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World Cup fallout: Where did Germany go wrong?

Janek Speight Brisbane
August 6, 2023

Germany's exit from the World Cup has been labeled a "disaster" after high hopes of winning the tournament. The team now has a brutal road ahead of them to find answers.

Alexandra Popp holds her head in her hands
Germany were one-dimensional in their reliance on striker Alex Popp's physical and aerial presenceImage: James Gourley/Shutterstock/IMAGO

It was supposed to be so easy. Just take care of Morocco, fight it out with Colombia, and finish the job against Korea. Then hurry into the knockouts ready for the real business.

It was a group that looked straightforward on paper; Germany had bigger fish to fry.

However, as the whistle finally sounded at Lang Park in Brisbane, following 16 minutes of stoppage time, Germany's World Cup dream was prematurely over. A first-ever group-stage exit in the tournament. A historic failure.

Germany expected an easy ride. They may not have let on as much, largely keeping to the media-trained script of one game at a time, but they had declared clear ambitions to win this tournament.

Germany's talent, funding and history entitled them to such ambitions, yet it also left them with an air of entitlement.

They reportedly hadn't even initially drawn up travel plans for finishing second in their group and had pushed for FIFA to secure their base camp near Sydney for the entire tournament. Only after the loss to Colombia did they draw up a contingency plan, when a potential quarterfinal in Brisbane (instead of Sydney) became likely.

German FA president Bernd Neuendorf hadn't even bothered to come watch the group stage; he was due to arrive in Australia just before the round of 16 started.

Those plans already suggest a certain haughtiness from the DFB and it also appeared to spread throughout the entire camp.

Lina Magull and Jule Brand training with Germany
Germany were confident heading into the World CupImage: Eibner-Pressefoto/Memmler/IMAGO

Arrogance crept into the camp

The players are a likeable bunch. They're down-to-earth, humble, socially aware, conscientious and thoughtful. Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, too, is a bubbly personality; patient with the media, loyal to her players and armed with a sharp sense of humour.

Yet there can be no question that arrogance preceded their group stage preparation. They were ranked second in the world, they were European finalists, they were born for this moment, apparently destined for success.

When asked about the atmosphere, the preparation, the training intensity, everyone pulled the company line. Everything was rosy, the performances would flow.

Instead, after a 6-0 drubbing of Morocco had papered over existing cracks, they were dismantled by Colombia 2-1 and left toothless in a 1-1 draw with South Korea.

This wasn't the script they had promised, but it was the one they ultimately deserved.

Tactical flaws and square pegs

That the players underperformed is glaringly obvious. Too many weren't at their best, with only Popp, Svenja Huth and Merle Frohms truly putting in consistent performances.

The midfield struggled to exert the dominance they desired, there was a disconnect with the attacking line, and the defense fell apart bit by bit.

"As players we have to question ourselves first," captain Alex Popp said the day after the elimination.

"We have to critically question whether we've done everything. In the end, we're the players who are on the pitch and who should decide everything."

Alex Popp (right) comforts Svenja Huth
Alex Popp (right) says the team needs time to reflect on the World Cup failureImage: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

Tactics have to be questioned, however, and much has been made of Martina Voss-Tecklenburg's tendency to play attacking players as fullbacks. She only took one natural fullback, Felicitas Rauch, to Australia after injuries to Giulia Gwinn and Caroline Simon.

When Rauch went down injured, Germany's defense was left with attacking midfielder Chantal Hagal on the left and forward Svenja Huth on the right.

The imbalance was stark against Korea, which coach Colin Bell, a former fullback himself, targeted.

"They haven't got the schooling of fullbacks, so it was right to target those areas," he said. "They're very good players, but they're not fullbacks."

The disjointed system wouldn't have held its own against the best in the world, and in the end didn't even pass muster against lowly opposition.

Basics go out the window

DFB sporting director Joti Chatzialexiou said Germany simply didn't do the basics right, pointing out duels, one-on-ones and decision-making under pressure.

"We simply didn't show enough in the tournament to be successful," he said.

Germany wanted to dominate midfield, they wanted to play attractive football and create chances through neat passing exchanges. Instead they proved one-dimensional in their reliance on Popp's physical and aerial presence up front.

Ultimately, however, they struggled to deal with the pressure and were incapable of responding to unexpected tactics from their opponents.

They didn't envisage that Colombia would dare press so aggressively. They looked surprised when a Korean side with nothing to lose also took them on from the very first minute.

In the last eight years, Germany have won just one game (a 5-1 victory over Serbia in 2021) after going behind.

"It's a question of psychology," Voss-Tecklenburg said in response to DW's question about the unwanted record.

"Can players stick to a game concept, remain calm, stay precise? We have a big difference there. There are players who don't let anything drive them crazy and we also have players who aren't that far yet."

The squad had eight Wolfsburg players who competed in a Champions League final in May. There should have been enough experience to manage setbacks.

Martina Voss-Tecklenburg shouts orders during a Germany game against Korea
Coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg has come under fire for her tacticsImage: imago images/Xinhua

Complacency bred from success

During the training camp and the tournament, players and coach kept insisting that they were focused on their own game.

When DW asked Popp if she knew how Morocco played about five days out from the opening fixture, she admitted opponent analysis was something done only two days prior.

It could be a tactic not to overload the players with information. But in the end, Germany didn't transfer their gameplan effectively onto the field and were also caught by surprise against their opponents.

The German FA have come out in full support of Voss-Tecklenburg. She's contracted until 2025, handed a new deal just three months out from the World Cup, and it appears she wants the responsibility to find answers to a disastrous month.

"I have never run away when life becomes difficult," she said. "So I'm still determined to take the next steps in German women's football together with everyone."

The fallout is yet to truly start, after a few days back in Germany, the inquest will begin. Chatzialexiou admitted women's football may have "rested on our laurels" due to past success.

"We will discuss everything self-critically and then see how we can go about the future," he said.

Joti Chatzialexiou stares somberly at a press conference
DFB sporting director Joti Chatzialexiou will lead the inquest Image: imago images/Eibner

Missed opportunity to cash in

The euphoria from the Euros last year is gone, Germany have missed a huge chance to build on the popularity bubble that blew up after that stunning run to the final.

Popp was in no mood to contemplate whether that bubble has now burst.

"I haven't really thought about it," Popp admitted. "I hope people will continue to support us, that they have seen what we are capable of. You saw it last year. The development was so beautiful and immense and extremely important for the sport and I hope it stays that way."

Beauty has given way to uncertainty. Germany's players looked lost as that final whistle sounded the end to their World Cup campaign. They were so confident, so assured, so determined.

They thought they had all the answers, but came unstuck on the biggest stage. They thought they had the goods in the bank for success, but found insufficient funds.

Edited by: Michael Da Silva

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor