“Es ist unsere Aufgabe, unsere Pflicht,” muttered a shocked-looking Joachim Löw on Tuesday night. It is our job, our duty. Germany had just lost to Spain 6-0 in the UEFA Nations League, and Löw was responding to a question from reporters about whether he was interested in continuing as coach of the national team after the worst defeat for Die Nationalmannschaft since losing to Austria by the same score line in 1931.
In the same interview, Löw basically conceded that everything about Germany’s performance was bad in, well, pretty much every area, calling it a “dark day” more than once. Löw looked more concerned than at any other point during his 14-year tenure, pointing to his team’s poor communication and body language, and the lack of any response as the game got out of hand. It’s hard to articulate just how poor Germany were against a Spain side far from full strength. Serge Gnabry’s gnarly long-range strike that hit the crossbar was the only positive during a game in which Germany managed to create a single chance. Spain, on the other hand, created 20, and completed more than twice as many passes as their opponent. The score line could have been worse.
When Löw mentioned feeling a sense of duty when asked about his desire to continue the job, his body language suggested this was no longer enjoyable. Because, ultimately, what is duty without desire in sports? “Desire” is a word often loosely thrown around by proper football men in lieu of offering much in the way of tactical reasons for a defeat. However, when you want to do something, the task at hand—no matter how steep—is easier to tackle when the desire is there. Over the last few years, playing and coaching for the German national team has started to look more like a duty than a desirable task: constantly striving to reach the heights of the last decade while facing comparisons with those very teams and players who had such great success.
Tuesday felt like a moment that had been coming for quite some time. Rarely has Löw been exposed to such sustained criticism in his 14-year stint as head coach. It was disappointing when Germany exited the 2016 Euros in the semifinals after being super-punched by two Antoine Griezmann goals, but there was no shame in going out to the host nation and tournament favorite. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Germany finished at the bottom of a group they were expected to win, a failure that saw the blame put squarely on the players. Prior to the tournament, the German Football Association (DFB) prematurely placed its faith in Löw by offering him a contract extension through 2022. If that decision felt questionable at the time, it was catastrophic in hindsight, sending a message that Löw was the DFB’s guy.
Mesut Özil seemed to take more criticism than Löw after the World Cup, leading to the five-time German Player of the Year announcing his international retirement at just 29 amid accusations of racism within the DFB. Löw and many of Germany’s senior players didn’t publicly back Özil. The team that won the 2014 World Cup, including the iconic 7-1 win over Brazil in Belo Horizonte, seemed to be unraveling.
The sky would darken further less than nine months later when three pivotal members of that title-winning team—Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, and Thomas Müller—were all axed by Löw. Boateng and Hummels were barely 30; Müller was still 29. The reasons cited were of wanting a “new beginning” and was the latest in a long line of unnecessary decisions—much like the DFB offering Löw a contract extension before they needed to, here he was trying to blow up the squad prematurely. It was also curious as to why he chose these three players to exile as part of his “new beginning,” when Toni Kroos was far from his best and Manuel Neuer was—at that time—arguably not the best German goalkeeper. Since then, Boateng and Müller have been integral to a Bayern Munich side that has won two Bundesliga titles, two German Cups, a German Super Cup, as well as a Champions League and a UEFA Super Cup. Hummels, meanwhile, has been impressive overall since his return to Borussia Dortmund.
The cold truth is that the trio is missed, and this new beginning is missing the magic of the old. A BildSport yelled, “Wer ist hier der Boss?” (Who is the boss here?) suggesting that there was a vacuum of leadership, of responsibility, of desire shown against Spain. Hummels, Boeteng, and Müller—all in their early 30s—definitely offer the former. However, following the way their international careers ended, it’s hard to imagine any of them would have the desire to return under the current regime.
Granted, it’s hard to imagine Tuesday’s loss to Spain having quite the same psychological effect on Germany as their 7-1 win over Brazil had in 2014. Rarely is a defeat so seismic that it traumatizes an entire nation. You could argue Brazil still hasn’t gotten over it. Germany’s World Cup triumph in Brazil validated Löw’s yearslong project, and it supplanted Spain as the world’s new football dynasty. Germany’s new, diverse Golden Generation presaged a period of dominance that seemed likely to continue for years. Perhaps complacency—arrogance, even—slipped into the decision-making apparatus at the upper echelons of German football. Making scapegoats of key players perhaps killed the desire to do the duty.
“Weiter so, Jogi?” (Carrying on, Jogi?) asked Süddeutsche Zeitung, suggesting that the Spain result could have long-lasting consequences. One of those, they said, is that the DFB is more committed to Löw’s methods than they are to the coach himself. Maybe it’s time for someone else to step up and do their duty, maybe with a little more desire.