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Germany crash out of the World Cup by the narrowest possible margin

Germany players following their elimination from the 2022 World Cup Credit: Alamy
Germany players following their elimination from the 2022 World Cup Credit: Alamy

A controversial Japan goal cost Germany dear, but with wins against both them and Spain, Japan deserve their place in the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup.


With the actual final format up still up in the air, there’s been talk this week that FIFA are considering abandoning their plans for 16 groups of three teams at their bloated 2026 World Cup. This would be a good thing.

The four-team group format has worked perfectly well for decades. A 48-team tournament can also be played as twelve groups of four with best-ranked third-placed teams making up the numbers for a second round of 32.

Sure enough, this will be a bloated tournament with too many competing teams, but the issue with that isn’t whether there will be three or four teams in each group, it’s with there being 48 teams taking part in the first place.

In the space of four second half minutes against Spain, Japan demonstrated why the four-team group is such a perfect format.

The first half of the final round of matches in Group E had felt a little underwhelming. At the start of the evening, all four teams could still make it through to the next stage of the competition, but by half-time, it had all started to feel like a bit of a wash-out, in the excitement stakes. Serge Gnabry gave Germany the lead against Costa Rica after ten minutes. A minute later, Alvaro Morata did the same for Spain against Japan.

By the end of the first half, ITV commentator Jon Champion was grumbling at the crowd inside the stadium at the Germany vs Costa Rica game to ‘sit down’ after they started a first half Mexican wave.

The big European beasts, it seemed, were coming good. If anything, it was starting to look likely that all of international football’s apex predators might be present and correct in the latter stages of the competition, despite the surprise results that we saw in earlier round of the group stages.

But then the second half started.

First Japan scored two in four minutes to lead Spain 2-1, the second of which came about from a cross from Yuto Nagatomo which looked for all the world as though it had gone out first – it hadn’t; looks can be deceptive when it comes to the whole of the ball crossing the whole of the line – before being turned in from close range by Ao Tanaka.

Then, in the space of four minutes, Costa Rica came from a goal down to lead Germany 2-1. Then Germany equalised. Then they took the lead. It was becoming something of a challenge to keep pace with the bewildering array of possible permutations. 

These two goals left Japan top of the group with Spain and Germany tied on points, but with Spain in second place thanks to the huge goal difference advantage they built up with their earlier 7-0 win against Costa Rica.

By the time that the clock ticked over 90 minutes, Germany had extended their lead over Costa Rica to 4-2, but this was irrelevant. What Germany needed was for Spain to score against Japan, but that didn’t seem particularly likely to happen.

Spain had huffed and puffed throughout much of the second half, and although they were pretty much encamped in the Japan half for the final fifteen minutes of the game they seemed to have pretty much run out of ideas on how to score.

At the full-time whistle, as the Japan players celebrated their achievement, some of the Spain players didn’t even seem to know whether they had edged through or not. Those seven goals against Costa Rica turned out to be just enough. 

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Of course, the post-match controversy concerned that second Japanese goal. Was it in or was it out? We might have assumed that pictures would have been made confirming exactly what the basis of this decision might have been, but these weren’t forthcoming from FIFA.

The issue may well be what is ultimately a fundamental principle of the game, that the referee cannot blow the whistle unless they are certain something has definitely happened. Taking into account the goal-line technology and the VAR, it can only be reasonably concluded that the referee didn’t have the certainty to be able to rule that the ball had crossed the line.

But whether the ball did or didn’t completely cross the line (and this, as is frequently forgotten, has to include the entire curvature of the ball), FIFA is hardly doing its reputation for probity – stop sniggering – a great deal of good by failing to produce these images.

At least this would have shut Mark Pougatch, Graeme Souness – who briefly appeared to be only one step removed from stripping to the waist, putting a tin foil hat on and jumping on his desk – and Gary Neville up.

So Japan and Spain progress. Spain’s failure to win the group means that they now have to play Morocco in the next round, and Morocco are riding the crest of a wave after having won their group and picking up seven points in the process.

Spain have had this mild inconsistency about them for some time, now. They’re exactly the sort of team capable of rattling in seven goals in their first game and then having to scrap to get out of their group.

Japan play Croatia, and may fancy their chances of making it to the quarter-finals against an ageing European team which failed to score in two of their three group matches.

Compact and well-organised, but capable of these remarkable moments when they just seem to get the wind in their sails, they’ve been one of the most entertaining teams in this tournament and there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why they can’t go even further, although a likely – but not certain, not yet – quarter-final against Brazil will be an almighty challenge for whoever wins that game.

Nights like this are precisely why, no matter what else happens, FIFA must preserve their four-team groups.

Three game groups, with two of the teams knowing exactly what they’ll need to do to get through, is not going to work, and they already know this.

After all, when they used three team groups for a second group stage at the 1982 World Cup, after the tournament was expanded to 24 teams, they dropped it like a hot potato afterwards and replaced it with a return to a straight knockout competition from the second round fleshed out with highest-ranking third-placed teams from 1986 on.

The same could obviously just as easily be done with 48 teams. But let’s not go giving FIFA too much credit for back-tracking on their stupid original decision just yet.

Germany end up eliminated from this competition as a result of having such a slow start. At half-time in their opening match against Japan, they’d looked fairly comfortable, nothing special but okay, a goal up and not playing too badly.

But as happened to Argentina in their first game against Saudi Arabia, they failed to build on this advantage, were hit by two second-half goals in quick succession, and ended up losing.

They matched Spain pretty well and merited their late equalising goal against them, and they were comfortable winners against Costa Rica. But this, it turned out, was not enough.

It’s tough on Jamal Musiala, who seemed to sparkle every time he was in possession of the ball, but when all was said and done losing that opening game was a torpedo to their chances.

Hansi Flick only took over as the head coach last year following Joachim Low’s 15 years in the position. Quite where he goes from here is anybody’s guess.

All we can say for certain right now is that, for the second tournament in a row, they are out at the group stage of the competition, and whether you think that’s mighty funny or a real shame, at least its weirdness is appropriate for this most strange and unworldly World Cup.


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