BERLIN (AP) – Germany’s World Cup opener against Japan will set the tone for the remainder of the tournament – both for the team and for the fans, who may or may not be watching at home.
Germany’s preparation for Wednesday’s game was marked by fan protests, political statements and calls for a boycott and stunning performances from a team still trying to find their spark again after a surprise exit from the group stage as defending champions in 2018.
It was the first time ever that the four-time champions were eliminated from the competition in the group stage.
A convincing performance in Germany’s 110th World Cup game could allay those doubts, shake up the squad and perhaps even persuade some of the fans boycotting the tournament over Qatar’s human rights record to turn on their TVs for the remaining games.
Germany follow on Sunday against Spain and meet Costa Rica in their final Group E game on December 1.
Japan are looking to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in his seventh World Cup appearance in a row.
“We want to reach the round of 16 and would like to go further,” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu on Tuesday. “For us, that would be making history, that’s our goal.”
Germany’s players should be familiar to Moriyasus, with seven members of his 26-man squad playing club football in the Bundesliga and another in Germany’s second division.
“They play against or with top players in the league and I’m confident they can apply what they’ve learned in the game,” Moriyasu said.
Germany will be without Bayern winger Leroy Sané, who missed Tuesday’s training session with a knee problem. Sané’s place on the left is expected to be filled by Bayern midfielder Jamal Musiala, 19.
Germany looked less than convincing in their final warm-up game against Oman, a 1-0 win thanks to Niclas Füllkrug’s goal on his debut that highlighted the side’s defensive woes. Germany had won just one of their previous seven games.
While the team struggled to impress on the field, political issues dominated the build-up to this tournament.
Germany captain Manuel Neuer was expected to wear the “One Love” armband promoting diversity and inclusion on Wednesday, but the German Football Association and six other European teams were forced to back down from making FIFA’s gesture on Tuesday.
It drew a strong reaction from federation president Bernd Neuendorf, who said it was “another low blow” from FIFA.
After a lot of back and forth, Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser, who is also responsible for sport, decided to travel to Doha, where she was to meet the German fans before the game with Neuendorf.
Faeser’s journey has been uncertain in recent weeks, even after the minister said she had given fans a “guarantee of security” when visiting Qatar ahead of the tournament, “no matter where they come from, who they love or what they believe in”.
On Monday, during the USA-Wales game, a German TV commentator wore a rainbow armband and a t-shirt with a rainbow heart, apparently in protest at FIFA’s decision to ban the “One Love” armband.
Japan’s construction was far more relaxed.
Maya Yashida knows a lot about the German team from his altercations with Bayern Munich players and others while playing for Schalke.
“That’s one of the reasons why I came to the Bundesliga to understand German football, German culture and the opposition,” said the Japanese captain. “Sometimes in football there is a game that we have to win or we should win. There is never a game that we must or should lose. So we still think we have a chance.”
Moriyasu was keen to highlight the positive influence of the Germans in the development of football in Japan, beginning with Dettmar Cramer, who led Japan to successful results at the Tokyo 1964 and Mexico 1968 Olympics, laying the foundation for lasting progress.
“His contribution was highly appreciated. We had great coaches and players from Germany. They came to Japan and made great efforts to develop football in Japan. We are very grateful to the Germans,” said Moriyasu, noting that Germany also won the World Cup in 2002 when it was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea.
“They are role models for us and that has never changed,” Moriyasu said. “Tomorrow there are mixed feelings. But no matter who the opponents are, we will do our best.”
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