Germany's midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger celebrates. Image Credit: AFP

Alive for two out of four of their World Cup wins, I grew up watching Germany in their prime — at least during my existence.

Before Manuel Neuer swooped in with his towering height, fountain-of-youth looks and sweeping goalkeeper tactics, Oliver Kahn stood taller than anyone in goal: weathered face, stern stance and impenetrable composure filling every inch between the posts. Miroslav Klose’s forward-flip celebrations were almost as exciting as the goals themselves. Michael Ballack was arrogant but irresistible. Philipp Lahm was small in stature but mighty in presence. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski were a delight to watch as they rustled up plays together.

Players came and went, but the team seemed to retain the same heart, grit and passion.

Miroslav Klose's celebrations steal the show.

On Wednesday, North Macedonia defeated Germany — in Germany.

They stunned the four-time World Cup champions and watched them walk away empty handed on their own turf. The shock 2-1 result during the World Cup 2022 qualifier match — a penalty scored by Ilkay Gundogen (plus a miss from Timo Werner) and a goal each from Goran Pandev and Eljif Elmas — marked Germany’s first World Cup qualifier defeat in 20 years.

It’s also the last World Cup qualifying campaign with manager Joachim Loew, who will step down after Euro 2020 and bring to a close 15 years with the squad. “The disappointment is big if you lose like that,” said Loew after.

German skipper Michael Ballack.

To be handed an unexpected defeat is a bitter pill that any team will have to swallow from time to time. But, just like Europe’s biggest domestic leagues this season, it also became clear that the World Cup could be anyone’s game next year in Qatar.

Schweinsteiger, former Germany captain and the fourth-most capped German national player of all time, took to Twitter to comment on what he seemed to agree was a well-earned win.

“My respect to North Macedonia, unlucky penalty against them, clear penalty not given and these guys win their away game against a 4 time world champion. Chapeau,” wrote Schweinsteiger, saluting the 65th ranked national team, who defeated world No 13 Germany.

Supporters of North Macedonia celebrate their teams 2-1 victory over Germany outside the Duisburg stadium.
Supporters of North Macedonia celebrate their teams 2-1 victory over Germany outside the Duisburg stadium. Image Credit: Reuters

Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup. Brazil snagged it five times, Germany and Italy have four titles each, Argentina, France and Uruguay (the first country to ever win it) have two wins to their names, while each England and Spain have won it once.

But, could another country penetrate the exclusive World Cup winners club soon? Croatia nearly did it in 2018. Norway, with young and successful players such as Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard, are being pegged as the tournament’s dark horse already.

Croatia's Luka Modric and teammates at the end of the final match between France and Croatia at the 2018 Fifa World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia.

While we may be getting glimpses into what the World Cup 2022 could look like through the group qualifier matches, it’s impossible to know for certain whether we’re in for a predictable tournament or the ride of our lives.

When Croatia became the steadfast underdogs that nearly took it all home three years ago, it felt like the whole world had united in yearning for something we didn’t even know we wanted. Even as France took home a much-deserved win, those moments of hope for Croatia felt pure.

For the sake of a new chapter in history, perhaps another such twist next year will be just what we need to come together again — for the love and joy of the game above all else.