KAZAN, Russia — Germany became the latest defending champion to crash out of the World Cup at the first hurdle, part of a trend but definitely not part of the plan when Germany arrived here loaded with stars and swagger.
A smooth-running scoring machine when it won the Cup in 2014, Germany now appears in need of an overhaul after losing, 2-0, to South Korea here on Wednesday and bidding adieu to Russia about three weeks earlier than many expected.
“We tried to improve and lift our game, but we just couldn’t do it today,” Toni Kroos, Germany’s star midfielder, said.
[Up Next: Follow our live coverage of England vs. Belgium]
It was the earliest exit for a German team at the World Cup since 1938, which seems even more distant when you consider Hitler was then the country’s leader and only 15 teams participated.
After Wednesday’s defeat, Kroos, unlike some of his teammates, did not drop to the grass. But he 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 what looked like a reprieve with his keepsake 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 both its opening 1-0 upset loss to Mexico and its defeat to South Korea, which was its first in a World Cup against an Asian team.
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.
And so it was Sweden and Mexico that qualified for the knockout phase from Group F. With Sweden defeating Mexico, 3-0, in Yekaterinburg, each finished with six points to South Korea and Germany’s three, with the Germans finishing last in the group on goal differential.
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 added that 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, 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, and some Brazilians were in no mood to deprive themselves of a little schadenfreude.
Some remembered that in a Happy New Year’s tweet in 2017, Kroos replaced the Nos. 1 and 7 with Brazilian and German flags. On Wednesday, the account for Brazil’s sports daily Lance wished Kroos a happy 2018, replacing the Nos. 2 and 0 with South Korean and German flags.
“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 lose very early shows 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; you have to be honest,” he said. “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 struggles of soccer powers to remain soccer powers 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 among the rightful favorites entering 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 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 champions 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 the 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.
The celebration resumed, and when it ended, Germany pushed forward in desperation, with Neuer, always eager to roam widely, 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 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, painfully, toward the tunnel.
Then, like his team, he disappeared from view at this World Cup.
[See how Sweden beat Mexico by clicking here.]
Here’s how South Korea beat Germany (by Kevin Draper):
It’s all over! The defending World Cup champions are out!
Sweden and Mexico advance out of Group F.
Son Heung-Min doubles the South Korean lead. German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had gone forward as Germany desperately searched for an equalizer and winner.
South Korea booted the ball forward, and Son tracked it down with no German defenders back, and rolled it into the empty net.
Hummels with another header, but he pops it over the goal.
South Korea goal ruled offside — then onside after review! Off the corner, the ball squirted through to Kim Young-gwon on the back post. After taking a touch to steady himself, Kim blasts it off Neuer’s foot and in.
South Korea has a corner kick, and as you might expect it’s walking about as slowly as possible to take it.
Lee Yong is down getting treatment, as American referee Mark Geiger gives 6 minutes of stoppage time.
Toni Kroos with another shot from outside the box, but it’s too close to Jo Hyeon-Woo, who smothers it.
Germany chance! Mats Hummels runs free into the box for a Mesut Ozil cross but mistimes the flick of his neck and the ball goes off his shoulder.
Marco Reus and Toni Kroos have both taken dangerous looking shots from outside the box but can’t get them on frame.
The fact that Reus and Kroos are resorting to shots from outside the box tells you how stout the South Korean defense has been.
Germany once again camped out in front of the South Korea goal and gets two half-chances but can’t get off a solid shot.
A chance for Germany on one end as a ball slips through the box. A chance for South Korea on the other, but the counter attack is wasted. Ten seconds later Germany is back in front of South Korea’s goal but is called offside.
Korea chance! Son Heung-Min drags his shot from the corner of the box just wide!
Germany with their final change, pulling defender Jonas Hector for Julian Brandt.
Mexico concedes another, and they’re being absolutely trounced by Sweden. Mexico really needs South Korea to hold on here.
South Korea consistently has 10 men behind the ball. Only Son Heung-Min is staying high in anticipation of a counter attack.
Toni Kroos with a desperation 25-yard shot that goes well over.
Mario Gomez with a powerful header, but it’s right at the South Korean goalkeeper.
Pulsing end-to-end action here, as both midfields seem to have disappeared, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering Germany has taken off two midfielders for forwards. South Korea is having a lot more success on the counter attack now.
Son Heung-Min goes down in the box and the referee blows the whistle … to call Son for diving. He’s yellow carded.
In the other game, Sweden has scored a penalty to go up 2-0. A German goal now would put Germany through.
And now Thomas Müller on for Leon Goretzka. Germany really going for the jugular here.
Koo Ja-Cheol hobbles off the field with support, replaced by Hwang Hee-Chan, who plays for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.
After some nice interplay, Timo Werner slices wide a volley from the penalty spot. They haven’t scored, but Germany’s players have already had better chances than in the first half.
Sweden scores in the other game! This should light a fire under Germany, because as things stand they’re going out of the World Cup.
This time it’s Moon Seon-Min. It’s South Korea’s third yellow card of the day and ninth of the tournament, the most of any team.
German chance! Leon Goretzka pops free eight yards out and gets a solid head to a cross, but Jo Hyeon-Woo dives and pushes it aside.
South Korea immediately tests Manuel Neuer from outside the box, but this time he comfortably holds onto the ball.
Was Jogi Low’s halftime talk enough to inspire the Germans to a goal?
Germany has had all the possession but just two shots on goal, neither of them particularly dangerous. Even if Germany advances to the knockout round, it’s hard to imagine it going much further given how weak its attack has been.
In the other Group F game, Mexico-Sweden are also tied 0-0. As things stand, Germany and Sweden would both have 4 points, but Germany would advance on tiebreakers.
After three minutes of stoppage time, Mark Geiger blows the half to a close. Still no goals on either side.
Timo Werner slams an open shot after the whistle is blown for a foul … and it goes off the post, which is a pretty good metaphor for the German attack this morning.
Germany seems to have fixed the “vulnerable to counter attacks behind its full backs” problem but not the “can’t really score a goal” one.
After a corner Mats Hummels has the ball six yards out from goal but can’t get it out from his feet for a shot before South Korean keeper Jo Hyeon-Woo pounces on it.
At least you can say this about the German performance: I can’t remember the last time South Korea had the ball for more than about four seconds.
Both teams need as many goals as they can get, but neither squad has come particularly close so far. This quiet half isn’t what we were expecting (or hoping for).
Every single German pass, cross, shot or dribble near the South Korean goal has been met ably by a South Korean defender.
Germany is just camped out in front of the South Korean goal but hasn’t come particularly close to finding a quality shot.
According to FIFA, Germany has had 70 percent of the possession, and has completed four times as many passes as South Korea.
Now Lee Jae-Sung picks up a yellow card. South Korea seems to be fouling Germany every few minutes.
Manuel Neuer almost gifted South Korea a goal!
Koo Ja-Cheol put a free kick directly at Neuer, but he fumbled it. Neuer was barely able to recover in time and punch the rebound away from an onrushing Son Heung-Min.
What is it with the best goalkeepers in the World at this World Cup? Against Portugal, David de Gea also bobbled a shot from outside the box, but unlike Neuer, his error resulted in a goal.
Christopher Clarey: Neuer 2018 is still a long way from Neuer 2014. Hard to imagine him struggling to hold on to a free kick like that in peak form.
Germany misses a golden opportunity. After dispossessing South Korea near its own goal, Timo Werner is wide open on the back post. But Leon Goretzka opts for a pass on the ground that is deflected out instead of crossing it to Werner.
Korea made a few attacking forays early, but the last 5 minutes Germany has had the entirety of the possession.
Christopher Clarey: So Joachim Löw made his point with Ozil and Khedira by benching them last game. We’ll see if they take the hint back on the field.
Nice atmosphere in the stadium, but once you’ve been to a Peru game, everything else seems quiet
Emphatic yellow card for Jung Woo-Young, who took out Jonas Hector sliding for the ball near midfield.
A cagey start, with neither team having a good attempt on goal yet.
It was above 80 degrees at kickoff in Kazan. After their grueling victory over Sweden, a number of German players talked about their tiredness and cramps, which is perhaps why they made five changes to their starting lineup.
We are off! Germany is in green, while South Korea is in red.
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