Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer (1) midfielder Toni Kroos (8) and midfielder Julian Brandt (20) celebrate the comeback victory over Sweden. Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports
By Michael Lewis
As I walked through Frankfurt Airport May 2, 2006 on my way home after covering the U.S.’s 1-0 win over Poland in Kaiserslautern, I could not help but notice the headline in the German magazine kicker:
Even in German, most English soccer-speaking soccer fans knew what that meant: an embarrassing 4-1 debacle of a loss to Italy that had gone down the previous night in Florence.
“Mama mia, we’re bad, the German’s popular daily Bild said on its front page. “Only 99 days to the World Cup and our national team is playing worse than ever before. If we play like that at the World cup we’ll be obliterated.”
Now, imagine, just imagine what the headlines in German publications — print and online — would have said had the defending world champions been eliminated from the World Cup Saturday — not only in the group stage, but during the group stage, as in one more game remaining in Group F while playing on their own continent.
It would have been mind-boggling and earth-shattering in the very worst way for Germany.
As it was, the match was a fight and a half as the Germans attempted to overcome a stubborn Sweden side to earn a tense and dramatic 2-1 triumph and keep their knockout round hopes alive.
At times, the encounter was so unlike Germany, as far as recent World Cups and expectations go. They allowed Sweden to score first and finished with 10 men after Jerome Boateng’s ill-advised tackle from behind of Marcus Berg in the 82nd minute.
The Swedes tallied their goal on a counterattack against the run of play helped by some sloppy play by Germany. Ola Toivonen scored it in the 32nd minute. Marco Reus equalized in the 48th minute before Toni Kroos completed the entertaining 100 minutes or so of soccer by curling home a free kick to the far right post in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
After the break, the relentless Germans continued to possess the ball as if they owned it, but played with more purpose, passion and pace as they tried to equalize and stave off elimination.
In fact, it seemed the entire second half was played in Sweden’s end of the field at Fisht Olympic Stadium. Just wondering if grounds keepers will have to re-seed or replace some of the worn turf in the attacking third after the Germans laid siege to the Sweden goal.
But you certainly get the idea of German domination.
The Germans have forged a reputation as a World Cup machine, with many interchangeable parts while advancing to semifinals of the last four world championships. And even in their “poorer” performances, they usually have found a way to the quarterfinals.
The four-time World Cup champs have a record that is second only to five-time champions Brazil, which is quite appropriate after they became the first European team to win a world title in the Americas in 2014.
But nothing is certain or an absolute these days with more countries rising in soccer in general and to the occasion on the pitch.
The Germans might have recorded one of their most memorable opening-round wins, but they are not out of the woods quite yet.
They must overcome an alert and hard-working South Korean side that made Mexico work time and a half for both its goals in a 2-1 result earlier Saturday.
Stay tuned. If Saturday’s action is any indication of things to come, then Wednesday’s Group F finales could be classics.