Dani Carvajal was standing under the stand at Al Bayt stadium, talking to reporters in the mixed zone when his Real Madrid team-mate Antonio Rüdiger appeared, slid up to him and whispered something in his ear, laughing as they leave. There was a smile and then the words were revealed, just as everyone imagined. “Yes, yes,” said the Spanish full-back. “He told me to beat Japan.”
Spain and Germany had just drawn, leaving everything open for the final round of matches. The selection had played well for an hour but then lost control after taking the lead, saw Niclas Füllkrug equalize, and in the end could even have been beaten, admitted Luis Enrique. In the end, however, the manager insisted Spain were in a good position: “Leading the group of death, the only group that got ‘oohs’ in the draw.”
All four teams could still progress. Spain still need a point to progress, while a victory would guarantee first place. Although they are last, Germany could pass if they beat Costa Rica, but here’s the problem: they would need Japan to lose to Spain. If the other game ends in a draw, Germany should win by at least two goals against Costa Rica or by only one goal as long as they score more than Japan against Spain.
If that sounds complicated, get rid of it all and it’s simple: as Rüdiger said, Germany could really, really do with Spain beating Japan. He wasn’t the only one either. Dani Olmo was also laughing, revealing his RB Leipzig team-mate David Raum made the same request.
Days before their second group match, when they knew a win would qualify them with a game to spare, Spain midfielder Carlos Soler said it was not just about going through, although that was what mattered most; it was also an opportunity to eliminate Germany. He had nothing against them. There was no aversion, not even a rivalry, just reality. Better, in truth, not to have to face them again.
This opportunity was missed, but it is coming again now. Well, sort of. It’s different now. The last time was a consequence of winning; this time it would come as a result of not winner. It is also not obvious, the combinations being too complex for that, both from the point of view of Spain and Japan. But it hasn’t gone unnoticed that a draw between Spain and Japan could mean both qualify at Germany’s expense.
These combinations, the possibility of actually having a mutually beneficial pact to exclude someone else, is why the final matches of the group stage are played simultaneously. This change was prompted by what became known as the Disgrace of Gijón, when West Germany and Austria conspired to claim a 1-0 victory for the first to send both teams and knocking Algeria out of the 1982 World Cup. Gijón is the hometown of Luis Enrique, and he was 12 at the time. He didn’t go, but he tried to enter.
A rusk, they call it: a cookie. Sometimes this is how the cookie crumbles. But not this time. Luis Enrique said fatigue was becoming a factor and it was notable that he mentioned Sergio Busquets had a yellow card which prevented him from being suspended. There is also another element: finishing second rather than first could even be beneficial, if you consider that potentially avoiding Brazil in the quarter-finals is a good thing. But the coach insisted that Spain will play to win no matter what. And indeed, amidst all the speculation, it was forgotten that they could still come out. As for Japan, a draw is no guarantee. A win for them and Spain would be in trouble.
“[Rüdiger] told me to beat Japan; there is no doubt that we will go out to win,” said Carvajal. “We want to be the best, we want to win every game and we will do everything we can to achieve that.”
Olmo agreed: “We always want to win. If we win, we’ll be in the last 16, and that’s what we want. Today was a shame, but we will keep trying. The feeling is bittersweet. We lost control after the goal, and we lost balls that we don’t usually lose. We have to be calmer and keep longer periods of possession, play as we always try to do.
For Germany, there was a reprieve. Costa Rica’s surprise win over Japan and an equalizer against Spain gives them an opportunity, although they may need help from their teammates. “If you look at the 90 minutes, a draw is OK and of course we take it: now it’s all about the last game,” said Ilkay Gündogan. “The disappointment was enormous after this first match, even [for] me personally to be honest. The next day, even the day after, I had the impression that it was useless. Getting a good result was crucial for us today.
The Manchester City midfielder also explained why Germany did not repeat their protest from the first game, when they posed for the team photo with their hands over their mouths, after Manuel Neuer as captain has been banned from wearing the OneLove armband. “We had a few players who are angry with Fifa because there were things planned by the team and then [with] this ban just before the game, a few players were disappointed and frustrated and wanted to show something. We had a discussion in the team and it was decided that we will make the move against Fifa,” he said.
“Honestly, my view is now the politics are over. Qatar is very proud, the country is proud to host the World Cup, it is the first Muslim country – I come from a Muslim family – so the Muslim community is proud. So I think it’s now about football, enjoying it.