Manuel Neuer
Germany’s captain Manuel Neuer consoles Jamal Musiala after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group E match against Costa Rica at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on December 1, 2022 Germany beat Costa Rica 4-2, but still bowed out of the tournament. Image Credit: Reuters

Belgium and Germany: two football powerhouses of Europe. Countries with rich history and long tradition of football. Home to numerous legendary footballers. All those counts for nothing; only results matter. Which is why they crashed out of the Qatar World Cup in the first round.

If common sense and logic replace shock and disbelief, the ouster isn’t surprising. On sheer reputation, Belgium and Germany should have made the Round of 16, but their abject displays didn’t warrant it.

Belgium came into the tournament as the second-ranked team in the world. Roberto Martinez’s team have been dominant for over six years with a golden generation of players. But there was no silverware. The best effort was third place in the last World Cup in Russia.

Even their talismanic player Kevin de Bruyne admitted their best chance was in 2018. Since then, Vincent Kompany has left. Thomas Vermaelen too. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are ageing and slower. Eden Hazard a pale shadow of the midfield genius he was. Romelu Lukaku has been grappling with injury and poor form. The brilliance of De Bruyne and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois isn’t enough to save the listing ship.

Why Belgium’s fall wasn’t unexpected

Martinez didn’t believe it. He felt there was enough quality for one last hurrah. Maybe the pressure to win a trophy clouded his judgement. So, he arrived in Qatar with a bunch of footballers living on reputation. The sport is a leveller; the Belgium coach should have known that, having been in top-flight football for a long time.

The scratchy win over Canada was only a prelude to an impending disaster. The Belgians struggled to cope with the energy and enthusiasm, speed and skill of Morocco, who were backed by a vociferous crowd. In retrospect, this loss hurt them badly. A goalless draw against Croatia was more evidence of their lack of cutting-edge. It was embarrassing to watch Lukaku fluff several chances. One shot that missed by an inch could have saved Belgium and made Lukaku a hero. It was not to be.

Thierry Henry
Belgium’s French assistant coach Thierry Henry consoles Belgium’s forward Romelu Lukaku after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match against Croatia at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, west of Doha, Qatar, on December 1, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

If Belgium’s fall wasn’t unexpected, the German exit was even more baffling. Never write off the Germans, I used to say. Times without number, I have seen Germany come back from the dead. They are even more dangerous with their backs to the wall. But this time, the writing was on the wall.

Germany had a poor run in the last two major tournaments: they tumbled out in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup and were knocked out of Euro 2020 in the Round of 16. Not a heartening piece of statistic for four-time champions.

Hans-Dieter “Hansi” Flick took over from Joachim Loew after Germany lost a generation of players. Only Thomas Mueller, Manuel Neuer, and Ilkay Gundogan remained. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a new-look team. They need time to turn into a world-beating side, and World Cup doesn’t afford such luxuries. They lacked a leader like Franz Beckenbauer, Karl Heinz Rummenigge, Lothar Mathaeus or Bastian Schweinsteiger. Neuer never looked like a leader.

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Despite that, Germany should have progressed to the next round. The loss against Japan seemed to be their death knell. A draw against the talented Spaniards and a hard-fought win over Costa Rica weren’t enough to reverse the damage. Finally, it boiled down to Japan’s second goal, a brilliant effort from Takumo Asano. A driving run that left defender Nico Schlotterbeck trailing and goalie Neuer shying away from the rising shot. That would haunt the Germans for a long time.

Worse could have happened. When the Germans went behind Costa Rica after taking the lead, it looked like Spain and Germany would crash out. Three quick German strikes banished such thoughts, but Spain couldn’t beat Japan and save Germany.

Spain are in rebuilding mode, and the results are heartening. They could be favourites in four years. Germany have the nucleus of a good side, but will need time. As for Belgium, they have to reset the team. A full overhaul is required.

Rise of the Asian and Arab teams

While we mourn the fall of the giants, let’s also applaud the rise of an Arab and an Asian country. They may not have the football history and tradition of Belgium and Germany, but they have plenty of talent and the enthusiasm to back it. The hordes that descended on the stadiums to support their teams are ample testimony to the popularity of football in Morocco and Japan.

If Morocco’s goalless draw with World Cup finalists Croatia was a win, they were better against Belgium with a thumping two-goal victory. It gave the Atlas Lions so much confidence that they bossed the game against Canada. A stirring performance indeed.

Japan are truly having their moment in the Qatar sun. Two stunning wins over powerhouses Germany and Spain can only burnish their reputation. Both were engineered from a goal deficit as they turned up the heat before defending stoutly. Bravehearts, really.