Given Germany are four-time World Cup winners their status as unknown quantities when kicking off their Qatar 2022 campaign against Japan on Wednesday is odd.
Which Germany will turn up? Die Turniermannschaft – the “tournament team” who, as Germany or West Germany, have also been World Cup runners-up four times and in European Championships been winners three times and runners-up three times, too? Or the rabble whose World Cup defence in 2018 ended in the ignominy of a group-stage exit as the bottom nation after defeats by Mexico and South Korea and who were beaten 2-0 by England in the last 16 at last year’s Euros?
Joshua Kimmich, who is expected to line up at Khalifa International Stadium in midfield, was the right-back in Germany’s dismal title defence four years ago. “The motivation is huge,” he said. “We know that was nothing, that was terrible what happened. We’ve had quite the wait – four and a half years.
“The first game is very important; we’ve seen that in previous tournaments. At the Euros we lost the first game and didn’t win [the title].”
Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller were in the triumphant side of 2014 but Kimmich and other potential starters who include Antonio Rüdiger, Serge Gnabry, Kai Havertz, Ilkay Gündogan and Jamal Musiala have never won an international title.
Hansi Flick, the head coach, cited being Joachim Löw’s assistant eight years ago. “I was part of the team in 2014 – with [Lukas] Podolski, [Mats] Hummels, [Philipp] Lahm,” he said. “It was the same: before the tournament people were saying they haven’t won big titles yet. You can’t compare the generations.
“This generation is characterised by the fact they are very focused on the game and always push their limits. They are players who always try to get better every time they step on the pitch. It’s wonderful to see as a coach.
“We know the competition is strong. Look at Argentina and Saudi Arabia – everything is possible. But that’s what makes football beautiful. Never underestimate your opponent.
“Over the past couple of days we had great practice, we had a very satisfying last practice, we have very good conditions now to go into the game. We can have a very positive outlook going into this game but also tackling this tournament as a whole.”
Flick and Kimmich attempted to brush off Germany’s part in the collective decision by seven European nations to perform a U-turn regarding their captains wearing a OneLove armband. “The German team wanted to do this and to take a stand,” Flick said. “But now Fifa have threatened us basically with sanctions [a yellow card]. If you want to run a campaign like this together, you should stick to your decisions.”
If the last comment poses the question why Germany did not go ahead with the plan, Kimmich asked to be allowed to enjoy the competition. “It’s every little boy’s dream to participate in a World Cup,” he said. “A lot of people have tried to convince us that we shouldn’t be looking forward to this. At home lots of people aren’t as excited. But I feel I should be looking forward to this, even if it’s being hosted here.”
Japan, coached by Hajime Moriyasu, have seven squad members at Bundesliga clubs. They include the centre-back Maya Yoshida, who played 154 Premier League games for Southampton and was in the Schalke side that lost 2-0 against a Bayern Munich featuring Gnabry, Musiala, Kimmich, Neuer, and Leroy Sané (who is unavailable for this game because of a knee injury) in the last match before this tournament.
Yoshida said: “Playing against them is better analysis than watching the video – it was a great experience. One of the reasons I came to the Bundesliga was to experience German football. The key is we have to defend well. In football there is the game we should win, but there never exists a game where we should lose. So we believe we have a chance.”