought him success in Brazil. After 10 strikes spread over 2010 and 2014, Thomas Muller had looked dead set on beating Miroslav Klose’s all-time finals record of 16 goals, but was blunted in Russia and Loew knew it, benching the Bayern forward for Kazan only to chuck him on as ignominy loomed. Sami Khedira, meanwhile, creaked in midfield. Even Toni Kroos, aside from that late winner against Sweden, a match which in retrospect foretold the doom, struggled for rhythm.
That Mario Gomez was first reserve as striker suggested a key problem within Loew’s squad. Germany now produces playmakers like Marco Reus, Mesut Ozil and Julian Draxler as a matter of course, but the days of Klose, Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voeller, centre forwards of power and poise, is long gone. Timo Werner, who started all three group matches, is nothing like in the class of such forebears, along with a number of disappointments from the new breed, including the much heralded Joshua Kimmich at full-back and Leon Goretzka in midfield.
And it was not just Klose that Loew was lacking. Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger were the spiritual core of victory in Brazil four years ago, both running themselves into the ground for the cause, while Mario Goetze, who scored the final’s winning goal against Argentina, has been lost to injury, illness and an ill-fated move to Bayern.
Having his hand forced by the passing of time appeared to paralyse Loew’s willingness to make too many further alterations. And in turn the German Football Association held much the same attitude to their coach of 12 years.
In May they extended his contract until 2022.
The reformation of German football that followed a similar nationalmannschaft disaster at Euro 2000 bore fruit in Brazil, but somewhere along the line complacency crept in. It is part of the planning process that Germany have their accommodation booked for the final way ahead of the tournament but “Das Reboot” became “das rebook” as plans for an exit from Russia had to be hastily redrawn and cancellation fees assumed.
Kazan was a sore defeat for such presumptive hubris, a reminder that embarrassment and disaster will inevitably succeed triumph at the World Cup.