Amid politics, Germany’s World Cup begins against Japan

AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
Germany’s head coach Hansi Flick, left, and player Joshua Kimmich arrive for a news conference on the eve of the group E World Cup soccer match between Germany and Japan, in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Germany’s opening World Cup game against Japan will set the tone for the rest of the tournament — both for the team and the fans who may or may not be watching at home.

Germany’s buildup to Wednesday’s game has been fraught by fan protests, political statements, calls for a boycott and underwhelming performances from a team still trying to rediscover its spark following a surprising group-stage exit as defending champion in 2018.

It was the first time the four-time champions were ever knocked out of the competition in the group stage.

“We all know that was nothing from us at the last World Cup,” Germany midfielder Joshua Kimmich said Tuesday. “We’ve had to wait a long time. Tomorrow it will be really, really important to start with a good game.”

A convincing performance in what will be Germany’s 110th World Cup match could erase those lingering doubts from 2018, galvanize the team and maybe even coax some of the fans boycotting the tournament because of Qatar’s human rights record to switch their TVs back on for the remaining games.

Germany will follow against Spain on Sunday, then face Costa Rica for its final game in Group E on Dec. 1.

Japan is bidding to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in its seventh straight World Cup appearance.

“We want to get to the round of 16 and we would like to go further,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said Tuesday. “For us that would be changing history, that’s our target.”

Germany’s players should be familiar to Moriyasu’s, with seven members of his 26-player squad playing club soccer in the Bundesliga and another in Germany’s second division.

“They’re playing against or with top players in the league and I’m confident they can exert what they’ve learned in the match,” Moriyasu said.

Counterpart Hansi Flick is impressed by the impact Japanese players have had in the Bundesliga.

“I have to out myself as a bit of a fan of Japanese soccer,” the Germany coach said. “You have a team, players who are very well developed, technically as well as tactically. They’re really, really good. And we see that quality in the Bundesliga.”

Flick noted that Eintracht Frankfurt forward Daichi Kamada is playing “an outstanding season” and said Stuttgart’s Wataru Endo “is for me one of the best midfielders in Germany, in the Bundesliga, over the last two years.”

“So I believe we have a big task tomorrow,” Flick said. “But we’re going well-prepared and we’re happy that it’s finally starting.”

Germany will be without Bayern Munich winger Leroy Sané, who missed Tuesday’s training session with a knee problem. Nineteen-year-old Bayern midfielder Jamal Musiala is likely to take Sané’s place on the left.

Flick said Bayern veteran Thomas Müller was ready to play. Müller hasn’t played for nearly a month because of muscular problems, but there’s a feeling the 33-year-old forward has been saving himself for this World Cup.

Germany looked far from convincing against Oman in its final warmup game, a 1-0 win on Niclas Füllkrug’s goal in his debut that highlighted the defensive problems the team has had. Germany had won only one of its previous seven games.

While the team has been struggling to impress on the field, political issues have dominated the buildup to this tournament.

Germany captain Manuel Neuer had been expected to wear the “One Love” armband promoting diversity and inclusion on Wednesday, but the German soccer federation and six other European teams were forced to back down from making the gesture by FIFA on Tuesday.

It provoked a strong response from federation president Bernd Neuendorf, who said it was “another low blow” from FIFA.

German interior minister Nancy Faeser, who is also responsible for sports, decided to travel to Doha, where she was to meet Germany supporters with Neuendorf before the game. Faeser’s trip had been uncertain in recent weeks, even after she said she had secured a “safety guarantee” for fans “no matter where they come from, whom they love and what they believe in.”

On Monday, a German TV commentator wore a rainbow armband and a T-shirt with a heart in rainbow colors during the United States’ game with Wales in apparent protest against FIFA’s decision to ban the “One Love” armband.

Japan’s buildup has been far more serene.

AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
Japan’s head coach Hajime Moriyasu, left, and Japan’s captain Japan’s Maya Yoshida, right, attend the Japan official press conference on the eve of the group E of World Cup soccer match between Japan and Germany, in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

Maya Yashida knows much of the German team from his tussles with Bayern Munich players and others while playing with Schalke.

“This is one of the reasons I came to Bundesliga, to understand German football, German culture and the opponent,” the Japan captain said. “In football sometimes, there is the game we have to win or we should win. There’s never a game that we have to lose or should lose. So we still believe we have a chance.”

Moriyasu was eager to highlight the positive influence Germans have had on the development of soccer in Japan, beginning with Dettmar Cramer, who led Japan to successful results at the 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico Olympics and laid the groundwork for sustained progress.

“His contribution was regarded highly. We’ve had great coaches and players from Germany. They came to Japan and made a great effort to develop soccer in Japan. We are very grateful to German people,” said Moriyasu, who noted that Germany also won the World Cup when it was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea in 2002.

“They are role models for us and this has never changed,” Moriyasu said. “Tomorrow there will be mixed feelings. But no matter who the opponents are, we will give our best performance.”