Dani Carvajal was standing beneath the stand at Al Bayt Stadium, talking to journalists in the mixed zone when his Real Madrid clubmate Antonio Rüdiger appeared, sidled up to him and whispered something in his ear, laughing as he left. There was a smile and then the words were revealed, exactly as everyone imagined. “Yes, yes,” the Spain full-back said. “He told me to beat Japan.”
Spain and Germany had just drawn, leaving everything open for the final round of games. The selección had played well for an hour but then lost control after taking the lead, saw Niclas Füllkrug score an equaliser, and in the end might even have been beaten, Luis Enrique admitted. Ultimately, though, the manager insisted that Spain were in a good position: “Top of the group of death, the only group that got ‘oohs’ when the draw was made.”
All four teams could still progress. Spain still need a point to go through, while a win would guarantee top spot. Although they are bottom, Germany could go through if they beat Costa Rica, but here’s the thing: they would need Japan to lose to Spain. If the other game ends in a draw, Germany would need to win by at least two goals against Costa Rica or by a single-goal margin so long as they score more than Japan do against Spain.
If that sounds complicated, strip it all away and it’s simple: as Rüdiger said, Germany could really, really do with Spain beating Japan. He was not the only one either. Dani Olmo was laughing too, revealing that his RB Leipzig teammate David Raum had made the same request.
A couple of days before their second group game, when they knew a win would qualify them with a game to spare, the Spain midfielder Carlos Soler said it was not just about getting through, although that was what mattered most; it was also an opportunity to knock Germany out. He had nothing against them. There was no dislike, not even a rivalry, just a reality. It would, in truth, be better not to have to face them again.
That opportunity was not taken, but it presents itself again now. Well, sort of. It is different now. Last time it came as a consequence of winning; this time it would come as a consequence of not winning. Nor is it clearcut, the combinations too complex for that, both from Spain’s point of view and Japan’s. But it has not gone unnoticed that a draw between Spain and Japan could mean both going through at Germany’s expense.
Those combinations, the possibility of in effect having a mutually beneficial pact to put someone else out, is the reason the final group-stage games are played simultaneously. That change was prompted by what has become known as the Disgrace of Gijón, when West Germany and Austria conspired to play out a 1-0 win for the former to send both sides through and knock Algeria out of the 1982 World Cup. Gijón is Luis Enrique’s home city, and he was 12 at the time. He didn’t go, but he did try to get in.
A biscotto, they call it: a biscuit. Sometimes that’s the way the cookie crumbles. But not this time. Luis Enrique said tiredness was becoming a factor and it was notable that he mentioned Sergio Busquets having a yellow card that puts him a booking away from suspension. There is another element, too: finishing second rather than first might even be beneficial, if you consider potentially avoiding Brazil in a quarter-final to be a good thing. But the coach insisted Spain would play to win, no matter what. And indeed, amid all the speculation it has been forgotten that they could still go out. As for Japan, a draw offers no guarantees. A win for them and Spain would be in trouble.
“[Rüdiger] told me to beat Japan; there are no doubts that we will go out to win,” Carvajal said. “We want to be top, we want to win every game and we will do everything we can to achieve that.”
Olmo agreed: “We always want to win. If we win we will be in the last 16, and that’s what we want. Today was a pity but we will keep trying. The feeling is bittersweet. We lost control after the goal, and lost balls that we don’t usually lose. We have to be calmer and keep longer spells of possession, play the way we always try to do.”
For Germany, there was a reprieve. Costa Rica’s surprise win over Japan and their equaliser against Spain gives them an opportunity, even if they may need help from clubmates. “If you look at the 90 minutes, a draw is OK and of course we take it: now everything is about the last game,” Ilkay Gündogan said. “The disappointment was huge after that first game, even [for] me personally to be honest. The day after, even the second day after, it felt like it was unnecessary. Getting a good result was crucial for us today.”
The Manchester City midfielder also explained why Germany had not repeated their protest from the first match, when they had posed for the team picture with their hands over their mouths, after Manuel Neuer as captain was banned from wearing the OneLove armband. “We had a few players who are mad with Fifa because there were things planned from the team and then [with] this getting disallowed just before the game, a few players were disappointed and frustrated and wanted to show something. We had a discussion in the team and it got decided that we will do the gesture against Fifa,” he said.
“Honestly, my point of view is that now the politics is finished. Qatar is very proud, the country is proud to host the World Cup, it’s the first Muslim country – I come from a Muslim family – so the Muslim community is proud. So I think it is now about football, enjoying it.”