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BRISBANE, Australia — When the final whistle blew, Germany’s players looked at one another, turned to the bench and hoped for a miracle. But there wasn’t one coming from the Morocco match in Perth, no late equaliser from Colombia to save them.
The realisation started to ebb through that their Women’s World Cup had finished at the group stage for the first time in their history. A team that came to Australia with the billing as one of the favourites crashed at the first hurdle in a group they were expected to breeze through.
As players sunk to their knees, lay down on the pitch or stayed rigidly still, the loudspeaker in the stadium announced Germany striker Alexandra Popp as Player of the Match. She shook her head ruefully as the camera panned to her. The tears had already started elsewhere at that point. Some still stood still, having not moved an inch since the whistle blew.
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Coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg moved among the stricken players. They eventually formed a huddle, players moving there, heads bowed. There were few words. The manager said thank you to the players for the effort they put into the match; said they had to stick together amid the criticism they’ll receive.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Germany started the tournament with ruthless efficiency, beating Morocco 6-0. They were living up to their favourites tag, putting down a marker to the chasing pack: they had built from reaching the Euro 2022 final last year and were ready to take down the World Cup.
They had issues. They came to the World Cup without star right-back Giulia Gwinn and lost Carolin Simon to a serious injury in their friendly against Zambia. Marina Hegering came into the tournament injured and then Felicitas Rauch was injured in training before Colombia. They ended up playing forward Svenja Huth at right-back, and the Rauch injury meant Sara Doorsoun had to start in the middle against Colombia, with midfielder Chantal Hagel filling in at left-back. The fix didn’t work, Colombia flooding the wings and defeating Germany 2-1 thanks to a 97th minute winner.
And despite Hederling returning to the heart of defence for the South Korea match, they had to deal with another injury with Doorsoun picking up a knock late against Colombia. The rejig robbed them of any stability and South Korea pounced on that uncertainty, scoring after just six minutes as one through ball bisected the scrambled defence and gave So-Hyun Cho a chance to score. The defensive uncertainty was something South Korea manager Colin Bell had targeted. Talking about Huth and Hagel, he said: “They’re not full-backs, they haven’t got the schooling of full-backs so it was right to target those areas. They’re very good players, but they’re not full-backs.”
Germany eventually equalised in the 42nd minute and in the second half Popp had a goal disallowed for offside; she also planted a header on the bar as frustration grew. Goalkeeper Merle Frohms said they found out the gravity of their situation in the 85th minute — when the bench pulled the emergency lever and told the players they had to scramble to find a winner. But their disjointed nature was showcased in the statistics of the final 10 minutes of normal time where South Korea dominated possession (60%, compared to Germany’s 29%.)
Germany had two half chances late on with Sydney Lohmann shooting wide and then blasting over, but there was no late rally, no goal to keep them in the World Cup and no answers. “We showed strong desire and grit to go for a goal but somehow it just didn’t want to go in,” Popp said afterwards.
In her news conference, Voss-Tecklenburg didn’t provide answers to why their World Cup had capitulated. As she faced the media, she repeatedly said she wasn’t looking for excuses. “Please don’t think I’ll provide you with analysis on the future and where we’ll work heading forward,” she said. “Maybe we lacked precision, maybe we tried to force things, but there was a feeling of something missing. Of course, I’m disappointed and I’m also frustrated because we were expecting more of us and that’s very clear.
“You can look it critically that we used them as fullbacks but some input we’ll accept and we’ll think about alternatives, but again I don’t want to look for excuses — we created the formation in the way we thought best and if the result isn’t what we want, you have to accept that responsibility.”
Now comes the post-mortem, and the players are ready for the criticism. “We have to face that, and live with it,” star midfielder Lena Oberdorf said.
It compounds a miserable year for Germany’s football teams. The men failed to get out of the group in the Qatar World Cup. The men’s Under-21s, champions in 2021, finished bottom of their group in the 2023 Euros in July. The two Women’s World Cup winning stars from 2003, 2007 were there illuminating Voss-Tecklenburg’s blazer as she was asked about the nation’s miserable footballing year. “If you want to see it as a disaster in terms of sports, it’s hard to argue against it. What it’s about is to rise again and not give up,” she said. “We love this sport. We need to let it sleep on it and work with what happened.”
The Germany team will return to their hotel on Thursday night. Voss-Tecklenburg is expecting some of the team to seek solace in group company, others to kick the door down, but each will deal with this differently. That’s the bizarre nature of these moments where the narrative is ripped up.
The team, together at least, never spoke of this eventuality where their fate would be intertwined with a shock Morocco win over Colombia. They didn’t let thoughts of various permutations cloud their own resolute confidence, believing they’d get the job done. But a wounded South Korea were looking to finish with something after losing their first two matches and football is merciless. Ji So-yun’s reunion with her old Chelsea teammates Ann-Katrin Berger and Melanie Leupolz wasn’t as it was planned to be. “We should’ve got through together,” Ji told ESPN afterward. “It’s a real shame. I felt so sorry for them. We had to play our best.”
Both teams now head home; Colombia and Morocco progressing. The German management will do their own post-mortem while the rest of the footballing world wonders and opines on where things went wrong.
“We do need a little bit of time now to process what has happened and to be able to find some confidence again,” Popp said. “At this stage, we know that our squad is good but during those two games, we were not optimal. But I have no answers at this stage.” But for now, Germany became the latest big team to fall in this tournament where reputation on the international stage means nothing.