Downfall of German football: Challenges to retain the glorious legacy

One reason for Germany’s mediocre performance in World Cup 2022 is their inability to adapt in hot and humid Qatar weather. They did not spend enough time to acclimatize there.

Germany's Thomas Muller and Antonio Rudiger look dejected after the match as Germany are eliminated from the World Cup REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Dr Pushpa R Joshi

  • Read Time 6 min.

When Stéphanie Frappart whistled off the match between Germany and Costa Rica on December 2, a history was created. Frappart became the first woman-referee to officiate a men‘s World Cup match after 92 years since the inaugural FIFA World Cup. Alongside assistants Neuza Back from Brazil and Karen Diaz from Mexico, the Frenchwoman formed the part of a historic all-female refereeing trio officiating a men’s World Cup match. Apart from that, the match also made an inglorious history: Germany, one of the consistent teams in world football, was knocked out of the first round of the World Cup for a second time in a row. In 2018, the then reigning world champions returned home early after a disappointing first round. This time, the first match that Germany lost to Japan proved to be too costly for them. The competitive one each draw in the next match with Spain kept alive Germany‘s hope of reaching the pre-quarterfinals. However, destiny was not in their hands. Despite an impressive win over Costa Rica in the aforementioned historic match, Japan’s win over Spain in the simultaneously played match shattered Germany‘s hopes of reaching the knock-out round. The German fans left the stadium once the final score of the Japan-Spain match was displayed on the big screen, well before Frappart blew the final whistle. The German players were stunned after the match and their captain Manuel Neuer couldn’t believe what had just happened. The World Cup outing was way too short for the Germans. The team returned to Germany the very next day.

Glorious past 

Before their disappointing performance in 2018, Germany had been a consistent performer in World Cups, always reaching at least semifinals and winning the World Cup four times. They claimed the World Cup in 1954, 1974, 1990 and recently in 2014. Only Brazil has won more World Cup titles than Germany. Football lovers throughout the world have praised the German way of clean-dive-tackling and accurate long passing for many years. Even in Nepal, Germany has a large fan base only after Argentina and Brazil. This is reflected by the number of German team jerseys sold during World Cups in Nepali markets. 

The highest point of German football in recent times reached in 2014 when they claimed the glittering World Cup for the fourth time. The downfall of German football started after that.

It seems that Germany’s World Cup dominance is finally over. Gary Lineker, famous former English striker, had once mentioned that football is a game played by 22 players for 90 minutes but in the end, only Germany emerges to be the winner. This shows the sheer dominance of Germany in the world of football in the 70s and 80s. The legacy was maintained by the likes of Klinsmann and Matthaeus in the 80s and 90s. The modern day legends like Ballack, Klose, Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Podolski had held the pillars of German Football in the new millennium. The highest point of German football in recent times reached in 2014 when they claimed the glittering World Cup for the fourth time. Unfortunately, the downfall of German football started after that. Their World Cup graph is plummeting deeper and deeper from then onwards.

Fighting spirit in the past 

Before haplessly surrendering in the first round in last two World Cups, Germany had shown exemplary fighting spirit over the years, be it their first World cup win in 1954 after a bad thrashing by Hungary in the first round or becoming world champions again in 1974 after losing against East Germany, also in the first round. Even in 1982, Germany became the runner-up after they were dusted by Algeria in the first round. The World Cup outing of 2014 was not a smooth cakewalk for the Germans either. They had fought really hard in the first round and also in the Knock-outs to reach the final. Apart from that, there are numerous instances where Germany had bounced back from down under and had performed to perfection. The German team management and players were known to go through intensive and heated but productive discussion sessions after every defeat to scrutinize the mistakes made in the match. In early 2000s, this spirit was reignited by their manager Juergen Klinsmann, himself a World Cup winner of 1990.  After Klinsmann’s short managerial stint his deputy, Joachim Loew, continued from where he had left. During Loew’s initial tenure, Germany did not win any major tournaments but always won the hearts of spectators. Finally, with their fighting spirit, Germans bounced one more time from the back to claim their fourth World Cup and the major title under Loew’s leadership in 2014. That was also the high time for modern German football as their main players were in their prime.

The downfall

Once the players gradually started to retire after the World Cup win, a vacuum was created in the team. Loew, until then a very successful manager, was also unable to materialize a smooth transition of the team. The talent of the new batch of players could not be extracted properly. Loew also had nasty clashes with some of the players that also hampered the overall performance of the team. The result was obvious: The catastrophic performance in the 2018 World Cup. Unfortunately, the German team did not learn a lesson from their mistakes. Rather, they continued from where they had left in 2018. Just over one year before the World Cup 2022, Hansi Flick replaced Loew as the manager of the German team. Flick was Loew’s deputy from 2006 to 2014. After that he had a successful managerial stint with FC Bayern Munich from 2019-2021, first as assistant manager and then as interim manager. After his appointment as the manager of the German national team, Flick was left with a mammoth task of grooming a rather juvenile team for the World Cup within a very short period of one year. He fell short of the task and the result is apparent, Germany’s unsuccessful World Cup campaign in Qatar.

What went wrong?

Since the early 2000s, a football academy system has been introduced in German football that has produced a generation of technically gifted and tactically smart world-class players. The products of this system led to the World Cup glory in 2014. After the retirement of senior players, the new batch of talented players were not appropriately accommodated in the team. In fact, Germany had been slow in transforming the team according to new playing conditions and the rest of the football world had caught up with modern footballing settings. 

Coaching has also been an issue in the later phase of Loew’s tenure. He rarely got the balance of the team right and was involved in unnecessary skirmishes within the team. The German team went through a rollercoaster ride under Loew’s leadership. In the end, he was unable to lead the team into a new era. The result of this mishap was evident, unceremonious exit from the first round of two World Cups in a row. This is definitely the lowest phase of German football.

The Qatar nightmare 

The German team for the World Cup 2022 was not perfectly balanced. The defense department especially after the exclusion of Mats Hummels’ was not compact. Numerous defense lapses were clearly seen in their all three first round matches. Despite that, Germany was regarded as one of the favorites to win the World Cup. The glorious legacy was with them. However, the fighting spirit of the German team was not seen in the first two games and when they returned to the rhythm in the third game, it was already too late. The doors for the knock-out round were closed for them.

The German fighting spirit is intact and the glorious legacy is backing the team. Let’s hope the world will again be able to witness the magical game of football from the Germans.   

Another reason for Germany’s mediocre performance is their inability to adapt in hot and humid Qatar weather. They did not spend enough time to acclimatize there. They also did not play enough practice matches in the Middle East. Germany landed in Oman five days before the tournament and played only one friendly match with Oman. This was definitely not sufficient for showcasing themselves on the largest stage of world football. Therefore, the German team looked like a baffled bunch of players in the first two games. Overall, it was a below par performance by a strong team like Germany. 

The way ahead

Germany has always bounced back from their defeats. They have a bench of extremely talented and young players in the form of Musiala, Fullkrug and Gnarby. The list is too long. Manager Hansi Flick needs to extract the optimum aptitude of his team, although he has a tough task to accomplish in the next one and half years. Flick has to metamorphose the current team into a winning outfit for the Euro cup that is going to be held in their own backyard in 2024. The new players also have to identify their talents and perform to their fullest for the team. The team management needs to arrange as many as possible practice matches with stronger teams. The German team has already returned back from Qatar. As the German team has always been doing, they will sit together in a couple of days to analyze their dismal performance in Qatar. The well-wishers and fans of the German team are hoping that Hansi Flicks’s team will rise again by riding on the blunders made in this world cup. Whatever the circumstances, the German fighting spirit is intact and the glorious legacy is backing the team. Hopefully, the world will again be able to witness the magical game of football from the Germans in near future. 

Pushpa R Joshi is a Senior Scientist and Neurobiologist at Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. [email protected]