Put simply, it might be the biggest shock in Women’s World Cup history.
Germany were perhaps the side least likely to slip up in the group stage, considering their squad and the nature of their opposition. Germany, remember, were the team who produced the biggest win of the opening round of fixtures, thrashing Morocco 6-0. After that result, it was highly unlikely they would be eliminated in the group stage, and almost unthinkable that Morocco would progress at their expense.
But that’s what has happened. Germany, bizarrely, have a goal difference nine better than Morocco’s. That counts for nothing when they have two points less.
World Cup shocks on this scale tend to be about one-off results, but Germany have failed twice. They fell to an exciting but inexperienced Colombian side, who combined physical pressure with technical brilliance to defeat them in Sydney last week. Now, against a South Korean team who had offered very little going forward in the competition, Germany started poorly — as if reeling from the Colombia defeat — and never got going in attack.
It was a bizarre way for Germany to exit, for many reasons. For a start, their opponents South Korea knew a draw would be completely useless for them, and yet they defended their lone point in this competition with admirable organisation and tremendous bravery too.
South Korea, and their English manager Colin Bell, deserve credit for holding Germany, at times opting to mark individuals tightly rather than maintain a consistent shape, which can be a risky approach against opponents more physically powerful, not that the world’s second-ranked team made that approach count here. Bell’s decision to introduce towering 36-year-old centre-forward Park Eun-sun as an emergency defender to mark Alex Popp must go down as one of the most unprecedented pieces of tactical thinking you’ll ever see at a World Cup. After their opening defeat by Colombia, Bell complained about his side’s lack of physicality. Well, this was one way to introduce physicality — nullify the competition’s best target player, who had earlier equalised with a header, with the closest thing you’ve got to a target player. Germany didn’t have a Plan B, in effect because their usual Plan A is what everyone else considers a Plan B — launch the ball towards the centre-forward.
There was an element of comedy to this result, summarised when Germany conceded an entirely unnecessary free-kick in stoppage time on the edge of their own box. Park lined up the free-kick, but only smashed it against the head of her team-mate Lee Young-ju, who was part of the attacking wall. With all due respect to South Korea, it felt ludicrous that Germany were failing to beat players who were capable of doing something quite so daft.
But Germany only have themselves to blame. Martina Voss-Tecklenburg used an unusual system that appeared as a back four without possession and a back four with the ball, with the ever-willing runner Svenja Huth shuttling back into defence and then becoming a wing-back.
Popp was fielded in a slightly withdrawn role, although still managed to push forward into the box and provide an aerial threat, at least until the introduction of Park. There was curiously little creativity or incision in central areas, however, and few combinations in wider areas to drag defenders around and exploit gaps. Klara Buhl and Jule Brand, two of the most dangerous attackers in the competition, were both subdued. Lena Oberdorf, for all the fuss about her ability to break up attacks, doesn’t have the guile in possession of a player like Ji So-yun, magnificent here. Oberdorf crashed into yet another typical wild challenge in stoppage time, out of anger more than because it offered anything to her team.
The scenes at full-time were telling — some Germany players looked tearful, but most simply looked astonished, as if they hadn’t even considered the possibility of their elimination. In fairness, none of us did.
“The precision was missing from our play and our opponents defended well,” was Voss-Tecklenburg’s measured assessment. “We showed heart, but didn’t create any clear chances. In the end, our performances over the three games were simply not enough in this group to advance.”
All this was a brilliant end to what has been an unbelievably exciting, unpredictable and thrilling group stage. From an early stage, it was marked by underdogs punching above their weight and keeping scorelines down. By the end, Canada, Brazil and now Germany have been eliminated, three of the world’s top-10 ranked sides.
“I know the German team,” Bell said afterwards. “We needed a goal and we needed a success. That we had two early chances and scored gave us momentum. With the exception of Sydney Lohmann no one made problems for us.” Neither side will need to be concerned with Sydney now.
(Top photo: Chris Hyde – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)