Germany make statement but again come unstuck in a World Cup opener

AFP

Support of the OneLove campaign ahead of Wednesday's 2-1 defeat to Japan was not about "making a political statement", Germany said, for human rights should not be a political matter.

Even other proponents seemingly disagreed. Louis van Gaal – the Netherlands coach and a critic of the Qatar World Cup – had halted discussion of the armband captains were due to wear to back the campaign.

"I am no longer going to speak about political issues," he said on the eve of the Oranje's victory against Senegal.

Political or not, Germany's approach to their opener at Khalifa International Stadium was certainly a statement.

Feeling FIFA was "denying us a voice" by threatening sanctions for protesting players, Germany posed for their pre-match team photo with each of their XI covering his mouth with his hand.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino was in the stands to see that stance, while rumours initially persisted about the possibility of Manuel Neuer – Germany's goalkeeper and captain – discreetly sporting the OneLove message.

Neuer's white captain's armband – which bore some resemblance to the banned edition but was in fact the FIFA-approved "no discrimination" alternative – was mysteriously tucked underneath his shirt. It was checked by an official before the kick-off, however, and no yellow card followed.

As it turned out, Nancy Faeser, a German politician, was sat next to Infantino wearing the armband herself, removing her jacket to reveal it in her own personal display.

It was easy for a time to forget there was a football match going on. Germany ultimately might have wished there was not.

"We also have to manage this balancing act of focusing on the sporting side," Joshua Kimmich said in the pre-match news conference – something Germany appeared to be doing well for much of the match.

There was no question about the sanction Japan's goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda would face in the 31st minute when he tripped David Raum once and then jumped back up to fell him again.

A clear-cut penalty was calmly dispatched by Ilkay Gundogan for a goal that had been coming.

Japan had threatened themselves, exploiting the space behind Raum, but consistently lacked the requisite composure when they reached the penalty area, putting the ball in the net only through the offside Daizen Maeda.

Kai Havertz likewise saw a second disallowed before half-time, while Jamal Musiala's dancing feet following the restart briefly justified recent comparisons to Lionel Messi before he hacked his finish over the crossbar.

Musiala soon squared for Gundogan to roll a low shot against the foot of the post, and as Germany continued to pass up chances, Neuer started to come under pressure at the other end.

His sublime instinctive save from Junya Ito teed up Hiroki Sakai to blast wide, but the Germany skipper's next parry fell for Freiburg's Ritsu Doan to sweep in the leveller.

Takuma Asano – another German-based player at Bochum – then brought down a long ball and squeezed a finish beyond Neuer. As in Russia four years ago, an opening defeat leaves Die Mannschaft in a perilous position in the group – one they could not recover from last time.

Their loss, like Argentina's, will likely be celebrated by the tournament's genuine contenders. It might also cynically provide hope of a little respite for those feeling the heat as demonstrations around various controversies continue in Qatar, led by Germany.

This obstinate storyline of the first week of the finals – perhaps even more so than Karim Benzema's injury, Argentina's embarrassment (and now Germany's) or Cristiano Ronaldo's club future – is surely here to stay.

Germany, again, may not be.