Germany's dream of a third FIFA Women's World Cup™ triumph in a row crumbled to dust in Wolfsburg on Saturday evening, unleashing a numbing wave of shock and disbelief in the host nation. The quarter-final defeat to Japan by the only goal of the game in extra time was not how the script was meant to read. It was not only Germany's first defeat in 12 years at the global tournament, it was also a near-tragic final act for a truly golden generation.
German FA (DFB) president Dr Theo Zwanziger made no attempt to hide his dismay afterwards. “We’re deeply disappointed. The players who were in their last tournament would have loved to bow out with a trophy. But defeats are as much a part of sport as victories."
One of those days
Coach Silvia Neid's team certainly controlled their encounter with the hard-running, superbly disciplined and technically excellent Japanese for long stretches of the 120 minutes, but still left the field empty-handed. With no exceptions, the players who had hoped to make it a hat-trick on the global stage were on the verge of tears, and a handful simply broke down and wept copiously. “It really hasn't sunk in yet. To me, what's just happened is almost surreal," keeper Nadine Angerer lamented.
Neid collected her thoughts with admirable speed afterwards, recognising with a sense of resignation that it was simply not Germany's day. “It's happened exactly as I feared it might. When you play the team ranked fourth in the world, the tiny things make the difference. We didn't have it in us to score today. Our set plays were too imprecise, and when you play Japan, you're always at risk of being caught on the break. Obviously, it's very sad and disappointing. We had the desire, but we could have played for all eternity today and still not scored."
To add injury to insult, as it were, the match opened disastrously for the hosts when shooting star Kim Kulig hobbled off in obvious pain just a few minutes into the game. Germany team doctor Bernd Lasarzewski has subsequently confirmed that the forceful 21-year-old midfielder, who signed for FFC Frankfurt from Hamburg a short time ago, has ruptured a cruciate ligament and will be out of action for at least six months.
Birgit’s sad farewell
Naturally, one defeat is not the end of the world for women's football in Germany, as the national team is all but certain to retain its place in the elite for the foreseeable future. A role as one of the favourites for the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 in Canada seems predestined. However, Saturday's defeat to the big-hearted Japanese does mean a brutal, abrupt and unexpected end to an illustrious era, and the departure from the international stage of some of the greatest women's players of all time.
Three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and (still) FIFA Women's World Cup top scorer Birgit Prinz will finish with 128 goals from 214 appearances for her country, while versatile defender Ariane Hingst amassed 10 goals in 174 matches. Striker Inka Grings is 32 and has yet to decide whether to represent her country again. Angerer is the same age, and winger Kerstin Garefrekes just a year younger: both will be considering their international futures.
Dawn of a new generation
In retrospect, Prinz’ exit from international football was a touch unworthy of such a towering figure. She watched the whole of the quarter-final from the bench, and also failed to feature in a 4–2 victory over France in Germany's final group fixture. “I'm frustrated and disappointed. I felt fit and I'd have happily played. But the coach decided otherwise, and I accept that," the player stated. Looking ahead, the question will be which of a genuinely promising new generation, spearheaded by Kulig, Alexandra Popp, Fatmire Bajramaj, Simone Laudehr and Celia Okoyino da Mbabi, will now fill the gap left by the greatest player yet in the history of the German women's game.
It is not a case of a totally fresh start, but rather of re-acclimatising following more than a decade laden with trophies and triumphs. Difficult as the process may be, it could yet prove the crucible for a collection of new faces to emerge from the shadows and take up the reins for themselves.