CHENNAI: Almost a year after their fourth World Cup title in Brazil, the German football team was officially rebranded. They became known as 'die Mannschaft', a moniker that was already hugely popular across the world. The literal translation was 'the team' in German. The German FA saw 'die Mannschaft' as a sort of formal nickname, a rebranding project that could stand with the likes of Azzurri (Italy), Selecao (Brazil), Les Bleus (France) and Albiceleste (Argentina).
Since that official rebranding, they have had a sort of dip that's almost unprecedented in their history. Semifinals at the 2016 Euros, knocked out in the group stage at the 2018 World Cup and a defeat against England in the last 16 at the Euros last year.
Before coming to the World Cup in Qatar, the German FA quietly dropped the project. Die Mannschaft wouldn't be called die Mannschaft anymore. They had come in for some criticism as it was perceived to be arrogant, almost hubristic in nature. Bernd Neuendorf, the president of the German FA admitted as much.
"According to polls and analysis, the name 'die Mannschaft' has a high degree of recognition especially abroad where it stands for team spirit and success," he had said in a statement in July. "But it is also a fact that among fans here in this country it is viewed critically and is part of emotional discussions."
Four months since, it's fair to say that the mother of all sporting teams in Germany is going through an identity crisis. Germany have never been eliminated in the group stage at back-to-back World Cups. On Sunday night, they could well be. Thanks to their loss against Japan, they now face Spain in what can be billed as a 'final' two matches before the knock-out stages begin.
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It's the sort of history the FA were desperate to avoid. So, they moved quickly to bring Hansi Flick, a Champions League-winning A-list coach, to replace the outgoing Jogi Loew. Flick's appointment solved two things in one go. He was a known face to the FA and to some of the older players in the squad as he was a key part of Loew's backroom staff when they won the World Cup in 2014. Flick's magic touch at Bayern, when he helped the club to the Champions League title in 2020, meant he would be familiar with some of the players he would be selecting for the national squad (Bayern have traditionally provided and still continues to provide a chunk of the players for the national team). For example, six of the players who played for Bayern in the final of the Champions League are at the World Cup. That's before you include the likes of Jamal Musiala who became an established presence under Flick for Bayern in the 2020-21 season. So, the Flick appointment was supposed to work. At least in theory.
At some level, it could still work. Even if the result against Japan was bad, the performance was good (going by xG, they should have won the game in the first half itself). But in a tournament like the World Cup, the result is the only king.
Spain are a massive challenge for them but they have the tools to beat the Iberians. Even if their 2022 has been patchy at best — three wins in 10 games — they are a side that's bound to create chances. The problem is, will there be enough trust to put away those chances? They haven't had a traditional number nine since the retirement of Miroslav Klose and the strain is showing. While Thomas Mueller is a perfectly serviceable goal-scoring attacker, he isn't the force he once was. Plus, he isn't a guaranteed starter in that front four (Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Musiala and Kai Havertz are their starting front four and expect all of them to start).
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In the last eight tournament matches (four at the WC and as many at the Euros), they have scored just eight times. Well, actually six if you discount the two Portugal own goals at the 2021 Euros. The Chelsea attacker, who is likely to play false nine against Spain on Sunday, was asked about this. He didn't quite like the question about his best position but said the team is focused on Sunday. "I understand that there’s a lot of negativity among fans and the media, that people are always having a pop at us, that not everyone supports us. But I don’t see the point of looking at the past. I’m only focused on Sunday," he replied in a pre-match press conference. “After digesting this loss for a couple of days and talking about it, that sense of anticipation is coming back.”
The process that went into digesting the loss involved a team meeting where harsh words were exchanged. "It was time to tell ourselves the truth," Havertz said of the meeting. "Everyone left the meeting knowing what's going on." Midfielder Julian Brandt, a surviving member of the Russia debacle in 2018, agreed. "...we had a very good exchange. All of us left the conversation feeling like we had the determination to win the game."
The team meeting was preceded by a frankly extraordinary admission by a number of German players in the mixed zone following that 1-2 loss against Japan. Both Ilkay Gundogan and Manuel Neuer felt that some of the players didn't want the ball in the second half. "It felt as if some didn’t want the ball anymore, you have to show for it, move away from your opponents. I don’t know if it was lack of maturity or quality, but we didn’t have solutions," The Athletic quoted Gundogan as saying.
Two full days later, Havertz spoke about what Sunday could represent. A turnaround.
The German FA may have killed the die Mannschaft but 92 years of World Cup prestige has meant it continues to be known by that exact name across the globe. On Sunday, the 26 players will be fighting to save that prestige, more than anything else.