There was an added pain for Germany in the basic jauntiness of Costa Rica’s designated goal music, a taunting, cajoling blast of trumpets and maracas, the kind of thing that might get played on a gameshow as a bucket of gunge descends over the dunce’s booth.
With 48 minutes gone in the Doha-orbit World Cup zone, Germany had been bossing this Group E endgame, cruising a little uneasily, but with their eyes fixed on the horizon towards the last 16. The campaign had been weird. There was Antonio Rüdiger’s mocking knees-high run. And the Niclas Füllkrug interlude, where a man who could actually score a goal briefly became a kind of Teutonic folk saviour. But this felt like a kind of safety.
Then semi-disaster struck. Japan scored at the Khalifa International Stadium. Germany had to crank the engines, score again and hope for a Spanish revival. At which point outright disaster struck as Japan went 2-1 up, and Germany were freewheeling towards the exit doors. A mild, controlled 1-0 had become a meek, end-of-an era 1-0.
Germany still needed a just-in-case goal, needed to play like this was all there was. They did the opposite, falling apart instead, as a vast channel of space opened up down the right. Costa Rica surged though, Keysher Fuller crossing, Manuel Neuer saving the first header, and Yeltsin Tejeda burying the rebound.
The music blared. Hansi Flick slumped deep in his padded chair, eyes bulging. At which point, something even more incredible happened. Briefly, this stopped being a Germany story and became a Costa Rica one.
The second Ticos goal was farcical, all flailing legs, Juan Pablo Vargas bundling the ball home. And with that Costa Rica stood on the verge of pub-quiz immortality, all set to eliminate in their final group game the team that beat them 7-0 in their first.
But wait. What was this. More madness. Germany equalised! 2-2. Where are we? Is this really the place Vendôme? Kai Havertz got the equaliser. There were 17 minutes to go. How many more worlds, how many alternate universes would we have to absorb?
Füllkrug had already been summoned to add muscle and vibes to Germany’s attack. Jamal Musiala hit a post twice. Group E has been a weird kind of torture for Germany, but this was something new. As the seconds slipped away we had mutual assured footballing destruction on the cards, both teams here going out, six goals scored, a wild crisscross of emotions.
Havertz made it 3-2. Germany still needed one more with four minutes to go, and one more from Spain. Pointlessly they did get to 4-2, Füllkrug scoring after a wild, hallucinogenic VAR delay during which the stadium seemed to melt and ooze through the floor. Germany had done Spain a solid. Any chance of returning the favour?
It wasn’t to be. Japan topped the group. Both sets of players slunk from the pitch. Both had come to the stadium still in the Group E gutter, but looking at the stars. At kick-off all four teams could still go through. All four could go out.
This was World Cup group final matchday as a freeform jazz flute solo, and a great advert for the four-team format just as Fifa contemplates tearing it up to inflict pre-match penalty shoot-outs and other three-team gimmickry for the next bloated edition. More is not always better. Often it’s much, much worse.
Germany would qualify if they won and Spain beat Japan. A draw there would mean they had to score more goals than Japan. Or they could just win by two goals if Japan failed to win. Or they could just say hang it all, win 9-0 and go through anyway.
Flick went for broke in a nuanced way, with Thomas Müller starting ahead of Musiala and the twin man-bun speedsters Leroy Sané and Serge Gnabry.
And the Al Bayt felt like a fitting last-chance saloon, a stadium with an air of the one-horse desert town, the lone saloon, the clock ticking around closer to midnight. It is one of the more pointless vanity projects at this despot-ball tournament, a vast fibreglass replica-tent, with rows of empty seats for this do-or-die World Cup game.
Musiala was sublime early on, coming on like a miraculous human pond-skater, gliding through the red shirts, brain whirring, scanning the space, making the game throb and buzz with possibilities. The opening goal came from Musiala’s side, David Raum crossing for Gnabry to head into the far corner,
Meanwhile at the Khalifa, Spain had also gone one up against Japan. This was falling Germany’s way. And for a while nothing much happened. The noise level dipped to scattered shouts. The All Bayt waited, awkwardly for time to pass. It came in a rush at the end.