A loss to Sweden would have knocked Germany out of the World Cup at the group stage for the first time in 80 years. They were trailing 0-1 at half-time, only to come back with enough vim and vigour to score an equalizer in the 48th minute. Even then, a draw would have left them at the mercy of several permutations and combinations to qualify for the knockout stages.

A free kick just outside the penalty box on the left gave Germany a last-gasp win in the fifth minute of added time. The angle was too acute. So, Toni Kroos played a short ball to Marco Reus, who stopped the ball dead. Kroos then stepped up and curled a shot over the defenders inside the far-right post.

In thought and composure, it matched the free kick Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo took for the 3-3 equalizer in the dying minutes of their opening game against Spain. But this one had more riding on it. Instead of hanging by a thread, Germany are now more likely to qualify than Sweden.

Germany’s last game is with South Korea, who lost both their matches, while Sweden take on group toppers Mexico. The substitution of Viktor Claesson, who set up the Swedish goal, proved fateful. His replacement, Jimmy Durmaz, did not have his wits about him in those final tense minutes. Durmaz’s unnecessary tackle from behind to bring down Timo Werner gave Germany the last-minute free kick. If Werner had dribbled passed Durmaz to boot a cross, Sweden had enough cover in front of the goal.

Even before that fatal mistake, Sweden’s tactics of sitting back and clearing the ball played into German hands.

Germany was down to 10 men after Jerome Boateng was sent off following a crude tackle too many. Sweden could have played for ball possession and taken the game to the German half. Instead, they gave the ball away too easily, relying on the defence for a draw. The Swedes were defensive in the first half, too, but caught out the Germans time and again with counter-attacks.

One of them should have earned Sweden a penalty in the 12th minute, but strangely the video assistant referees (VAR) did not come into play. But 20 minutes later, Ola Toivonen brought down a cross with his chest and looped the ball over German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

A German surge for an equalizer presented more chances to Sweden, minutes before half-time. Claesson had a clear view of the goal, but chose to cut back instead of taking a first-time shot. And Neuer dived full length to parry a header from Marcus Berg.

But the German side that came out after the break looked organised and systematic, mounting one attack after another with passes to Werner on the left and Muller on the right, crosses to the middle, and shots on the goal.

The equalizer came within three minutes from Reus. He had come into the side replacing Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, who had played in every major German game since his debut. Reus’s swift runs past the Swedish defence provided the finish Germany had lacked against Mexico and, Sweden, in the first half.

The German attacks continued like a metronome after the equalizer. There was no sign of the kind of panic we saw when Argentina went a goal down to Croatia and ultimately capitulated 0-3.

It was only after the final whistle that wild celebrations on the sidelines—to the extent that it drew a protest from Swedish manager Janne Andersen—showed how much pressure Joachim Low’s men were under.

A knockout of the reigning champions at the group stage - as was the case for Spain in the last World Cup - would have reduced the Germans from heroes to zeroes and would have subjected them to months of criticism. So it was a test of character—just as in past triumphs—that make Germany the comeback kings of World Cup football.

The 1982 semi-final against Michel Platini’s France was an epic. The match went into extra time at 1-1. When France went 3-1 ahead, it seemed all over. But Germany drew level and then beat France in the penalty shootout.

Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands dominated the 1974 World Cup with possession football like Spain did in 2010. But while Cruyff and his wizards tried to subdue a Munich crowd in the final, Germany did not lose hope and came back from behind to win.

It was an even bigger comeback from 0-2 down against Hungary that gave Germany their first World Cup trophy 20 years earlier in 1954. They came back again from two goals down in 1970, when England made the mistake of substituting Bobby Charlton who had neutralised Franz Beckenbauer until then.

Surely, you can never write off Germany.

Sumit Chakraberty is an author and independent writer based in Bengaluru.

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