By SAMUEL PETREQUIN, AP Sports Writer
KAZAN, Russia (AP) — Coach Joachim Loew failed in his bid to combine the experience of past World Cup winners and the youth of talented newcomers, but the future holds much promise for Germany.
The powerful Mannschaft, the dominant force of world soccer in recent years, crashed out miserably in the first round of the World Cup, and few saw it coming. Especially after the now-deposed champions won the Confederations Cup last year with a rejuvenated team full of talent and qualified for Russia with a perfect record of ten wins.
But nothing went according to Loew’s plans this month, and Germany, which had reached the semifinal of every major tournament since 2006, exited on the back of a humiliating 2-0 loss to South Korea, failing to make it past the opening round for the first time since 1938.
The performance was summed up in a contrite tweet from the team’s official account.
“We’re sorry for not playing like world champions, and as painful as it is, we deserve to be out,” the team wrote.
There had been some worrying signs, though, in the buildup to the tournament. Germany failed to keep clean sheets in its last five friendly games before the tournament, even losing to Austria 2-1 in early June.
In Russia, the Germans got off to a terrible start with a 1-0 loss to Mexico, and their campaign ended on an even more bitter note after a stoppage-time winner from Toni Kroos against Sweden gave the false impression they had finally kick-started their tournament.
Whatever the reasons, the truth is that Germany never played as a team in Russia and the loss to South Korea marked the end of a glorious era. Aside from Kroos’ flash of brilliance, Loew’s players lacked team spirit and intensity. They looked sluggish and most of the time deprived of ideas. Even worse, they were incapable of a strong reaction when on Wednesday they were told Sweden had taken the lead against Mexico in the group other match, meaning they needed to score a goal to qualify.
“You have to say we do not deserve (to progress),” goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said. “In the second round everybody would have liked to play against us. How are we going to be dangerous to an opponent if we do not get our performance right? We gave a bad picture in the three games. I cannot answer why that happened. We have to take responsibility. We screwed up, we screwed up together.”
After winning so much, either with the national team or their clubs, the 2014 world champions lacked the hunger for victory that characterized their side in Brazil, where they routed the home nation 7-1 on their way to the title. There were also rumors of a rift within the team between the Confederations Cup winners and the World Cup winners, while the mini-scandal involving Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan and their decision to pose for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also did not help the team’s preparations.
“They have to analyze the tournament, and not only the tournament but the last half-year, 12 months and we will see what happens in the future,” said former player Lothar Matthaeus, who captained the then-West Germany to the World Cup title in 1990. “Jogi Loew made a great job but this tournament we will forget. Maybe we invited the wrong players. They were not playing with passion. They were not playing with body language. They did not have speed in the game. Many things that gave us the World Cup four years ago we were missing in this World Cup.”
Loew, who has the support of the German federation and is under contract until the next World Cup, has not ruled out leaving his position following the debacle. In any case, with a new generation of talented players at his disposal, he has what he needs to start rebuilding.
It’s still too early to know whether the old guard incarnated by Ozil, Thomas Mueller, Sami Khedira and Jerome Boateng — who were all far from their best in Russia — will decide to call it quits in the coming months. Whatever they chose, Loew or the next German coach needs to focus on youth and keep giving chances to the likes of Nikas Suele, Timo Werner, Leon Goretzka and Julian Brandt, who will all gain some valuable experience from the Russian failure.
The technically gifted Brandt did not get much time at the World Cup, but he made convincing appearances as a substitute, showing the enthusiasm that his older teammates lacked. Brandt was picked the World Cup ahead of Leroy Sane, the forward who had 10 goals and 15 assists in 27 Premier League appearances with Manchester City this season.
Sane will be part of Germany’s plans in the future, and there are more bright prospects in the building from the German squad that won the European U-21 championship last year. After a “dark day” for German football, as Neuer put it, the future looks bright.
Associated Press writer James Ellingworth in Moscow contributed to this report.