Sometimes in football, as in life, you don’t always get what you deserve. We might otherwise now be lauding Germany for defying Fifa before beating Japan in their World Cup opener. Instead, after an upset that resembled Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa in its force and magnitude, the sniping from the critics quickly began.
There was a common refrain after Germany’s 2-1 defeat: that they had paid the price for being too distracted by daring to stick up for human rights. As one Qatari reporter’s account, liked more than 200,000 times on social media, put it: “This is what happens when you don’t focus on football.”
It reeked of schadenfreude. It stank of scoreboard journalism. And it was also plain wrong, on multiple levels.
Germany did not lose because their players put their hands over their mouths to signify that they had been gagged by Fifa. Or because they wore rainbow-coloured boots. Or because their interior minister wore a OneLove armband while sitting next to the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino.
If there was a lack of focus, how come Hansi Flick’s side enjoyed 74% possession, had 25 shots compared with 11 for Japan, and largely dominated until removing Ilkay Gündogan and Thomas Müller on 67 minutes? More often than not in such games, a 1-0 lead becomes two or three. Instead a match that had appeared so controlled suddenly turned to chaos in the final 20 minutes.
There’s another, even more important, point to make here. Even if Germany’s protest had directly contributed to their defeat, it would have still been the right thing to do. Standing up for universal rights, for tolerance and freedom, matters far more than 22 people kicking a ball around. It is a damning failure on Fifa’s part that it fails to recognise this.
Let us make a prediction. That photograph of the German players with their hands over their mouths will, like the one of the Iran team who bowed their heads when their anthem played against England, reverberate down the years and the generations. Even if they go out of this World Cup in the first round. Some things just matter more.
As Germany’s captain, Manuel Neuer, explained after the game, they wanted to make a stand after Fifa stopped them and six other nations from wearing a OneLove armband. “We said they can take our armband, but as much as Fifa might want to, they will never silence us,” he told reporters. “We stand for our values and for human rights. We wanted to show that.”
Neuer, who was part of the Germany players’ council that came up with the idea on Tuesday, also expressed anger with Fifa’s threat to issue sporting sanctions after the tournament started. “The timing was actually horrible for me. We didn’t know what sanctions there might be.”
Under Flick, Germany have quickly earned a reputation for attacking play, having scored four or more goals six times in his 15 matches before coming to Qatar. And such was their early dominance, the only surprise was that it took 33 minutes for them to go ahead through a Gündogan penalty.
Yet the second goal didn’t come. And although Japan completed only 62 passes in the first half, a switch to three at the back allowed them to get back into the game. As the centre-back Maya Yoshida said: “We changed the shape. Jamal Musiala and Müller were in pockets all the time and we struggled to catch them. We tried to go three at the back. After that, they struggled a bit and we did much better.”
Even so, Germany had not lost a World Cup match when ahead at half-time since losing to Austria in 1978 – a run of 21 games. But then in the space of eight minutes everything suddenly spiralled out of control. On 75 minutes Ritsu Doan equalised. Then Takuma Asano lashed home the winner.
Suddenly Germany were faced with a stark reality of knowing they will have to beat Spain on Sunday to retain control of their own destiny.
Meanwhile Japan’s players went wild. And their fans wilder still. There were thousands of them here and they all seemed to break into a sustained chorus of “Nippon Olé”. Olé, indeed. But bravo to Germany, too.