Spain and Germany underestimate their other group opponents at their peril

Ian King
Ansu Fati of Spain

Spain and Germany have to play each other in the group stage and the losers will have much to think about in their other two games.


Both Spain and Germany will have had good reason to pay attention to Argentina’s surprise 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia. These two nations have been drawn against each other in the same World Cup group, and the assumption that they will both qualify by default is based on them both turning over the other two teams in the group – Japan and Costa Rica – and that looks considerably shakier today than it did yesterday. Their match against each other ensures that one or both of them will drop points; further dropped points start to look like they could be a gamble too far.

There was a period during which Spain and Germany dominated European international football. Spain won the World Cup in 2010 and the  European Championships in 2008 and 2012. Germany added a second World Cup to that list in 2014. But in 2018 Germany were knocked out in the group stage while Spain were eliminated in the second round.

Both teams could do with a return to success, but Germany probably need it more. Their last two tournaments saw them eliminated at the first hurdle for the first time in 80 years in 2018 and then knocked out in the second round of the last Euros. With the passing of time, their 2014 World Cup win has come to look like an outlier rather than a reversion to any kind of norm.

In 2018, Spain squeaked through the group stages by the skin of their teeth, winning one and drawing their other two group matches. Curiously they were again put in the same group as another big side; in this case, it was the then-reigning European champions Portugal. Having qualified top of their group on goals scored from Portugal, they were beaten on penalties in the second round by Russia. They fared better at Euro 2020, where they came within a penalty shoot-out of a place in the final.

Perhaps Germany’s biggest issue going into this tournament is where the goals are going to come from. Kai Havertz is expected to lead the line, but that’s not really his natural position and it really does feel as though this team needs a No. 9. They certainly have talent in other positions. Jamal Musiala – who played for England up to under-21 level – has been a revelation for Bayern Munich and at 19 years old already seems some way beyond being a mere ‘prospect’, while his Bayern team-mates Leon Goretzka and Josh Kimmich are similarly stylish players.

The big surprise in head coach Hansi Flick’s final squad for the tournament was the return of Mario Gotze to the international scene after an absence of five years. Gotze, who scored the winning goal for Germany the 2014 final, has been in outstanding form for Eintracht Frankfurt this season, and at 30 years of age still has much to give.

There is no guarantee that he’ll get much playing time, with competition from Goretzka and Kimmich, Jonas Hoffman and Ilkay Gundogan, but just for Gotze to be there is quite a turnaround for a career disrupted by frequent injury. But with the discovery of an underlying cause for these injuries, his career has turned itself around. Gotze left PSV to return to the Bundesliga after an absence of two seasons and has been instrumental in taking Eintracht to fourth place in the table.

Luis Enrique has been in charge of the Spain national team for four years – with a gap for personal reasons in 2019 – and, having prised his position back from interim Roberto Moreno upon his return, doesn’t look like going anywhere voluntarily. His current Spain team is a young team. With an average age of 25.6 they’re the youngest European squad at the World Cup and the fourth youngest overall.

There’s plenty of young talent, including Gavi, Pedri and Ansu Fati, and this is balanced with more experienced players such as Sergio Busquets and Cesar Azpilicueta. But the current generation of players doesn’t quite yet look as much of a team as Spanish teams of the recent past, and this can tend to make them a little unpredictable. Even their run to the semi-finals of Euro 2020 only came after two uninspiring draws against Sweden and Poland, which were jarringly followed by scoring five in each of their next two games.

Germany seem to be in transition and Spain seem a little unpredictable, and either of these character traits could be combustible when combined with the experience of the two other teams in their group. Costa Rica reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2014 after topping a group also containing Italy, England and Uruguay, while Japan are at their seventh successive finals and made the second round in 2018. Neither of these teams should be taken in the slightest bit lightly.

Saudi Arabia might have caused one of the greatest shocks in the history of the World Cup by beating Argentina, but it is already clear from Tunisia’s spirited performance against Denmark and a strong showing from Mexico against Poland that the non-European teams are very much up for this tournament. And why shouldn’t they be? They’re on the wrong end of football’s huge financial imbalance all year round, after all. What better an opportunity than a World Cup to send them a reminder that hey, we’re here too, and possibly earn a lucrative contract themselves into the bargain?

France took care of their business against Australia with the minimum of fuss, and with their star turn performing to an expected level of brilliance and with it feeling at times as though he was barely breaking out of a light jog. Compare that with the bewildered gloom that suddenly descended upon Argentina following their loss to Saudi Arabia. Three group matches sounds like a lot until something goes wrong, and then you remember that really it’s not very long at all.

For all the European dominance of its latter stages since Brazil became the last South American team to win it 20 years ago, there are plenty of examples of European teams turning up for a World Cup and promptly falling flat on their faces. And the fact that Spain and Germany have to play each other leaves both prone to being added to that list.

The form book and FIFA rankings back Spain between the two, but the gap between these two teams seems fairly narrow. Germany face Japan while Spain take on Costa Rica in their opening fixtures. If either slip up, that second fixture starts to look like one they have to win.