World: World Cup
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Á. Morata (62)
N. Füllkrug (83)
By Peter Weis@PeterVicey

German press editorials: Füllkrug can re-engage the German public

Germans only tepidly interested in the current World Cup were gifted what Christian Kamp of the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" termed "an unexpected early Christmas gift" during Sunday's 1-1 draw with Spain.

Niclas Füllkrug's late equalizer stirred something within the German collective footballing mind. As Oliver Fritsch of "die Zeit" correctly put it, an "everyman footballer" is currently the main talking point in German footballing circles. 

Kamp, Frisch, and legendary footballing journalist Karlheinz Wild of German footballing magazine Kicker aptly captured the feelings of their fellow countrymen in the most recent batch of post-match editorials. 

According to all three men, and the German public at large, the mood within the Bundesrepublik about this tournament could still shift. Only, however, if Füllkrug plays from the start against Costa Rica. 
All throughout the streets of the Bundesrepublik on Sunday afternoon, interest in football remained fairly tangential. The town squares that would have ordinarily hosted public viewing during a summer World Cup were instead reserved for the traditional German Christmas Markets. Citizens out enjoying their first post-pandemic major public gatherings preferred to drink Glühwein and shop for stocking-stuffers than discuss their national team.

If one cared to strike up a conversation with just about any German out-and-about on Sunday, reasons for disinterest in the current World Cup fell into three familiar categories. First, there were all the distasteful political connotations associated with Qatar hosting the tournament. Secondly, Germans consider the notion of a winter World Cup an intrusive and unwelcome on other traditions they prefer to keep at this time of year.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the team simply isn't interesting.

Despite all of this, most everyone one spoke to still admitted that they would tune into the Spain match after returning home for the evening. Hansi Flick's Nationalmannschaft would be given a fair chance; something they did not necessarily receive during Wednesday's opening group stage fixture against Japan. A record low 9.23 million Germans watched the first fixture. To put that into context, the viewing figures for 2018's World Cup opening group stage match against Mexico topped 26 million.

Chances that Germans can find reasons to throw their support behind this team were greatly enhanced thanks to a gripping final phase during Sunday night's 1-1 draw with Spain. After falling behind against La Roja, several DFB actors demonstrated some real determination both in ensuring that the Spaniards didn't increase their lead and pursing an absolutely vital equalizer.

Monster defensive tackles from Nico Schlotterbeck and Leon Goretzka won't soon be forgotten. Neither will Leroy Sané's inspired play off the bench. Handling the post-match editorial for Germany's preeminent footballing publication, Kicker magazine senior editor Karlheinz Wild reversed the position taken by colleague Oliver Hartmann on Wednesday. Wild and Kicker take the stance that Flick got it right this time.

"Unlike as was the case against Japan, Flick set the proper tactical and psychological tone ahead of this clash," Wild wrote, "He also made the proper personnel choices from the sidelines. We witnessed what commitment, dedication, and determination looks like."

Wild praised the late comeback, but took care to note that it was actually "exemplary" of the overall performance. From his perspective, the Germans kept at the Spanish possession game with a very well disciplined and coordinated press. This forced many Spanish attack builds back to keeper Unai Simon. It also forced many errors which the DFB-XI could have capitalized on earlier.

"This was a completely different German team than the one from the failed 1-2 opener," Wild noted, "the Spaniards were pressured into mistakes that sent the ball across their own penalty area. The Germans worked their way into the game, took care of their defensive assignments, and unleashed new energy late on."

"This performance by the DFB squads opens up new perspectives," Wild concluded, "Above all, the drama with the late tie will boost self-confidence and cohesion enormously. One has a right expect a win against Costa Rica by two goals or more. Otherwise the knockouts wouldn't be justified anyway."

In some parallel pieces on Kicker's website, from both regular and guest contributors, the most important lesson derived from this result holds that Füllkrug should play from the start in the final group stage match. While Wild captured some of the more important technical aspects of the draw, it is the SV Werder Bremen striker who has the opportunity to capture the public's imagination.

As football lovers of the Bundesrepublik made their normal Monday morning pilgrimage to what still some consider the "sacred" German newsstands, all the footballing talk centered around the 29-year-old late bloomer. Füllkrug dominated the official editorials in the papers-of-record as well.

Christian Kamp of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung remarked that, on the first Sunday of the Christmas advent period, Germans had received a great gift. Germans traditionally light a commemorative candle on this day. Füllkrug happened to exemplify such a light on a cold and overcast day.

"[From the 70th minute onwards] something happened," Kamp wrote, "First on the sidelines, then in the German game. The Bundestrainer made a triple change [Füllkrug, Sané, and Lukas Klostermann for Thomas Müller, Ilkay Gündogan, and Thilo Kehrer]. All of a sudden the German offensive game looked like it had changed as well."

"Within a few minutes, Jamal Musiala and Niclas Füllkrug, twice pressed toward the Spanish goal in a dangerous manner," Kamp continued, "Then, on the third occasion, something clicked - or rather, went boom. Füllkrug's emphatic finish hit the back of the net with full force. The draw was a fitting reward for a performance that, while lacking over long stretches, was highly committed."

Delving somewhat deeper into the "committed" nature of the performance, Kamp had special praise for the work of the two new starters Leon Goretzka and Thilo Kehrer. Though Niklas Süle was regrettably once again at fault for a goal conceded, the Dortmund defender's move back into central defense could largely be considered a success. Süle solved many defensive duels with aplomb.

For Kamp and practically everyone else, however, the focus must remain on Füllkrug. Even if playing Nationalmannschaft's "late bloomer" from the start poses some risks (injury and endurance), the general consensus seems to be that Flick should be expected to have the courage to make this decision. Only that will ramp up interest in the team.

In an extended opinion piece for Hamburg's  "die Zeit", Oliver Fritsch explained why Füllkrug is needed more than anyone else on the squad. Frisch's piece spoke to the feelings of those hitting the newsstands Monday perhaps more than any other column by any other commentator in the whole of the country. Füllkrug, unequivocally, lifts the heart of those dispirited by this tournament.

"Füllkrug contradicts polished footballing capitalism," Fritsch wrote, "He's never even played in the Champions League. He moves differently than the others, a bit more bowlegged, stomping. He hasn't resorted to cosmetic surgery for his teeth."

"His favorite song is [Survivor's] 'Eye-of-the-Tiger'," Fritsch continued, "He's kicked for other clubs than the usual German international. Namely 1 FC Nürnberg, Hannover 96 and now Werder Bremen, whose fans are particularly strongly opposed to the World Cup."

Fritsch described Füllkrug as a unquietly German footballing hero; a footballing "everyman" who can deliver a cynical German footballing public precisely what it needs. There's plenty of plaudits within Fritsch's piece for the universally adored German footballing prodigy Jamal Musiala as well, whom Fritsch also notes nearly set Füllkrug up twice before recording the official assist.

Leroy Sané is also credited. Fritsch correctly noted that Sané's presence made Musiala even more unpredictable, thereby enabling Füllkrug to get a great deal of service. Fritsch recreated all three scoring opportunities than ran through Musiala for Füllkrug in detail. The conclusion ultimately drawn is that, for better or worse, the trio should likely start up front together.

"The dilemma of a natural center-forward up top arises again," Fritsch wrote, "Thomas Müller [deployed as the nine by Flick] was not an asset. Füllkrug is now demanded by many into the starting XI. Football Germany is emotional, irrational. People believe that he could be the striker who shoots Germany into the knockouts That would be a fairy tale, which of course can never be ruled out in football."

Naturally, a fairy tale can always easily go awry. Placing Füllkrug in the starting XI in the final group stage match could quite easily backfire. Flick would literally have no one, apart from the still very young Youssoufa Moukoko, to turn to late should the team find itself in desperate need of a late goal.

If there is something of a general consensus within German footballing circles, however, it is that Flick absolutely must go all-in with this bet. The somewhat uncomfortable nature of this tournament means that a second consecutive World Cup group stage elimination could be tolerable. Germans wish to move onto other things anyway.

A national team without character; one that simply gets the job done against Costa Rica and unceremoniously bows out in the round-of-16 may actually be more damaging to the national psyche. Such an outcome would constitute a precise mirror of what transpired in the recent Euros. Germans will find themselves hard pressed to tolerate a second consecutive occurrence of that.

For better or for worse, it looks as if hopes for tournament revitalization rest on the shoulders of the man with the gap-toothed-smile. Fritsch cites the editorial appearing in Spain's El Pais, which [possibly in reference to Füllkrug] likens Germany's late play to "Panzer movements". In the view of Fritsch and many others, that may be perfectly fine.

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