If there’s one lesson to take from Toni Kroos’ injury-time winner against Sweden at the weekend, it’s that football is more than a sport. As 22 players chase around a ball for 90 minutes, it can make you forget about life. It draws you into a fictional world at times, pulling you away from the reality of the real world. And as last Saturday showed us, it can also serve as a memory booster during our later years.
We all know where we were when the ball bounced Arjen Robben’s way at Wembley in 2013 as he poked his shot past Roman Weidenfeller to hand Bayern Munich a Champions League trophy which eluded them for 12 years. We can all recall the moment that Mario Götze controlled Andre Schürrle’s cross before hitting a sweet World Cup-winning volley past Sergio Romero. And now, following Kroos’ heroics, we have a new story to relay to our children, and our children’s children. We can all tell them where we were when Kroos, somehow, kept Germany’s dying hopes alive.
An ugly first half
It wasn’t a pretty match; in fact Sebastian Rudy’s broken nose injury offers a decent summary of how the first-half had gone for Joachim Löw’s side. After a fast-paced opening 15 minutes, Antonio Rüdiger’s misplaced pass allowed Sweden a half-chance that Marcus Berg failed to convert, and it was enough to scare Germany into reverting back to their predictable possession-controlling offense.
Jerome Boateng found himself further forward than Kroos, Timo Werner occupied the wing position more times than he did the forward slot, and the defending champions were as stagnant in this contest as they were during the Mexico loss. Things went from bad to worse when Kroos’ misplaced pass led to Ola Toivonen lifting his effort up and over Manuel Neuer to give Sweden a shock lead, and to leave Germany on the brink.
Second wind in the second half
The introduction of Mario Gomez offered the Germans some hope in the second period, his tall build offering more of a presence in the penalty box thus drawing more attention from the opposition’s lanky centre-backs. Werner shifted out wide permanently, and looked a ton more dangerous than he ever did in his role as lone striker while Marco Reus seemed to find some new freedom as a result of the change. It didn’t take long for Löw’s tactical alteration to produce results as Reus’ fortunate effort was enough to beat Robin Olsen to pull Germany level.
The equaliser gave the side the necessary momentum to hunt for a second goal, but their efforts seemed to be in vain. Germany huffed and puffed, but failed to blow the Swedish blockade down. The Scandinavian outfit were well aware that a draw here would leave them requiring just a draw against Mexico in match day three to progress to the second round. Of course, Germany realised the risk of a draw as even a win against South Korea would likely have not been enough to push them past the group stage.
As each second passed, the usually calm and collected Germany seemed to show more and more panic. Boateng was shown a second yellow card, just 10 minutes after picking up his first, but instead of shutting up shop in light of his centre-back’s dismissal, Löw opted for an attacking approach as Julian Brandt replaced Jonas Hector. It’s this sort of bravado move, where the reward is greater than the risk, that has helped inspire Germany’s reign over international football. Löw’s refusal to accept a result that seemed inevitable, which would have left the nation clinging onto their World Cup hopes, is a big reason why he commands the respect and admiration that he does.
The experience to reject defeat
But, those competitive characteristics aren’t just limited to the coaching staff. Whereas many teams would have collapsed upon seeing Toivonen’s loopy shot drop into the back of the net, the players the field resisted the temptation to accept a disappointing destiny. The contrast with a team like Argentina, for example, could not be greater: a team of individuals, whose heads dropped as soon as Willy Caballero’s gaffe gave Croatia the lead in their pivotal Group D clash. The fight, and belief, had obviously disappeared from the Argentinians and they clearly weren’t up to the challenge of turning their campaign around. If Nigeria had not thrown them an unlikely lifeline by beating Iceland, Lionel Messi & co. would be staring at a shocking early exit. But the majority Argentina’s team haven’t experienced the success and failures that this German team has.
From 2002 all the way through to the final in Rio de Janeiro, Germany have seen it all. They’ve “been there, done that,” with generations handing that strong, competitive German mentality down to their successors. They suffered a loss in the final of the World Cup in 2002 and the European Championship in 2008, a semi-final exit in 2006 and at the Euros in 2010 and 2012. It looked as if Germany would never reach the pinnacle of international competition until Götze’s winner against Argentina finally lifted the curse. The trials and tribulations they faced in the lead up to the glory of 2014 helped build the foundation for their eventual success. And the current squad delved into their past to push them through the physically and mentally exhaustion of last Saturday’s challenge.
This is a group of players who know what it takes to win, while refusing to accept a loss. Just going through the squad, its evident why Germany are the standard-setters in the sport. Sami Khedira, often criticised, has won a Champions League and multiple league titles. Mesut Özil, another scapegoat for poor performances, was also a part of Real Madrid’s 2012 La Liga winning side. Kroos and his former teammates from Bayern have had to redo their trophy cabinets due to their recent successes domestically and continentally.
Germany boasts a roster of winners, players who have been on the international scene since 2010, leaving them experienced in major tournaments, whether it was disappointment or success they tasted. Even in the final minutes of the crucial match-up with Sweden, when you would have lumped a handsome sum on a draw, Kroos trusted himself enough to attempt such an audacious free-kick effort that curled sublimely around Olsen’s outstretched hand. It was preposterous, but when you’ve been around the block as long as Kroos has been, and you’ve enjoyed the success that these players have, you trust yourself to know what you’re doing.
Confident in the victory
The upcoming game with South Korea promises to be tense, and the longer it stays goalless, the more uncomfortable it will be. However, Germany, and their fans, should take comfort in knowing that this is a side full of players who can never be counted out, even when the odds are heavily stacked against them. Kroos’ wonderful effort sparked some wild, joyful moments that future generations will hear of time and time again. In the here-and-now, importantly, that goal has thrown Germany a lifeline, a second chance to defend a World Cup that they went through football purgatory to get. They won’t give up the trophy easily.