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World Cup: Time for German football to 'wake up' after exit

Janek Speight Brisbane
August 3, 2023

For the first time ever, Germany have been knocked out of the World Cup in the group stage. After being tactically outwitted by South Korea, there are serious questions to answer.

Germany's Lena Oberdorf, Nicole Anyomi and Alexandra Popp look dejected after Germany are knocked out of the World Cup
What next? Germany have big questions to answer after exiting the World CupImage: DAN PELED/REUTERS

"Wake up!" Alexandra Popp was fuming. Her team looked disjointed, disorganized and had just been deconstructed by a superbly aggressive South Korea.

An impressive opening from the underdogs saw them take an early lead. They had Germany whimpering, the collective team resembling more dainty Dachshunds than hungry German shepherds.

Popp, however, could never be described as a mere terrier. She screamed at her teammates to click into gear and then dragged Germany back into the match in the manner she has perfected better than anyone: towering above the defense and powering home a header just before halftime.

"That's what she's here for," midfielder Lena Oberdorf told DW. "That's why she's captain."

But one inspirational captain can't be expected to do everything all of the time. In the end, her one goal was not enough. And, after Morocco shocked Colombia in the group's other game, neither was a 1-1 draw, as Germany crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage for the first ever time.

Germany 'never got into the game'

"It's incredibly disappointing," Popp told DW postgame, finding more words than she had managed in previous interviews.

"I had the feeling in the first half that we didn't get going, we had to breathe a bit at halftime. I think we got there afterwards, but it wasn't enough in the end. It's just incredibly sad."

Coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg echoed those sentiments, telling broadcaster ZDF that Germany "never really got into the game."

The midfield lacked bite and the defense was often out of shape — most notably when Kathrin Hendrich played So-Hyun Cho onside for the goal. When players dropped short, balls went over their heads. When they turned to run off defenders, the passes lacked power. There were too many sheep and not enough shepherds.

"We didn't create the spaces you need against such a deep-lying defense," lamented Voss-Tecklenburg. "To win a game like that, you need to be a lot clearer in your approach."

Colin Bell: 'I know Germany inside out'

Voss-Tecklenburg had spoken of three systems that Germany might come up against when they faced Korea, presumably with three approaches to deal with them.

Whichever system she'd envisaged, Germany weren't prepared for it and were fortunate not to go two goals down early on, Merle Frohms tipping 16-year-old Casey Phair's effort onto the post just moments before Cho's opener.

South Korea coach Colin Bell
Colin Bell tactically outwitted GermanyImage: Mike Egerton/empics/picture alliance

"That was the signal," said South Korea coach Colin Bell afterwards. "When Casey hit the post, we knew that Germany were vulnerable. When we did score, the weight dropped from our shoulders. We played freely and were tactically clever."

After Popp's equalizer, South Korea nullified everything Germany threw at them, with 37-year-old striker-turned-defender Park Eun-Son earning special praise from Bell for dealing with Popp.

"That's why I brought her to [the World Cup]," he explained. "With Eun-Son, we neutralized that weapon."

As a player, Bell made 40 appearances for Mainz in the 1980s and has spent most of his coaching career in Germany — in both men's and women's football.

"I know Germany inside out," he said. "I'm sorry, I've spent half my life there and love the country. I've coached some of these players and they tried everything. But you can't just rely on long balls into the box."

Germany's Chantal Hagel looks dejected after Germany are knocked out of the World Cup
Game over: Germany crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage for the first ever timeImage: DAN PELED/REUTERS

A 'wake up' call for Germany

Off the crosses which did reach Popp in the second half, one found her in an offside position and the other resulted in a header which came off the crossbar.

Otherwise, the Germany which stormed into the final of Euro 2022 in England – thanks, tellingly to a Popp header in the semifinal before losing in Popp's absence at Wembley – was nowhere to be seen.

Or perhaps it was. Perhaps this is exactly what this Germany team is all about: lacking the tactical sophistication to mix things up, switch systems and make the difference when it really matters.

And so, what could likely be Popp's last World Cup has ended prematurely.

"I can't really process it. I don't really know what to say. I don't really understand what's happened. No idea," she told ZDF immediately after the final whistle, as her teammates streamed through the mixed zone, red-eyed and in a daze after so much hope had gone into this World Cup.

Before the game, Voss-Tecklenburg had said in Brisbane Germany "stick together, win together, lose together." Now, after crashing out of a tournament they had entered as favorites, a tournament they expected to win, they have serious questions to answer together. 

It's time, in Popp's words, to "wake up."

Edited by Matt Ford

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor