Germany bowed out of the World Cup after an insipid campaign capped off by an insipid match last week. Famed sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer was not only dispossessed up the pitch with school-ground ease, but also had to watch mutely as South Korea strung together a great pass and a composed finish to score their second. The Germans are out of the World Cup at the group stages for the first time since 1938, having scored just two goals and conceded four in their three matches.
While they were not quite expected to repeat their 7-1 heroics in Brazil in 2014, the Germans were one of the favourites to lift the cup. Fans, pundits and even mathematical models by analysts in banks and consulting firms all regarded German chances highly.
And yet, here we are. But should we be surprised?
Four of the last five champions have all been eliminated at the group stages. The only exception in the 21st century was Brazil’s 2006 campaign, in which they reached the last eight following the win in 2002.
Indeed, teams have generally struggled to follow a victorious World Cup campaign with a strong second one. The German victory in 1990 was followed by two consecutive quarter-final finishes. As Rafael Honigstein explained in his book Das Reboot, German football, following the triumph in 1990, was in disarray. The changes that followed the weak campaigns in 1994 and 1998, radically transformed football in the country and resulted in a string of top 3 finishes, culminating in the triumph in Brazil four years ago.
And yet again, Germany has faltered. Does the German system need a reboot? Or is there something systematically holding back the champions in their next tournament?
One reason could be that the World Cup is increasingly becoming a hard contest for squads that seek to maintain success by maintaining continuity. Or, to put it in other words, it is perhaps hard to keep doing well at the World Cup unless you keep churning your squad substantially. But who dares to churn a victorious squad?
Consider a list of players who have played the most matches in World Cup tournaments. At the time of writing of this, Argentina have two players in their current squad with 18 or more World Cup matches: Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano. Brazil, in contrast, have none.
How about Germany? Three Germans who played in Russia have 15 or more World Cup matches under their belt: Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer. Indeed for his 23-member squad, German manager Joachim Löw retained nine players with previous World Cup experience: Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Mario Gomez, Mesut Özil and Julian Draxler. What’s more, Löw did not use them as experienced reserves. Eight of them featured in the crucial tie against South Korea, with most of them facing scathing criticism.
Brazil retained six players from their 2014 campaign: Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Neymar and Willian, five of whom started in the Serbia match.
The difference between these numbers of retained players may seem slim. But combined with the fact that Brazil also has a new manager, the difference in effectiveness is stark. Germany, as Simon Kuper observed in the FT, appears to be a team of the past, leeching on the successes of 2014. Brazil, on the other hand, seem energised.
A World Cup title then, in some sense, seems like a poisoned chalice. Four years down the line, it is difficult to replace wholesale members of a victorious squad with fresh blood, making the challenge of the next campaign doubly hard. Germany seems to have learnt it the hard way in Russia. The secret, at least as far as Brazil is concerned, is to reboot not once, but constantly.