After eight years of coming agonizingly close in a total of four World Cup and European championship tournaments, Joachim Löw finally could shrug off the critics with the 2014 FIFA World Cup title in his hands. l. And, of course, when success eventually smiles, it comes with some style, most notably forcing the host nation, Brazil, no less, to one of the most embarrassing defeats of the footballing world before beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final to become the first European team to lift the World Cup trophy in South American soil.
But it was not all smooth sailing for Die Nationalmannschaft in the tournament. Despite kicking-off in identical fashion as they did four years ago in South Africa with a comfortable win against Portugal, a side who many understandably tipped to be Germany’s toughest opponent in the group stage, Löw had a fair share of criticism, especially after a shaky first half against Algeria in the second round, in a game only the liveliest Manuel Neuer and super-sub André Schürrle come out unscathed by the presses’ critiques. However that, and being almost second best in every department in a thrilling draw against Ghana in the group stage, is now a distance memory for Germany, virtually erased by them becoming world champions for the fourth time.
Team before individuals
Of course the best two players in the world don’t play for Germany, but they went to Brazil with the favorites tag better than Argentina and Portugal did. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo raised the stakes high, with their free-scoring forms leading their domination of the Ballon d’Or every year, but both came up short (again) in national team duty. Messi was left with the controversial golden boot award to show for his tournament, a competition which could’ve settled the comparison many draw with his former coach Diego Maradona. An unfit Ronaldo was far from being a match for the organized Germans.
Manuel Neuer’s performance in Brazil not only drew praise as a goalkeeper, but also for almost becoming an eleventh outfield player, with the aforementioned match against the Algerians serving as a perfect example. The “sweeper-keeper”, as many label Neuer’s role, was the undisputed winner of the Golden Glove for the tournament’s best goalkeeper, even though we witnessed several other heroes for their respective nations between the sticks in the tournament. Mats Hummels received the same recognition in his position, as he transferred his astounding club form in the last few years to the national team to great effect, in addition to adding two crucial goals himself from set-pieces play.
Philipp Lahm was as consistent as ever, and seamlessly played in two different positions throughout the tournament, a feat only few players would achieve in such a competition. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger proved many doubters wrong over their fitness, as their partnership in the middle of the field grew as the tournament went on and into the final stages. Real Madrid’s latest marquee signing, Toni Kroos, also made a name for himself by orchestrating the scenes in front of Miroslav Klose, who climbed to the top of the all-time World Cup goal scorers chart.
Let’s not forget about the forward who many tipped would replace the Lazio striker in the coming tournaments, Thomas Müller. The versatile Bayern-Academy product has reached double figures in goals in just two World Cups, and it would not be a crazy thought to think that he may surpass Klose’s tally in the future. Mesut Özil might not be as influential as Müller, but he deservedly kept his starting berth despite being the center of critics due to a drop in performance throughout a difficult debut season at Arsenal. Mario Götze was the other name which quickly springs to mind concerning players who suffered from widespread criticisms, but the decisive goal in the grand final speaks for itself. André Schürrle played a pivotal role coming off the bench and he also set up fellow substitute Götze brilliantly to brake the Argentine resistance and spare the anxiety of a penalty-shootout for German fans. Per Mertsacker, Lukas Podolski, Roman Weidenfeller and hipster-favorite Kevin Großkreutz were among the players, to name a few, who ensured the stability of the team spirit, despite not getting much playing time (or in some cases, none at all).
When the speculation of Philipp Lahm returning back to his accustomed full-back position spread in the wake of the underwhelming knockout match against Algeria, most pundits thought Benedikt Höwedes would be the one paving the way for the diminutive skipper. However, Löw clearly had different ideas, as he dropped the experienced Mertesacker – who found it hard to contain the pacy Algerians – and this meant that Höwedes, the surprise inclusion in the starting lineup after all, ended up playing every single minute of World Cup action. The Schalke defender struggled with injuries during the season and this restricted him to fewer appearances for his club. Nevertheless, and just like it has been the case with Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Klose, it has come to the benefit the national team, as he hasn’t been the victim of the tight European calendar, and was raring to go in full swings.
Although he might not be a long-term solution for Germany’s pitfalls in full-back positions, which will only become more of a problem after Philipp Lahm’s unexpected retirement, Höwedes stood his ground to keep some of the world’s best wingers at bay on the big stage. Germany only conceded two goals in the knockout stages (both only late consolations for Algeria and Brazil) after letting in as many goals against Ghana in the group stage, and the ever present makeshift-fullback had a breakthrough tournament. You might not see him making those dangerous overlapping runs down the flank or deliver accurate crosses, but he was among the instinctive threats in dead-ball situations, as he laid on the crucial equalizer for the talismanic Klose against Ghana and had the best of Germany’s chances in the final before the post come to the rescue of the Argentinians.
The only thing that could take away the man of the match accolade from Jérôme Boateng against Argentina was probably the fact that he wasn’t the one who coolly chested down André Schürrle’s delivery before thumping home with precision to decide the encounter. The towering center-back was one of the players who got better and better as the tournament reached its crucial stage. Just like in the previous World Cup, he faced his older step-brother, Kevin, in the group stage when Germany played Ghana. Both were substituted before the hour mark off as the match produced a frantic end, going down as one of the best matches in the World Cup. For Schalke’s Ghanaian midfielder, that was the last action he saw in the tournament, as he was sent home for disciplinary reasons before his country’s decisive match against Portugal.
But going back to Jérôme, that was only the start of what proved to be a memorable tournament for the versatile defender, who slotted into his more preferable position at centre-back from the quarter finals onwards after playing as a makeshift right-back in the previous matches, which made it four center-backs by trade in Germany’s defensive back line. Mats Hummels went as far as making it into the final candidates for the Golden ball award, but it was Boateng who stood his ground in the final match with his vast experience and determination coming handy against the Argentina’s star-studded attacking line. Having already won everything there is to win in club football with Bayern Munich, Boateng (and his fellow German internationals at Bayern) will now face the trickiest task of any footballer – keeping yourself motivated for further glory. And in two years time, he will be hoping for more of the same in Euro 2016, when Germany will go to the host nation France as undisputed favorites.
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