There was an added note of pain for Germany in the tone, the pitch, the basic jauntiness of Costa Rica’s designated goal music, a taunting blast of trumpets and maracas, the kind of thing that gets played on a particularly cruel TV gameshow as the bucket of gunge upends itself over the dunce’s booth.
Germany did manage something novel at Al Bayt Stadium, exiting the World Cup at the earliest stage despite winning this game 4-2. They spent most of it in, then out; and even witnessed an extraordinary period where it seemed Costa Rica, who played with real heart, were going through instead. With 48 minutes gone Hansi Flick’s team had been bossing this Group E endgame, eyes still fixed on the horizon towards the last 16 of Qatar 2022. Elsewhere in the Doha orbit zone Spain were 1-0 up.
The German campaign had been weird, marked by Antonio Rüdiger’s mocking knees-high run, and then the Füllkrug interlude, where a man who could actually score a goal briefly became a kind of Teutonic folk saviour. But this felt like a kind of safety.
At which point semi-disaster struck. Japan equalised at the Khalifa International Stadium. Germany now had to recrank the engines, score again and hope for a Spanish revival. But now outright disaster struck as Japan went 2-1 up and suddenly Germany were freewheeling towards the exit doors. This had become a ghost game, dead football, a night of second-screening.
Germany did need a just-in-case goal, needed to win by two, to play like this was still there. They did the opposite. A large channel of space opened down the right. Costa Rica surged through, Keysher Fuller crossing, Manuel Neuer saving the first header and Yeltsin Tejeda burying the rebound.
The music blared. Flick slumped deep in his padded chair, eyes bulging. And now the night brought a genuine plot twist. Briefly this stopped being a Germany story and became a Costa Rica one. The second Ticos goal was farcical, all flailing legs, the ball bundled home off Neuer. A goal to the good, Costa Rica stood on the verge of pub quiz immortality, set to edge ahead in their final group game of a team that had beaten them 7-0 in their first.
But wait. What was this? More madness. Germany equalised! 2-2. Where are we? Is this really the Place Vendôme? Kai Havertz had equalised. There were 17 minutes to go at this stage. How many more worlds, how many alternate universes would we need to absorb?
Group E has been a weird kind of torture for Germany. This was something new, five goals, a wild inversion of emotions and a mutual assured footballing destruction, with both teams here now going out. Niclas Füllkrug had already been summoned to add muscle and vibes to Germany’s attack. The sublime Jamal Musiala twice hit a post, playing a different game for a different Germany team.
Havertz made it 3-2. Pointlessly Germany got to their two-goal cushion, Füllkrug scoring after a wild, hallucinogenic VAR delay during which the stadium seemed to melt and ooze through the floor. Germany had done Spain a solid here by seeing off the surging Ticos. Any chance of returning the favour?
It wasn’t to be. All four teams had entered this final round able to go through or go out. All four had revolved like a formal dance over 90 minutes. This was World Cup group final match day as free‑form jazz flute solo , and a great advert for the four-team format just as Fifa contemplates tearing it up to inflict pre-match penalty shootouts and other three-team inanity for the next bloated edition.
At kick-off Germany needed to win and hope Spain beat Japan. Costa Rica needed to win and hope Japan beat Spain. Or Germany could just say hang it all and try to win 9-0. Flick did go for broke in a way, with Thomas Müller starting ahead of Musiala plus the twin man-bun speedsters Leroy Sané and Serge Gnabry.
And Al Bayt felt like a fitting last-chance saloon, a stadium with an air of the one-horse desert town, the clock ticking around closer to midnight. Musiala was sublime early on, coming on like a miraculous human pond-skater, gliding through the red shirts, making the game throb and buzz with possibilities.
The opening goal came from his side, David Raum crossing for Gnabry to head in. Spain had also gone one up against Japan. For a while nothing much happened. Al Bayt waited, awkwardly for time to pass. It came in a rush.
At the end a dejected Flick spoke about the need to spend the next 10 years overhauling the youth system (hasn’t this happened?). Something will have to change, because this is now the worst German World Cup era in the history of German World Cup eras. West or unified, Germany have failed to get out of a first-round stage only twice in 16 men’s World Cups. This one and the last one.
Has there been a greater recent footballing chimera than that 2014 triumph, which was hailed at the time as the birth of some German machine-football uber-generation all set to dominate for the next decade. Germany’s golden crop, Das (borrowed, Spanish) Reboot has turned out to be something else. So often what we see as just the start of an era is instead its high point, the wave not gathering strength but breaking. For all Flick’s urgent talk of starting again, this felt like the end of something.