World Cup 2018: Germany Delivers Under Pressure Against Sweden
On Saturday, a sombre Germany took the field before its match with Sweden. After losing their opening match, in a seismic upset, to Mexico, the reigning world champions faced the prospect of failing to advance past the round-robin group stage for the first time since returning to the competition, as West Germany, in 1954. The squad—silent, contemplative—bore the physical symptoms of this historic Auftaktniederlage, the characteristically specific German phrase for loss in the first game of a competition.
Only the veteran forward Thomas Müller flashed a smile, before walking out of the tunnel. During the playing of the German anthem, the team captain and star goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, appeared stolid. As the camera panned across the rest of the starting lineup, notably absent of the veterans Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil, the players stared offscreen with varying levels of concentration and apprehension. When the camera reached Müller, he appeared to look directly at it, as if to say “For us, pressure feels great.” (Müller delivered that exact line in an interview that Fox Sports broadcast before the match.)
Müller’s teammates did not appear to share his sentiment as the game progressed, and the chance of a humiliating defeat seemed increasingly likely. Attempting to address the formation issues that plagued them during the game with Mexico, Germany opened with an aggressive attack from the flanks, utilizing the young forwards Timo Werner and Marco Reus and midfielder Sebastian Rudy. In the twenty-fourth minute, however, Rudy took a cleat to the face and was sent to the sideline, blood dripping from his face. After waiting several minutes for the team doctors to stanch the bleeding, the team’s coach, Joachim Löw, was ultimately forced to bring on a substitute. Then, in the thirty-first minute, the veteran German midfielder Toni Kroos gave away the ball at midfield, leading to a Swedish counterattack that ended in the midfielder Ola Toivonen lifting the ball over a charging Neuer.
The dejected German squad left the field down 0–1 at the half. As the team returned for the second half, Müller once again flashed the lone smile and seemed to joke with a Swedish player. The German team that returned to the field seemed newly energized. In the forty-eighth minute, Reus scored an equalizing goal.
But as the match wound down, Germany still hadn’t managed to score a second. With Mexico’s victory over South Korea earlier in the day, the Germans needed a win in order to control their own fate in the group. In the eighty-second minute, in a moment of poor judgment, the defender Jérôme Boateng earned his second yellow card and was dismissed from the field. Germany appeared to be on the verge of joining the ranks of three of the last four champions who had failed to advance past the group stage in the following World Cup—Spain in 2014, Italy in 2010, and France in 2002.
Then, in the ninety-fifth minute, Kroos lined up to take a free kick, just outside of the penalty box but at a difficult angle on the goal. Kroos touched the ball with the outside of his foot to Reus standing several feet away. Reus stopped the ball with the bottom of his foot, delaying the play by a disorienting moment but also giving his teammate a better angle at the goal. Kroos curved the ball into the far corner of the goal. Pandemonium ensued among the German players.
Müller, it turned out, had been correct all along. The pressure really did feel great.