It would not have rendered everything Germany had done over the previous couple of hours irrelevant: enduring Spain’s slick, irresistible start, when Dani Olmo cracked a shot off the crossbar and Pedri and Gavi, Barcelona’s seraphic midfielders, clipped the ball around as though it was their personal possession; slowly establishing a foothold in the game; finding ways to menace a Spanish team that had looked powerful just a few days before.
The last few days have been difficult for Germany. There have been, as Kai Havertz said before the game, more than a handful of frank exchanges of views among the players and the coaching staff. Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, a contemplative, even-keel sort of a person, admitted afterward that it had taken him a little while to process defeat against Japan in the opening game. “The day after, even the day after that, was still difficult,” he said.
And yet even when Morata’s inventive finish gave Spain the lead in the 62nd minute, sucking the air from Germany’s fans, bringing a reprise of the nightmare of 2018 within view, Gundogan and his teammates retained their cool. They did not seem haunted, panicked or desperate. They did not look like a team in the grip of an identity crisis.
Instead, they played with a maturity that offers considerable hope. Jamal Musiala, the brightest of their young generation, might have scored; Füllkrug, regarded almost as an accidental international, a sign of the shortcomings in the German system, was rather less forgiving.
That is not to say it was spectacular — far from it — but it was full of all of those other traits that are considered quite useful in these circumstances, grit and fight and industry and common sense, all the ingredients teams need not just to recover from setbacks but to go on to greater things.
And then came that moment, when Schlotterbeck hurried back toward his goal, when Morata waited to pounce, and everything hung on the line. The slightest error, the slightest pause, and it might all have been over: Germany would have been left relying on Spain’s good graces to make it to the last 16.
Schlotterbeck made the tackle, of course, bundling the ball out for a corner, jumping to his feet and pumping his arms, his face a mask of fury, as though he had scored the winning goal instead of preserving a 1-1 tie. Perhaps he knew quite how much was riding on that one moment, all the conclusions and assessments and decisions that rested on his pace, his timing, his judgment.