When the draw was made last December for next month’s World Cup, Germany were provided with a challenging, but workable, set of three opponents. Three countries that, for fans of the Mannschaft, will be familiar without having to trawl too far back into the tournament records.
Every group phase match in the World Cup is a challenge, but Germany would be happy to have avoided some more dangerous opponents. Old rivals England had been a potential opponent, as had 2010 winners Spain and perennial banana skin Serbia.
First up, there is Mexico, who will be fresh in the memory from last season’s Confederations Cup. Then comes Sweden, a frequent European opponent that has scored seven goals in their last two matches against Jogi Löw’s side – but were still not able to win. The group fixtures then closes off against South Korea, a team that gave Berti Vogts’ Germany team a scare in the burning Dallas sun in 1994 before pushing them all the way on home turf in the 2002 semi-final.
So, let us sit back and take a closer look at these three group opponents, throwing in a little history along the way.
Mexico (17.06.2018, Moscow)
Germany kick off their tournament in the Russian capital against Mexico, a team often seen as tournament dark horses. El Tri (“the tricolour”, after the Mexican flag) are a regular feature in World Cup tournaments, and have have made it past the group stage in their last six appearances. However, they have to go back to 1986 since their last quarter-final appearance – on home soil against… West Germany.
Head to Head Record: P11 W5 D5 L1
Germany’s record against Mexico is a solid one, with just one defeat in eleven meetings – a two-goal loss in a 1985 friendly in Mexico City. In competitive encounters, the Mannschaft’s record is supreme. The first meaningful meeting in the World Cup in 1978 saw Helmut Schön’s team stroll to a 6-0 win, and in 1986 in Monterrey it would take a penalty shootout to see the Germans past their Mexican hosts, after a hard-fought goalless draw.
Things remained close in the World Cup in 1998 when Berti Vogts’ men had to come from behind to beat the Mexicans in Montpellier, and in 2005 the Germans played host to a thrilling third-place playoff in the Confederations Cup in Leipzig. Having taken the lead three times in normal time, it would take a Michael Ballack winner in extra time to see off the valiant Mexicans.
Mexican fans at the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017
The most recent encounter would take place in last year’s Confederations Cup semi-final in Russia, where Leon Goretzka’s brace in the opening ten minutes propelled the Mannschaft into a early lead. Juan Carlos Osorio’s team were a little unlucky, with Germany securing a comfortable if slightly flattering 4-1 victory.
As one of the strongest teams in the CONCACAF region, Mexico joined the qualifying competition at the fourth stage, where they were drawn against three past World Cup finalists in Honduras, Canada and El Salvador. None of these opponents were much of a match for El Tri, who dropped their only points with a 0-0 draw at home to the El Salvadoreans. In their six matches, they racked up 13 goals and conceded only one.
The final stage of the qualifying provided a few stumbles, but nothing that was ever going to derail Mexico’s qualification hopes. Up against Costa Rica, the United States, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago, Osorio’s men suffered their only defeat at home to Honduras. With six wins and three draws to go with that one defeat, Mexico finished clear at the top of the six-team table, five clear of second-placed Costa Rica.
PSV Eindhoven starlet Hirving Lozano was Mexico’s highest goalscorer with four goals across their two qualifying rounds, but the biggest threat from the Central Americans is their ongoing ability for their team to more than make up the sum of their component parts.
Perhaps the most well-established Mexican marksman is Javier Hernández, nicknamed Chicharito or the “little pea”. A player who will be familiar to many German fans due to his spell at Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Chicharito has racked up a century of caps in his international career, scoring 49 goals in the process. Other names to watch out for include veteran Oribe Peralta and youngster Lozano.
Along with their strong team spirit, Mexico also have plenty of experience. There are three centurions in their preliminary squad of 28, with only three having fewer than ten caps. Skipper Andrés Guardado leads the way, with 144 appearances.
Sweden (23.06.2018, Sochi)
Sweden are seen as World Cup regulars, but this is their first appearance in the final tournament since Germany in 2006, when they reached the second round. Their opponents… Germany, who stormed into an early two-goal lead and never looked back. Finalists on home soil in 1958, the Swedes would also claim a third-placed finish in the USA in 1994. The two teams meet in Sochi, host city of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Head to Head Record: P36 W15 D8 L13
One of Germany’s most frequent opponents, Sweden would hold the statistical advantage early on in meetings between the two teams. Germany would win the first encounter in Stockholm in 1911 4-2, only to lose five matches out of the next six over a period of 18 years. Since then, the Mannschaft have proved the more dominant. Their last defeat would come in 1988, when Franz Beckenbauer’s side were beaten on penalties in the pre-Euros tournament in Berlin.
Germany’s first tournament meeting with the Blågult “Blue-Yellows”) was in 1934, when the team coached by Dr. Otto Nerz’s defeated the Scandinavians 2-1 in Milan on their way to the third place – the first of the Mannschaft’s many podium finishes. The next encounter was in 1958, when the then defending champions were controversially muscled out 3-1 in the semi-final in Göteborg – arguably one of the most controversial matches between the two countries.
In 1974 the tables were turned in Düsseldorf, but with little of the same controversy. The Swedes had held their own for most of the match, but were finally sunk 4-2 in the second group phase as West Germany progressed to their final – and their second World Cup triumph.
Berti Vogts’ German team would finally erase the memories of Stockholm 1958 with a 3-2 semi-final win at Euro 1992, and in 2006 would come that win in Berlin, with two early goals from Lukas Podolski settling the issue – though the Swedes did miss a penalty that might have brought them back into the contest.
Swedish fans at the 2006 World Cup in Germany
Since that 3-1 defeat in 1958, the Mannschaft have been dominant in the two premier international tournaments. German teams have met the Swedes on nine occasions over the past sixty years, winning six and drawing three.
The two most recent meetings would come during qualification for the last World Cup, when the two teams scored a staggering sixteen goals between them. In Berlin, the Germans stormed into a 4-0 lead, only to see their legs turn to lead as the Scandinavians mounted an astonishing comeback to secure a 4-4 draw. In the return fixture in Stockholm, it was just as crazy. This time the Swedes would get their noses in front, forging a two-goal lead before Germany hit back with four of their own. When Sweden made it 4-3 it looked like there was going to be a repeat of the Berlin scoreline, only for André Schürrle to seal both the points a second-half hat-trick.
Qualifying for European teams has always been tough, but Sweden really did take a long and hard road to Russia. Drawn in a six-team group alongside 1998 winners France, two-time runners-up the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg, it would turn into a three-way battle between the three big names.
France quickly forged an early advantage, which they would not relinquish as they sealed the automatic qualifying spot, four clear of the Swedes. In the end, the Blågult’s last-gasp 2-1 win over Les Bleus in Stockholm would prove crucial. When they played the Dutch in their final match in Amsterdam, Janne Andersson’s men knew that only a mathematical miracle would deny them a place in the playoff round. The Oranje came into the match knowing that they had to win by six clear goals, but could only score two – leaving Sweden in second place on goal difference.
The playoff pitted the Swedes against four-time World Champions Italy, and just over three hours of nail-biting drama. A 61st minute goal from Jakob Johansson ensured that the Scandinavians would take a slender lead to Milan, where the Azzurri all set to throw everything at them. Roared on by the crowd of over 75,000, the Italians failed to deliver. As all of Sweden celebrated, Italy were left in the cold, out of the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958. When it was held… In Sweden.
In knocking out Italy, Sweden would have done many German fans a favour. While remaining a solid team with plenty of talent, this will be the first tournament that the Swedes will go into without their talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As a result, there are no real standout names.
Toulouse striker Ola Toivonen is the most prolific goalscorer in the squad, but his record of 13 goals in 57 games is not going to scare too many opposition defences, let alone Germany’s experienced lineup. Only five of the Swedish roster have over 50 caps, and this lack of experience and firepower will no doubt be compensated with the high level of commitment and spirit that has always driven Swedish teams of the past.
South Korea (27.06.2018, Kazan)
Dominant in the Asian qualifying section, 2002 semi-finalists South Korea have become a regular fixture at World Cup tournaments. They would have to wait 32 years after making their debut in 1954, but since then have been at every tournament, backing up their fourth-place finish on home soil with a last-sixteen appearance in 2010. They are Germany’s third group opponent, with the two teams meeting in the city of Kazan.
Head to Head Record: P3 W2 D0 L1
Germany and South Korea have only met on three occasions, twice at the World Cup. The first meeting-ever meeting between the two countries would take place at USA ’94, when Germany almost threw away a three-goal lead as they wilted in the heat of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Having seemingly put the game to bed in the first half with goals from Jürgen Klinsmann and Karlheinz Riedle, numerous missed opportunities for a fourth goal was followed by two Korean strikes in the space of ten minutes.
The next meeting in 2002 was even more hard-fought, with Rudi Völler’s Mannschaft edging out a Korean team that had made its way to the last four for the very first time. The tournament hosts would have their moments in Seoul, but in the end Michael Ballack’s second half goal was enough to separate the two teams.
South Korean fans at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
The third meeting, and Germany’s only defeat, would come in a 2004 friendly in Busan. The home side’s early opening goal was cancelled out by Ballack, but a spectacular finish from Dong-Gook Lee restored the advantage for the Taegeuk Jeonsa, or “Taegeuk Warriors”. Ballack had a chance to level things up again from the penalty spot, but his shot was well saved by ‘keeper Woon-Jae Lee. Two minutes later, the Koreans swept up the pitch to score a match-clinching third.
Compared to previous qualifying campaigns, The road to Russia was a little rockier than usual for the Taegeuk Jeonsa. Not that anybody would have predicted that after a flawless first group phase. Up against Lebanon, Myanmar, Laos and 1982 finalists Kuwait, Shin Tae-yong’s side notched up a perfect eight wins, with 27 unanswered goals.
Things were considerably tougher in final group stage, with pitted the Koreans against Iran, Syria, China, Uzbekistan and 2022 hosts Qatar. Iran were by far the most impressive team out of the six, with the Syrians overcoming their own domestic problems to create plenty of surprises.
With just four wins from their ten matches, South Korea finished on 15 points, seven behind Iran. Right until the end they had flirted with danger, with results on the final day just about enough to see them take the second automatic qualifying spot ahead of Syria.
Over the years, a number of South Korean players have become household names. Perhaps the most dangerous weapon in their armoury is Spurs striker Son Heung-min, who made in his name in the Bundesliga for Hamburger SV and Bayer 04 Leverkusen before moving to England.
FC Augsburg midfielder Koo Ja-cheol is another name that will be familiar to Bundesliga watchers, but apart from that there should be little to threaten the Mannschaft when the two teams meet in Kazan. While there is plenty of experience in the midfield and upfront with a number of players plying their trade in the European leagues, at the back things look a little threadbare.
If all things run to form, Germany should emerge intact from this group. The only real challenge is that their toughest game is at the start, against a Mexico team that will be completely fresh when the two teams meet in Moscow. This all being said, we should expect Jogi’s Jungs to finish with all nine points and set up a last-sixteen meeting in St. Petersburg against the runners-up of Group E – one of Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland or Costa Rica.