Germany will of course have known the math: A win was all that was required to ensure passage to the round of 16 of the Women’s World Cup. But Canada had known the math, too, and went out anyway. So did Brazil and New Zealand and Portugal, all gone for the want of a single precious goal that never came.
Yet a World Cup that has had some improbable moments — Jamaica eliminating Brazil, the U.S. team advancing thanks to a single, favorable bounce — got perhaps its biggest stunner so far on Thursday: Germany, the second-ranked team in the world, is out after the strangest finish to the group stage in its history, two games requiring only one win, and in which it got none.
South Korea, a team that was effectively eliminated before the match even kicked off, a team that had not scored a goal before in the tournament before Thursday, took an early lead and then held on for a tenacious, improbable, almost unthinkable 1-1 tie with Germany. That result was not good enough for the Germans only because Morocco, another unlikely contender, beat Colombia, 1-0, on Anissa Lahmari’s goal off a rebound from a saved penalty kick.
Morocco, after finishing its win in Perth, Australia, quickly huddled around one another to watch a stream of the end of the Germany-South Korea game, which was played concurrently across the continent in Brisbane.
Morocco Coach Reynald Pedros said he welcomed the chance for the team’s fans to see it play one more game. “We love them, we cherish them, we feel they’re behind us. It gives us strength,” he said. “Well done to all the girls and we’re continuing on our merry way.”
The Atlas Lionesses, who represent the first team from North Africa and a majority Arab nation to make the tournament at all, cheered, and sobbed, and shouted in jubilation after realizing they had gone even beyond that. Fatima Tagnaout and several of her teammates dashed around the perimeter of the field, hands extended to high-five every fan in their path. They maintained that glee in the locker room, where they chanted and bounced in unison.
The field of 32 teams in this tournament included eight newcomers; of them, only Morocco advanced past the group stage. It will play France in the round of 16.
“Roaring with pride for our Lionesses,” the team said on Twitter.
The German reaction, understandably, was a mirror opposite: dismay and disbelief.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Germany midfielder Jule Brand said. “We’re very disappointed. It wasn’t enough. We were motivated and wanted to play the game, but we couldn’t get it done on the field.”
To say that Germany has been consistent before now is an understatement. It had always made it out of the group stage, and had always advanced beyond the round of 16 to reach at least the quarterfinals, a stretch that has now ended in its ninth World Cup, the ninth Women’s World Cup.
Germany had a well-balanced roster going into this tournament, but its form had come into question as it prepared for its run. It had lost to Brazil and Zambia, and Vietnam kept things close in a warm-up match.
A loss to Colombia in its second game had already made things dramatic for Germany, which before then had not lost in a group stage match since 1995. Colombia, because of that second win, entered the tournament’s final day of group stage games in strong position to advance. It earned a matchup against Jamaica by winning the group.
Cho So-hyun scored in the sixth minute for South Korea, putting Germany’s chances for advancement in jeopardy. After Germany tied it up, briefly getting back in position for advancement, it was then Morocco that ratcheted up the pressure with its scramble to salvage a failed penalty kick against Colombia.
Alexandra Popp, Germany’s star striker known for her leaping headers and perfectly timed finishes, saw several chances for a game-winner thwarted. One hit the crossbar. Another was saved by the Korean goalkeeper, Kim Jung-mi. Another, which finished off a spectacular play, found the back of the net but was ruled offside after a video review.
With each chance, Popp’s frustration visibly mounted as she grabbed at her forehead and gnawed on the bottom of her jersey. A goal, she knew, would not only keep Germany alive but would put it atop its group going into the round of 16.
Instead Popp, along with the rest of its star power, is gone.
“I just don’t know what to say and what’s going on here,” she said. “That wasn’t what we wanted.”