◆Dejected Germany players following their defeat to South Korea. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
This, then, is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. There are certain events so apocalyptic that it feels they cannot just happen. They should be signalled beneath thunderous skies as owls catch falcons and horses turn and eat themselves. At the very least there should be a sense of fury, of thwarted effort, of energies exhausted. And yet Germany went out of the World Cup in the first round for the first time in 80 years on a pleasantly sunny afternoon with barely a flicker of resistance. There was no Sturm. There was no Drang.
Germany had come to this World Cup not merely as defending champions but also as winners of the last summer’s Confederations Cup – with what was in effect a second string. The overhaul of their academy system was the envy of the world, talent production on an industrial scale. And yet, called upon to score a goal against a disappointing South Korea side who had already lost to Sweden and Mexico, that had lost in qualifying to Qatar and China, they struggled to create a chance.
In the end it was VAR that undid them, Kim Young-gwon’s shot that had initially been ruled out for offside given as a goal when it was realised the ball had been played to him by Toni Kroos. And then, even after that, there was a beautiful farce of a goal, Manuel Neuer caught in possession miles upfield as Son Heung-min chased on to Ju Se-jong’s long ball and rolled the ball into an empty net. It was as though football itself was having its joke, the sweeper-keeper who had been such an asset four years ago turned into a liability.
Germany are the fourth of the last five world champions to go out in the group phase but this was as limp a defence as any side had managed. There was no defining defeat, as Spain had suffered to the Netherlands, just a whole load of baffling mundanity. There was a chance, three minutes from time, to steal a goal as they had stolen a late winner against Sweden in the second game but, presented with a free header eight yards out, Mats Hummels somehow misjudged his effort to the extent that the ball looped wide off his shoulder.
Jogi Löw, the Germany coach, had acknowledged that while the Sweden game was an improvement, his side had still had problems in defensive transition, too often leaving the two central defenders exposed. His solution was to bring Leon Goretzka on to the right of the 4-2-3-1, while restoring Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira, who had both been left out of the win over the Swedes.
It gives some indication of the difficulties Germany have had that only three outfielders started all three games. Thomas Müller, who has been struggling for form for a couple of years, was one of the latest sacrifices, the first time he had been left out of a tournament game by Germany since the semi-final of Euro 2012.
Neuer has also started all three games despite not having played for Bayern since September, when he fractured a bone in a foot. He has not been his usual assured self either and 19 minutes in, he fumbled a free-kick from Jung Woo-Young before recovering to fist the ball away as Son closed in. To blame him would be absurd, but equally he is clearly far from his best, and in retrospect forcing him back ahead of Marc-André ter-Stegen was perhaps an error.
But he was not the only one. Neuer’s uncertainty is part of a far greater whole. The German machine was gummed up here; there was no fluency and little cohesion going forward. Perhaps the aim was simply to deny South Korea the counterattacking chances granted to Mexico and Sweden and in that at least, the gameplan was a success. The gegenpressing was more efficient, but then the opponent was weaker, and there was significant cost in terms of attacking threat.
Not until Goretzka met a Joshua Kimmich cross with a flicked header three minutes into the second half was there a real sense of German threat. Cho Hyun-woo, though, leapt to his right to claw the ball away. The Daegu FC keeper came into the tournament as third choice before being surprisingly selected for the opening game because he is the tallest of the three keepers and the coach, Shin Tae-yong, was obsessed by Sweden’s height. Cho then gained a cult status in South Korea, where his extravagant ginger bouffant has earned him the nickname “Dae-hair”, taking the Korean word for “great” to create a pun on De Gea.
Timo Werner volleyed wide soon after but that was a rare spasm of pressure. With news coming through that Sweden had scored and that Germany therefore needed to score, Löw threw on Mario Gomez and then Müller. Immediately those issues in defending against the counter returned and a more incisive side than South Korea would have taken advantage. It could, in truth, have been much worse, and over much sooner. But for Kroos’s brilliant late goal against Sweden, it would have been over a game ago.
In Brazil four years ago Germany struggled to get the balance right between attack and defence until the quarter-final. This time they never quite did and so, inevitably, unresisted, twilight fell upon the gods.