Disastrous World Cup camp threatens to derail Germany this summer
MAY 31, 2014 8:39a ET
If you're a betting man, the smart money is on Germany to make the final in Rio de Janeiro this summer.
Germany has reached at least one final of a major tournament every six years since the former West Germany finished as runners-up in the 1966 World Cup. After a second-place finish at the 2008 European Championship, and semifinal exits in 2010 and 2012, they are due. If Germans are known for one trait, it's their punctuality.
Just don't tell the people that. Even though Germany is ranked the world's second-best team, and boasts a World Cup resume of three titles and a record 12 top-four finishes, no one is brimming with confidence -- as usual.
"It's in a German's nature to see the negatives over the positives," Bastian Schweinsteiger recently pointed out. He's dead on: Germans are experts in finding reasons to anticipate the worst, half oblivious to the history of the national team.
Before the past two World Cups, widespread concerns over the defense and injuries to Michael Ballack -- especially in 2010, when the captain missed the tournament completely -- threw buckets of cold water on expectations. The team florished anyway, finishing in third place both times after losing to the eventual champion. The outlook in 2002 was even bleaker; then Germany lost to Brazil in the final.
Heading into Brazil, Germans are once again cautiously optimistic at best and doggedly pessimistic at worst. This time, though, there is genuine reason for worry. Never has a pre-World Cup camp produced as many negative headlines as Germany's this year.
There were the off-the-field misdemeanors, such as manager Joachim Low losing his driver's license for earning too many speeding tickets; and Kevin Grosskreutz's blackout after the German Cup final. The Dortmund star is alleged to have urinated in a Berlin hotel lobby, insulted a hostess and kicked a guest in his drunken stupor, according to a report published in Sport Bild.
Then there was Tuesday's harrowing car accident during a commercial shoot for team sponsor Mercedes Benz. Schalke's Benedikt Howedes and Julian Draxler were passengers in vehicles driven by race car drivers when one of them struck two people on a closed circuit. The victims were hospitalized, and the crash shook up the camp. It has since served as the symbol for their apparently cursed stay in south Tyrol.
And then there are the injuries. The leadership core of Low's team -- the Bayern triumvirate of Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer and Philipp Lahm -- remain unfit to play less than three weeks before the opening match against Portugal. Thursday marked the first day all three were able to practice, though only on a limited basis. And while Low insists everyone will be ready by June 16, doubts still linger, especially over Neuer.
The reigning IFFHS Goalkeeper of the Year is nursing a shoulder injury that for much of camp has restricted him from shaving or brushing his teeth with his right arm. Even if the pain subsides, third-choice keeper Ron-Robert Zieler acknowledged that such injuries "don't just go away in a couple of weeks." The absence of Neuer, Germany's sweeper-keeper and pseudo-playmaker, would be tough to digest.
The other trouble spot lies in defensive midfield, normally a position of strength. The 2010 team's successful double-pivot of Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira is not yet at full strength. The former is yet to take part in full-contact training, while Khedira returned from his six-month injury spell (after tearing his ACL) in last week's UEFA Champions League final. Alternative Lars Bender is out of the World Cup entirely with a thigh injury.
Both of Germany's emotional leaders might yet make the starting lineup in two weeks' time, but whether they will be at the peak of their powers remains to be seen. In 2012, Low stuck with a hobbled Schweinsteiger throughout the Euros despite only witnessing his full potential in spurts. It cost him then, and now Low will have to make another tough call in Brazil.
This drama-filled camp has left Low with little chance to tinker with his starting XI or his tactics, but it's not all doom and gloom either, as hard as it may be for Germans to admit it.
Even in the worst-case scenario, adequate replacements can be found for Neuer (Roman Weidenfeller), Schweinsteiger (Toni Kroos) and Lahm (Grosskreutz). With the likes of Marco Reus, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze, Low also has plenty of world-class talent at his disposal in other areas.
Germany remains the favorite to win Group G, and the semifinals are once again the minimum requirement. But with the squad having left camp Saturday, time is quickly running out for Low to mobilize his team.
What was that about German punctuality? Now, the entire nation must bet on it.