AL KHOR, Qatar — This is how fine the margins can be: As the first bout between heavyweights of this World Cup ticked into injury time on Sunday, Álvaro Morata of Spain found himself cantering into the penalty area, the ball at his feet, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s net looming ever larger in his vision. Behind him, Nico Schlotterbeck of Germany was straining to close ground.
There were, at that point, two possible outcomes for Germany. They were separated in the moment only by a heartbeat, a blink of an eye, a blade of grass. But they carried with them two destinies that were not just distinct, but worlds apart. It was not just Germany’s hope of reaching the knockout rounds that hung in the balance, but estimations of its soccer culture, the international careers of its players and possibly the continuing employment of its manager.
In one outcome, Schlotterbeck would not make it back. Having already scored for Spain, Morata would take a touch to set himself, then send another shot careening past Neuer. Germany would lose its first two games at this tournament. The grumbling since Germany’s 2-1 loss to Japan on Wednesday would resume.
Germany Coach Hansi Flick’s team would head into its final match on Thursday, against Costa Rica, knowing its fate was not in its own hands, aware that it was flirting with the humiliation of being eliminated from the World Cup at the first hurdle for a second consecutive tournament. The players involved would carry the stigma with them for some time. Several international careers would end in ignominy. Flick could lose his job.
In the other outcome, Schlotterbeck would get there, hooking his foot around the ball and stealing it from Morata’s grasp. Germany would retain the point it had earned through a thunderous equalizer in the 83rd minute from Niclas Füllkrug, who was making just his third appearance for his country, at age 29, and with that point some measure of control over its fate.
Now, a mere victory against Costa Rica on Thursday would, in all likelihood, mean safe passage through not just to the last 16 from an awkward group draw, but to what must feel like an overdue stroke of good fortune: a tie not against another powerhouse but a relative outsider, Morocco or an aging Croatia, and a reasonable shot at a place in the quarterfinals.
The absurdity of such starkly opposing consequences is apparent. Germany’s performance would have been almost exactly the same whether Schlotterbeck made that tackle or not; it was, after all, just one incident among many hundreds over the course of some 100 minutes, one decision among thousands.
Had he failed to get there, it would not have been because of some fatal flaw in how Germany develops talent. It would not even, really, have been proof of a grand tactical failing on Flick’s part, or evidence that the atmosphere among the players had grown irretrievably toxic, or a rational basis on which to terminate someone’s employment.
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.
In that moment, as Morata shaped to shoot, Germany’s journey in Qatar hung by a thread. None of the encouraging signs it had offered would have mattered in the slightest if he had not gotten there. There tend, sadly, to be no mitigating circumstances in failure. The margins might be fine, but the realities that emerge as a consequence are diametrically opposed.
One outcome was nothing but darkness descending, the walls closing in. Fortunately, Germany finds itself in the other, where there may even be a kindly last 16 draw, a chance of a quarterfinal, an opportunity to slay ghosts and, perhaps, seek glory. Germany has confronted its gloom. Now, after a tense, forlorn week, it can see hope once more.