World Cup holders Germany return home on Thursday desperately looking for answers following their historic exit, with head coach Joachim Loew set to suffer the consequences of a disastrous campaign.
In one of the competition’s biggest ever shocks, Germany failed to reach the group stage of a World Cup for the first time for 80 years, but it was the meek manner of their capitulation against South Korea in their final game that really stung.
“We all made mistakes,” admitted defender Mats Hummels after the stunning 2-0 defeat left them bottom of Group F — and he meant the players, Loew and team director Oliver Bierhoff.
After 12 golden years in charge crowned by the 2014 World Cup win in Brazil, Loew is considering his future after getting his tactics so badly wrong and placing faith in former stars past their prime.
The sight of Mexico pouring through a porous German midfield during the first half of the defeat in the opener against Mexico was the clearest example.
Hardly anyone in the German setup leaves Russia with any credit.
Bierhoff, for example, is blamed for choosing the isolated base camp at Vatutinki, southwest of Moscow, which caused unhappiness among the players.
“You didn’t get the feeling that we were playing at a World Cup,” was captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s damning appraisal.
Germany even had the shame of having to suspend two of their team officials for over-exuberant celebrations in front of Sweden manager Janne Andersson after the 2-1 win that appeared to have saved their skins.
After Italy in 1950, Brazil in 1966, France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014, Germany join an infamous club of reigning champions knocked out in the group stage at the next World Cup.
“We’re all stunned — we’re shocked,” said Thomas Mueller, the pillar of the 2014 team who seemed strangely unable to influence events this time.
Loew said he took responsibility for the failure, yet just 12 months ago he could do no wrong.
He won the 2017 Confederations Cup, the World Cup warmup, with an inexperienced squad and seemed to be ready to make a spirited defence of their global title.
Only last month, Loew signed a contract extension with the German Football Association (DFB) until 2022, but there are already calls for him to resign.
If he goes, the 58-year-old’s misguided loyalty in senior players like Mueller, Hummels, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Jerome Boateng will have been a key factor in his downfall.
All were shadows of their usual selves.
If he stays, Loew will need to have a clearout and a rethink on how to nurture a new team.
From the next generation of Germany starlets he unearthed at the Confederations Cup, only Timo Werner and Joshua Kimmich were rewarded with regular spots in the senior team.
Loew only gave rising stars like Julian Brandt, Leon Goretzka, Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Suele first-team place when his 2014 winners were struggling, suspended or injured.
Leroy Sane, the forward who shone for Manchester City last season, was cut from the final squad.
Germany have stagnated, lacking tactical direction as Loew often toyed with different systems.
Arrogance, something Loew was determined to keep out of his squad’s mindset, crept in.
As German pundit Ralph Honigstein put it, “many players come across as one-man brand ambassadors”, more interested in gathering social media followers than focusing on football.
A fierce debate in Germany over the divided loyalty of players did nothing to help cohesion after Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan — who have Turkish roots — met with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who Gundogan called “my president”.
Germany pride themselves on being “a tournament team”, which knows how to rise to the occasion, but that notion was blown apart in Russia.
Having sailed through qualification with a perfect 10 wins, the writing was on the wall with just one victory in six pre-World Cup friendlies, and even then a shaky 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in the days before flying to Russia.
“The last time we played well was autumn 2017,” admitted Hummels, referring to the 5-1 crushing of minnows Azerbaijan in October.
The first chance to make amends is on September 6 against France in Munich in the new Nations League, but it shows how far Germany have fallen that if they win it will be only their third victory in 10 games.
Loew refutes suggestions German football is about to enter a dark phase, insisting “there are enough young players, who are very talented and ready to develop”.
“We have to draw the right conclusions and do better,” Loew said.
For now however, Germany have to get used to the unaccustomed taste of failure.