SOCHI, Russian Federation, Jun 22 – World Cup holders Germany face enormous pressure ahead of their second group match against Sweden, dubbed an “early final”, with Joachim Loew’s team knowing defeat on Saturday would effectively end their campaign.
The pre-tournament talk in Germany focused on the bid to become the first team for 56 years to retain the World Cup.
But after a shock 1-0 defeat to Mexico, the four-time winners must beat the Swedes in Sochi to be sure of staying in the tournament.
Suddenly, the sweet taste of victory in Rio de Janeiro four years ago seems a long time ago.
“Everyone is aware that this is our first ‘final’, it’s annoying that it comes so early, but it’s self-inflicted,” team director Oliver Bierhoff said.
An atrocious first-half display against Mexico stunned fans in football-mad Germany, who have grown used to regular success.
The World Cup winners, accustomed to easy questions from their press and the backing of adoring fans, have been stung by a swarm of criticism.
Former international players have toured TV studios, calling for under-performing players like Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira to be dropped.
Behind the high walls of the team hotel outside Moscow, “frank words” were exchanged between the player.
“There has never been such strong communication within the team before,” captain Manuel Neuer said.
The uncomfortable situation has blown apart the myth of Germany being a “tournament team”, a phrase Toni Kroos used before the first game to describe a team that always raises its game when trophies are at stake.
“Perhaps we took it a bit too lightly, (in thinking) that when the tournament started we would be fresh and have our usual strengths on the pitch,” admitted Thomas Mueller. “We were wrong to assume that.”
– ‘Fight for our lives’ –
The German public now demands wins over Sweden, then South Korea next Wednesday in Kazan, to push them up the Group F table, putting the squad under “enormous pressure”, added Mueller.
The mind games have started.
A Swedish tabloid reporter offered Sami Khedira a mocked-up ticket home for the German squad from Sochi, complete with an offer of free beer to drown their sorrows.
“I think we’ll only need that on July 16,” Khedira replied, laughing off the gag and suggesting the Germans still believe they can reach the final on July 15.
The determination is make amends after the Mexico debacle is clear.
“Everyone is ready to fight for their lives,” said 22-year-old striker Timo Werner, who was not part of the winning squad four years ago.
Defender Mats Hummels promised “we will definitely shows a different face”.
Germany promise that the acres of space they gave Mexico, who attacked at will in the opening half, will not be available to Sweden.
“We have to play more intelligently, not like schoolboys,” said Khedira.
“If the holes are as big as they were against Mexico, you need Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis to make up the space, which we aren’t.
“We need the mentality of 11 fighters, which has always made Germany strong.”
This is the first crisis facing head coach Joachim Loew after 12 success-filled years, which saw Germany always reach at least the semi-finals of every major tournament.
The Mexico defeat dented Loew’s golden reputation after the triumphs of the 2014 World Cup and 2017 Confederations Cup, which was won despite resting his stars.
“There has been much debate, much analysis and, of course, criticism in recent days,” said Loew.
“There has been enough talk, what is important now is what happens on the pitch on Saturday.
“I think we all have the common goal of having a successful World Cup after a disappointing start: the team, the fans, the clubs, the whole of German football stands together.”
As Loew knows: Germany expects.