On the 29th of June 1998, I sat pensively in our living room going through the motions of World Cup knock out football. For some reason I can’t quite put a lid on, I was so engrossed in this particular clash. For what it’s worth, I was a nervous wreck. It was in the second half, the pony tailed hitman Luis Hernandez had just given Mexico the lead against Germany, the side that I had unconsciously adopted since I watched them pull off a stirring comeback to share the spoils with Yugoslavia a week earlier.
France ’98 was my first major tournament and my dad was eager to get me hooked into it all. He made me aware of what ‘knock-out’ meant – win and stay, lose and go home! Looking at the time ticking, my favourite team still trailing, filled me with tension. Thankfully it wouldn’t last for long as in the closing stages of the game, talisman and captain Jürgen Klinsmann netted the equalizer and strike partner Oliver Bierhoff grabbed to the winner and a passage to the quarterfinals. Later today evening (1800h EAT) as Germany, my Germany, takes on Mexico at the Luzhniki Stadium in the Group F opener, memories of that wonderful afternoon in Montpellier 20 years ago will inevitably come flooding back. A similar result will be more than welcome.
Germany arrive in this tournament as the World Champions and the highest ranked team in the world, with an added bonus of having tasted victory in Russia thanks to last year’s triumph in the dress rehearsal for the World Cup, the Confederations Cup. Not only that, but Die Mannschaft are aiming to become the only side since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their global crown. So in terms of motivation, they won’t be lacking. And if there’s a nation to back for that particular mission, Germany will always be a prime candidate.
Coach Joachim Löw has been at the helm since after the 2006 World Cup and in addition to establishing a brand of silky possession-based attacking football, he’s sought to build a recognizable team with a core of members that he’s fiercely loyal to, and who in return almost always deliver for him irrespective of their club form. At the start of this month there was trepidation and uproar from the football world as Löw submitted his 23-man squad to FIFA, minus one huge name – Manchester City starlet and the Premier League’s best young player last season, Leroy Sané. To be honest, it was a huge call, one that even I had and still have reservations about. But then again Sané hasn’t really established himself in the national team and when given opportunities hasn’t been pulling up trees either so Löw’s decision to leave him out in favour of Julian Brandt is one I can wrap my head around.
Another selection dilemma that raised more than a few eyebrows lies in the inclusion of goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer in the final squad. Normally this would be a non-issue but the big man has been sidelined by injury since last September and hasn’t played any competitive football since. For a long time during the just ended season it was always a race against time as to whether Neuer would be fit in time for Russia. So uncertain was the situation that Löw picked four goalkeepers (Neuer, Marc Andre Ter Stegen, Kevin Trapp and Bernd Leno) for the pre-tournament training camp just to give Neuer every chance of proving his fitness for selection. And he made the cut, with Leno being the one to miss out. For me it was never a debate, if Manu were fit, he not only goes to the World Cup, but also he goes as a starter. I am glad the coach shares the same sentiment. Manuel Neuer may have missed the club season, but he still is the best in the business and will once more prove it.
So apart from Neuer, who else makes the starting eleven for the Mexico clash? As it has been for a while now, the back five picks itself, fitness allowing. Neuer in goal, Joshua Kimmich at right back, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng at the heart of the defense and Jonas Hector at left back, with the first four all mates from Bayern Munich. The asterisk here is on Boateng who has been getting back to full fitness and whose readiness will only be decided by the coach. Either way, should he not make it, his and Hummels’ understudy at Bayern, Niklas Süle is a capable replacement.
Midfield is the heartbeat of this team in the Löw era and in fact, when Germany names its squads, midfield and attack are usually morphed together. Assuming the team will line up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, the two at the base should be Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. They’re tried, tested, experienced and complement each other marvelously well. Kroos is the metronome, dictating play and maintaining rhythm, while Khedira does the hustle and bustle as well as making those late runs into the opponent’s area to overload the attack. Mesut Özil’s fitness has been in question since he picked up a knock in the friendly against Austria, and I’m pretty sure Löw will give him every chance of featuring in the starting line up. He is the number 10 and the most potent creative force of the team. He is that important. I expect the attacking trio behind the centre forward to be Julian Draxler, Özil and Thomas Müller but should Özil not be deemed fit enough, a finally injury-free Marco Reus is an even more direct and goal hungrier replacement. The striker will be Timo Werner, a pacy and slimy forward, a breed that Germany has lacked for far too long. Werner will explode in Russia and you know what, you’ve been warned.
There’s the small off field matter of Özil and Ilkay Gündogan being too cosy with Turkish hardman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an act which had attracted widespread furore, even resulting in Gündogan being booed off during a match. It has threatened to derail Germany’s campaign and has even needed the coach and the football association to have a chat with the duo. Everyone by now should have had their say on it and a line drawn on the matter. Hopefully once the referee blows the kick off whistle, every Germany fan and player can pull together in the same direction.
I will be wearing my DFB number 13 home shirt before the match and will be crossing my fingers for the boys, and especially the one whose jersey I’ll be donning, Müller, to do what he does best, investigate space and score the goals. If he scores 7 goals by the end of the tourney, he will outrightly be the World Cup’s greatest ever scorer. I do not think he needs any invitation to attempt achieving that feat. That aside, the hope is that the journey that starts today against Mexico will end at the same venue on July 15 with the same outcome as that one at the Maracana 4 years ago. Die Suche nach dem 5. Stern. Auf gehts, Die Mannschaft!!!