In Qatar, just as in Russia four years ago, Germany were bundled out of the World Cup at the first hurdle, spectacularly failing to surmount the initial group stage for only the third time in their history.
As if that was not enough of a gloomy statistic for followers of Die Mannschaft, the failure in Qatar reveals an even more depressing truth: their performance in the last three tournaments forms a sequence which is the worst in the history of the national team.
Taking participation in the knockout stages of a major tournament as a yardstick, the 2018 World Cup, Euro 2020, and World Cup 2022 failures represent the leanest three-tournament streak in Germany’s history. In Russia four years ago, a leaden performance resulted in an opening defeat to Mexico, while an improved and spirited display in the victory over Sweden in the second game was followed by another disjointed performance against South Korea. Euro 2020 ended in defeat in the last 16 against England at Wembley, while in Qatar Japan’s shock win over Spain consigned the Germans to an early flight home.
The only comparable sequence in the national team’s modern history are the 2000-2002-2004 tournaments, where at least Germany managed to surmount qualification difficulties for the World Cup in Japan-Korea 2002 with an overperformance at the finals, when Rudi Voller’s team heroically fought through to the final itself against Brazil, only to be outmanoeuvred by Ronaldo and co. Even that World Cup performance in the Far East was sandwiched between two abject European Championship performances.
In the Low Countries in 2000, Germany made up the numbers in an otherwise spectacular festival of football, headlined by a peak Zinedine Zidane. Along with England, Germany failed to negotiate the group stage as Romania and Portugal qualified for the quarter finals at their expense. In Portugal in 2004, the Voller era came to an end as Germany left the initial group stage winless following draws with Latvia and Netherlands and a defeat to Czech Republic.
Much soul searching ensued ahead of the World Cup on home soil in 2006 when the Jurgen Klinsmann/Joachim Low era was ushered in. The decade beginning with the Germany World Cup in 2006 and ending with the European Championships in France in 2016 brought four semi-finals, a runners-up spot at Euro 2008, and the ultimate triumph in Brazil in 2014 as Germany took their fourth world crown. Defending the title in Russia in 2018, an ageing team encountered “one tournament too far” syndrome and were back at home on their sofas for the knockout stages.
Germany, despite claims to the contrary, is not immune to comparative lean streaks at major tournaments. Such things are relative though and the definition of a barren spell when applied to Germany would usually amount to a golden era for most other nations.
Berti Vogts was almost universally maligned during his tenure, despite winning a European Championship in 1996, finishing runners-up to Denmark four years earlier, and achieving a quarter-final berth at the World Cups of 1994 and 1998. Franz Beckenbauer won the World Cup in 1990, made it to the semi-finals of the 1988 Euros, and finished runners up to Argentina in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico with a squad of players whose merits he was almost dismissive of. Reflecting on the 1986 run to the final years later, Der Kaiser observed “can you believe we reached the final of a World Cup with these players?”
What makes the last three tournaments stand out is the stark comparison with German teams of the past, even with those which remain unlamented, who still managed to go deep into major tournaments. By comparison with the present day, the period 1982 (World Cup)-1984 (Euro)-1986 (World Cup) resulted in respective Runners-up, 1st Round, Runners-up outcomes.
Both the 1982 and 1984 teams were managed by Jupp Derwall, by turns controversial and dour and not a coach seen as alchemical in any sense. At the tail end of the great Helmut Schon’s tenure in 1976, Germany lost the Euro final to Czechoslovakia on penalties before going out in the second group stage at the World Cup in Argentina in 1978. Even Derwall’s first tournament in charge in Italy in 1980 for the European Championships resulted in a victory over Belgium in the final.
Going back further to the peak Schon years, 1970 saw a semi-final exit at the World Cup in Mexico, followed by victory in the 1972 European Championships and then, two years later, a World Cup triumph on home soil. By common consent the finest in Germany’s history, the ’72 and ’74 teams also became the first national team to simultaneously hold both European and World titles.
The years 1964-1966-1968 saw no-shows at both European Championships of ’64 and ’68, although 1966, of course, resulted in the first of four runners-up spots in the World Cup. The European Championship, inaugurated in 1960, was not back then the multi-group jamboree of the modern era. In 1960, only the four semi-finalists from the qualifying stages took places at the finals proper, a format that held sway until the introduction of two four-team groups in 1980.
The Germans failed to make the inaugural tournament in 1960, although they reached the semi-finals of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, falling to the hosts at the last four stage. They had arrived in Sweden as reigning champions, of course, following their groundbreaking triumph over Hungary in 1954.
Although a divided Germany was unable to participate at the 1950 World Cup which followed the end of World War II and a twelve-year hiatus of the tournament, the initial three World Cups of 1930, 1934, and 1938 saw mixed outcomes: a no-show for the inaugural tournament in 1930, a semi-final appearance in 1934, and a first-round exit in 1938.
Germany’s last three tournaments therefore represent an unprecedented period of failure by the standards of the national team. In the aftermath of the 4-2 win over Costa Rica, coach Hansi Flick remarked that German football, in its national team guise, will “head into a different direction, and very soon”. Thomas Muller probably spoke for most though when he described the first-round exit as an “absolute catastrophe”. The shining light on the immediate horizon, however, is the hosting of the 2024 European Championships on home soil.