MOSCOW — As Joachim Löw, Germany’s coach, considers all the things that went wrong for his team over the last two weeks, all the myriad factors that contributed to the reigning World Cup champion’s ignominious exit, one moment, in particular, will cause him to cringe.
A few minutes after Germany lost to Mexico in its opening game — not fortuitously, but deservedly, less happenstance than harbinger — Löw was informed that, in three of the previous four World Cups, the team that entered the tournament as the titleholder had fallen in the group stage. He waved off the notion that Germany might go the same way.
“I guarantee we will be in the knockout round,” he said.
This, as the last two weeks have amply proved, is not a World Cup where anyone should be offering guarantees. Germany, that great constant of international soccer, the permanent semifinalist, has gone, to the raucous delight of Brazil and England and the more understated relief of Spain, France, Argentina and the rest.
Those nations that remain should have seen enough to know the dangers of hubris, though. Spain sacked its manager on the eve of the tournament and came within a single goal, and a video review, of an early exit. So, too, did Portugal. Argentina has spent two weeks in a state of existential crisis and sneaked into the last 16 because its central defender scored with his weaker foot with four minutes to play.
Even those contenders whose progress has been a little more serene — Brazil, France, Belgium and England — can have little doubt that the old rules no longer apply. Brazil has played only in flashes. France has conceded one goal, but scored only three.
The most impressive performances have come from nations outside the established elite: Croatia’s ruthless demolition of an admittedly chaotic Argentina; Mexico’s perfectly planned, expertly executed exploitation of all of Germany’s flaws; Colombia’s riotous return to form against Poland.
This tournament, thus far, has belonged not to soccer’s great aristocratic houses, but to its petite bourgeoisie. Perhaps we should have seen that coming, when Argentina only crept into the tournament by the skin of its teeth, and when both the Dutch and the Italians failed to do even that. At a time when the gap between the richest clubs and the rest has been allowed — encouraged, in fact — to become a chasm, international soccer has, refreshingly, blessedly, traveled in the opposite direction. It is more democratic than ever. Nations with less glittering histories — but good coaching, a sense of identity and players littered throughout Europe’s great leagues — no longer have quite so much to fear. The giants do not look quite so fearsome when you see them every week.
Of course, it is easy to say that after the group stage of a World Cup. The pattern of the tournament is familiar, and yet somehow forgotten, every four years. The first round of group games is cagey, cautious; everyone worries that this year’s competition will be the worst in history. In the second, teams cut loose. By the third, when the stakes are highest, and it is do or die, mayhem ensues, favorites tumble, and enthusiasm peaks.
It rarely, if ever, lasts. Partly, that is a matter of perspective: It is hard to see how the knockout rounds, this year, can possibly surpass the adventures of Argentina, Spain and Germany for drama, no matter how compelling they are. And partly, it is natural, unavoidable, a consequence of the shifting nature of the competition.
For the first two weeks, the World Cup is a carnival. The planet is captivated by the color and the noise and the bravado of some of the less familiar nations: the buccaneering spirit and boisterous support of Peru; the pride and joy of Panama; the technical accomplishment, and the rotten luck, of Morocco and Iran.
After that, the tournament becomes what it is meant to be: a competition. The tension sets in. The incentives change. For much of the group stage, there is a premium on winning. It pays to attack, to score goals, to cast off any fear and go for the throat. The knockout rounds are different. Now, all of a sudden, the vital thing is not to lose. That fundamentally alters the experience, for players and for viewers.
After all the unpredictability of the past two weeks, there is a startling familiarity to the last 16 (apart from the absence of Germany). Of the 16 teams still standing, 10 are from Europe. Four are from South America, because Argentina and Colombia rallied. That leaves just Mexico and Japan from outside the two historically dominant confederations.
The instinct is to say that the surprises are done now, that the fun is over, that Russia 2018 will be like all the others: a war of attrition, in which the superpower with the deepest resources — in personnel, fortune, spirit and will — ultimately prevails.
There is, though, reason to hope. There is no outstanding team. There is no pre-eminent coach. There is no evidence to establish, conclusively, that Croatia could not knock Spain out in the quarterfinals, or that Uruguay and Portugal should be afraid of running into France or Argentina at the same stage. Mexico picked off Germany, complacent and sluggish, only a little more than a week ago. Who is to say the same plan cannot work against Brazil?
The test for its opponents will not be technical, or tactical, but psychological. Can they see those canary-yellow jerseys and resist the urge to shrink into themselves? Can they treat a knockout game as if it is a group match? Can they shake off the fear of losing and focus on what it would mean to win? Can they retain that carnival spirit, even in the heat of competition?
Ordinarily, the answer is no. Eventually, history and experience start to tell. But this time, as Joachim Löw would be the first to acknowledge, while Germany experiences the latter stages of the World Cup as an observer rather than a participant, it feels as if there can be no guarantees.