Germany became the latest reigning World Cup champion to make a shocking exit in group play trying to repeat as champion, paying for its sins of poor finishing with a stunning 2-0 loss to South Korea to close Group F play Wednesday in Kazan.
There will be many questions asked of Die Mannschaft, who failed to advance out of group play for the first time in 17 World Cup appearances since being banned from the 1950 edition. Manager Joachim Low, who was overseeing his fourth World Cup and had reached at least the semifinals or better in the previous three, will be grilled for leaving pacy attacker Leroy Sane off the roster as well as a slew of personnel decisions over the three matches.
The European power became the third straight defending champion and fourth in the last five World Cup tournaments to be eliminated in group play, joining France (2002), Italy (2010) and Spain (2014). Trying to leave it late for a second straight match after Toni Kroos’ sublime stoppage-time winner versus Sweden, Die Mannschaft were instead left to rue their missed chances while being thwarted by an inspired performance from South Korea goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who finished with six saves.
To add further insult, the result lifted South Korea into third place in the group over Germany on goal difference as Sweden and Mexico progressed to the knockout round. It was the second time the Taegeuk Warriors recorded a third-match result to help a CONCACAF side reach the round of 16, with their 1-0 victory over Portugal as co-hosts in 2002 letting the United States advance.
Low made five changes to the starting XI that beat Sweden, most notably restoring Mesut Ozil as an attacking midfielder over Julian Draxler and debuting a new pairing in central defense with Mats Hummels and Niklas Sule to replace the suspended Jerome Boateng and the ineffective Antonio Rudiger.
South Korea made four changes as it looked to buck the long odds against qualifying, which required a victory in this game as well as a lopsided victory by Mexico in the other match. The first quarter-hour was a feeling-out process, with Jung Woo-young getting a yellow card in the eighth minute for steamrolling Ozil.
South Korea had the first scoring chance in the 19th minute when Germany keeper Manuel Neuer spilled a free kick by Jung from 30 yards, but he recovered to slap the ball away before a sliding Son Heung-min could get his foot to it.
Son had another chance in the 25th minute, lashing a volley from 12 yards following a poor Germany clearance high and wide of the right post. Die Mannschaft created a half-chance off a corner in the 39th minute, with Jo needing to dive on top of the ball after Hummels had a shot from the top of the six-yard box.
The 0-0 scoreline after 45 minutes meant Germany failed to score a first-half goal in its three group matches. Yet Low’s team was still in good shape to advance since Mexico and Sweden were also scoreless.
Die Mannschaft started the second half with more urgency, with Leon Goretzka forcing a diving save from Jo on an unmarked header following a cross from Joshua Kimmich in the 48th minute, and Timo Werner lashing a volley wide of the left post after a smart cutback pass from the end line by Jonas Hector three minutes later.
Meanwhile, Sweden had grabbed a 1-0 lead shortly after Jo’s save, adding another chapter of misery for Germany. Low introduced Mario Gomez right before the hour, replenishing the attacking energy as Kroos went wide in the 61st minute after a layoff from Ozil.
The Blagult doubled their lead, throwing Germany a lifeline as they now needed just one goal to advance. Thomas Muller came on for Goretzka as Germany tilted the pitch further, and Son was booked for diving by referee Mark Geiger in the 65th minute.
Gomez headed straight at Jo in the 68th minute, and South Korea’s defenders were doing all they can to help the cause by throwing themselves in front of shots. As Die Mannschaft kept pouring numbers forward, they were becoming increasingly exposed at the back, with the Taegeuk Warriors trying to send balls over the top for Son to race after.
Jo got down low to stop the ball after Kimmich curled in a cross in the 79th minute, while Muller and Marco Reus spurned chances by going wide. Ozil laid off a pass for Kroos, whose shot from 20 yards blazed over the bar. South Korea continued to get forward without making any scoring chances, raising the anxiety levels of both Germany and Mexico.
The champions’ best chance came in the 87th minute when Hummels made a total mess of a perfect cross by Ozil as his unmarked header from eight yards straight on hit his shoulder and went well wide of the right post.
South Korea finally found its breakthrough on a goal-mouth scramble following a corner as Kim Young-gwon poked the ball past Neuer in the 92nd minute. The linesman raised his flag saying Kim was offsides, but Geiger consulted VAR and noticed that Kroos had played the ball back to Sule, which also played Kim onside and reversed the call for a good goal.
Now it was desperate times for the four-time champion as Neuer pushed forward as an extra attacker as Germany now needed two goals to advance. The Taegeuk Warriors, though, dashed those dreams in the sixth minute of a seemingly interminable amount of stoppage time as Son chased down a long clearance by Ju Se-Jong and rolled the ball into an empty net to secure South Korea’s most famous World Cup victory and an infamous loss for Die Mannschaft that will likely result in a roster makeover ahead of qualifying for the 2020 European Championship.