South Korea today, Wednesday, edged out by 2-0 from the ongoing World Cup tournament, German, which is the current defending champion.
Nothing captures the implausibility more than one simple fact: Germany, the defending champion, took its earliest exit from the tournament since 1938, when only 15 teams participated.
Germany, perceived as a dynamic soccer machine that rarely sputters, broke down in an inglorious way, losing, 2-0, to South Korea and leaving Russia about three weeks before anyone expected it to.
Toni Kroos, Germany’s star midfielder, looked stunned, nonetheless: standing all but motionless just outside the center circle and staring into space with a hand on each hip as South Korean players celebrated one of the bigger upsets in this tournament’s 88-year history.
On Saturday, Kroos had given Germany, the defending champion, what looked like a reprieve, with his curving marvel of a free kick to beat Sweden at the last minute.
Germany always finds a way, said those in the know as Kroos’s shot curled into the Swedish net as if guided by GPS. But that rush of pure adrenaline turned out to be a false dawn instead of the cathartic boost this talented but ultimately ineffectual team required.
With stars like Kroos, Mesut Özil and Mats Hummels, Germany won every match in qualifying for this World Cup, the first German team to do so. But it could not even make it out of the group phase in Russia.
It failed to score in its 1-0 upset loss to Mexico and failed to score again in its 2-0 defeat to South Korea.
It appeared the Germans would need just one goal in the closing minutes on Wednesday to win and secure their place in the round of 16. Instead, they surrendered two goals in added time, to Kim Young-gwon and Son Heung-min, and lost.
Instead, Sweden and Mexico were the teams to qualify for the knockout phase from Group F. With Sweden defeating Mexico 3-0, in Yekaterinburg, each finished with six points to Germany and South Korea’s three.
There seems to be a World Cup curse at work. Since the 1998 edition, the defending champion has been eliminated in the group phase on four occasions: France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and now Germany.
But this team’s early exit was still an undeniable shock, and Joachim Löw, the German coach since 2006, used that same word — “schock,” in his own language — to describe the experience on Wednesday.
“The disappointment of being eliminated is just huge,” said Löw, who said the team deserved to go out early. “It turned sour. I must take responsibility for this.”
The surprise was visible on the painted faces of the German fans in the late-afternoon light in Kazan. Above all, it was etched on the features of the German players as they cried on the field or hunched forward, hands on their knees, trying to absorb the blow.
“Of course, we had high expectations for ourselves, but I don’t think we could fulfill it any of the three games,” said Hummels, the central defender who missed the Sweden game with an injury but returned to the lineup on Wednesday. “There was no game where we can say, ‘Yeah, we played the style we used to play and we expect ourselves to play.’ So we have to be disappointed in ourselves after such a tournament.”
A four-time World Cup winner, Germany was a finalist in 2002, third in 2006 and 2010 and the champion in 2014 after dealing the host nation of Brazil a 7-1 defeat in the semifinals, the memory of which still leaves many Brazilians wincing.
But Brazil will be the team going deeper in this World Cup after qualifying for the knockout round later on Wednesday. Germans themselves now have reason to grimace at the memory of 2018 after their own team scored just two goals and allowed four in three matches.
“Football is a simple game,” once said Gary Lineker, the former English player. “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
On Wednesday, Lineker, now a BBC pundit, updated his old quip, tweeting: “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans no longer always win. Previous version is confined to history.”
The Germans certainly have historical company, however. The list of defending champions to crash out in the group stage is an unmistakable sign of how difficult it is to maintain momentum and focus with national teams whose players practice and play together much less frequently than they do with their clubs.
Asked if this was the end of an era of German domination, Hummels shook his head and referred to the team’s loss in the 2016 European Championship after winning the World Cup.
“We didn’t dominate; we won one tournament,” he said. “You have to be honest. It was no domination. We’ve always been one of the strongest national teams. We wanted to prove that once again when we came back together again in September, but this tournament we haven’t been on the level we have to be at a World Cup. I think many teams have big problems, but somehow they survived. We did the same against Sweden when it was almost over for us, but we didn’t make it a second time.”
The recent struggles of defending champions also reflects the increasingly global nature of the sport, where talent now finds its way to the highest level of the club game.
Son, the South Korean forward who scored the second goal on Wednesday, plays for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League. Midfielder Koo Ja-cheol plays for F.C. Augsburg in Germany’s Bundesliga, where many of Germany’s stars make their excellent livings.
The intimidation factor is not what it was, but Germany was still a rightful favorite coming into this World Cup. Löw, at least in public on Wednesday, was grasping for answers, but did suggest self-satisfaction had played a role.
“It was a bit of overconfidence ahead of Mexico,” he said. “That we can press the button and win.”
Löw tried to press a few of his own in Russia. He benched Özil and midfielder Sami Khedira for the second game against Sweden and then, after noting publicly that they had shown a good reaction in practice, reinserted them in the lineup on Wednesday while leaving out Thomas Müller, a longtime national team fixture who had struggled to find his form in the first two games.
But the lineup shuffling could not solve the team’s attacking issues. The Germans certainly had opportunities. They repeatedly struck at the South Korean goal on Wednesday afternoon, just as they had done against Mexico in the second half last week.
They took 26 shots to the South Koreans’ 11, but the finishing touch was lacking.
There was a low and dangerous shot from Kroos that was saved by the diving Korean goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who was excellent on Wednesday.
“Our coach told us that Germany probably wouldn’t think the Koreans are very strong,” Jo said. “I just tried to relax during the game and enjoy the experience.”
There were also unchallenged headers from Hummels and the substitute Mario Gómez that missed their target late in the game.
“We had enough chances to score,” Hummels said. “I had a big chance in the 87th minute. I have to score this one. This chance will haunt me for a few weeks.”
Müller, who had been sent on to replace Leon Goretzka in the 63rd minute, could not change the equation. But unlike the previous defending champion to be eliminated this early, there was a modern twist to the German exit.
This is the first World Cup in which the video assistant referee system, or V.A.R., is being used, and in the third minute of added time, the South Koreans took a corner kick that the Germans struggled to clear. Amid the crowd, Kroos, one of the sport’s most accurate passers, flicked the ball back toward his teammate Niklas Süle, who, surprised, let the ball go through his legs.
It rolled on to Kim, deep in the box. He had time to control it and then score into the upper right corner past the charging German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
The celebration was cut short when the line judge raised his flag to indicate offside, but referee Mark Geiger of the United States reviewed the sequence on a video screen after consulting via his earpiece with V.A.R. officials in Moscow. He ruled that Kim’s goal was valid.
Son celebrated after scoring South Korea’s second goal against Germany, into an empty net in the sixth minute of added time. Credit Michael Probst/Associated Press
The celebration resumed, and when it ended, Germany pushed forward in desperation, with Neuer abandoning his goal altogether and turning himself into an extra midfielder. He soon lost possession of the ball in the South Korean half, and Ju Se-jong lofted a long pass toward the empty German goal.
Son ran it down ahead of Süle and made it 2-0 with a flick of his left foot in the sixth and final minute of stoppage time.
Germany, as it turns out, does not always find a way, something that Kroos and his teammates will now have four years to reflect upon.
As the minutes ticked by after the defeat, Kroos remained with his hands on his hips until he was the last German player on the field. When he finally decided it was time, he walked slowly, very slowly, toward the tunnel.