By Keshav Vivek
Low in Command
Germany and England managed to secure World Cup berths for the 2014 extravaganza but there could hardly be a greater contrast between the ways in which qualification was achieved by the footballing giants of Europe. The Germans were regal; the English, ordinary. No team stamped its authority on the qualification round the way the former did. But for a solitary draw, all matches were won hands down. A performance that saw them top the charts in terms of qualification points (28), and goals scored (36).
The German football federation’s decision to extend national coach Joachim Low’s contract past the 2014 World Cup to 2016, reflects the level of confidence and trust the side inspires. They have hit a rich vein of footballing form. Under Low’s stewardship, the team managed to make it to the final of the 2008 Euros, losing out to Spain, and the semis of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the 2012 UEFA European Championship. The qualifiers for 2014 were no different. Placed in Group C alongside Sweden, Austria, Ireland, Kazakhstan and the Faroes, the Germans were rampant. A 3-0 victory over the Irish brought them qualification with a game to spare.
Low can be particularly proud of his record with the national team so far-68 wins from 99 games and a qualification campaign that went to plan. The only glitch might be a weak defence. Germany let in 10 goals. The 4-4 draw with Sweden on the 16th of October in Berlin prompted heavy criticism for the way in which a lead of four goals to none was squandered away. Low and his man on the field, skipper Philipp Lahm, have the talent (in the form of players such as Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, and Marco Reus) and wherewithal to carry Germany to the top.
But they will have to put up with critics harping on the medal-drought that has haunted the side since its victory in the final of the 1996 Euros. For a nation that has 3 World Cups (1954, 1974, and 1990), 3 European Championships (1972, 1980, and 1986) and an Olympic Gold Medal (1976), semi-final appearances don’t add up to much.
A Narrow Escape
The English, on the other hand, seemed to be fighting invisible ghosts in their matches. Flat, tired and uninspiring, their qualification had to wait till the very last encounter. It began on a confident note with Moldova being swept aside 5-0. The minnows were being dispatched in style but performances against more formidable sides left a lot to be desired. Spunky Montenegro held them to a 1-1 draw in Podgorica. Roy Hodgson’s squad was sent into a tailspin by the Ukrainians. Not only did they manage to hold the Three Lions to two draws but also threatened the unthinkable-an end to English World Cup hopes.
Skipper Steven Gerrard entered the last two ties knowing fully well that nothing short of consecutive victories would do. The Montenegrins were taken care of in an emphatic 4-1 victory. Ukraine refused to play the part, thrashing San Marino 8-0 to add to the tension. A loss to Poland would mean play-offs. Thankfully, Gerrard and Wayne Rooney combined to set up a 2-0 win, letting their coach rest his frayed nerves. Hodgson can look ahead to better performances in the days to come.
But the ominous words of his predecessor, Fabio Capello (in a FIFA.com interview), will continue ringing loud in English ears, “…they’re tired [going into tournaments]. They’re the least fresh of any of the competing national sides, because their league doesn’t have a break. It’s like when you’re driving a car: if you stop halfway to put fuel in then you’ll definitely get where you want to go, but if you don’t then there’s always the chance you’ll be running on empty before you reach your goal.”
Germany in the WC Qualifiers: 10 9 1 0 36 10 26 28 (M W D L GF GA GD Pts)
England in the WC Qualifiers: 10 6 4 0 31 4 27 22 (M W D L GF GA GD Pts)