DOHA, Qatar -- "Everything is at stake against Spain," Germany coach Hansi Flick said. Lose at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday, and his team will be out before they have even reached the third game. That is catastrophic enough, and tends to bring consequences, but it might not only be about their place at the World Cup; it might be even more profound. There is something about the meetings between these sides that shapes them. Defeat at the hands of the Seleccion helped redefine Die Nationalmannschaft more than a decade ago; another one here in Qatar and that identity might face an inquisition.
"I was on the pitch in the final of Euro 2008 and I just couldn't get near the ball," Thomas Hitzlsperger recalls. The former midfielder can laugh now; then, it was hard enough even to breathe. "In addition to them being superior in tactics, I was also very slow, so not only did I not anticipate the passes, but even if I had, I was never going to get there," he said. "You very quickly realise that they had found a way to totally outplay us, to have overloads everywhere. We understood that this team was on its way to being the best team in the world, but on the pitch it's tough, and you think: 'Pfff, what are we going to do?'"
Follow them, as it turned out.
The shift had already begun with Jurgen Klinsmann around the 2006 World Cup, but 2008 accelerated everything. Hitzlsperger recalls Joachim Low -- who had been Klinsmann's assistant before becoming head coach -- being in "love" with Spanish football. Barcelona and the national team were conscious models to follow, the inspiration for a cultural shift.
"My last game was in 2010; they got rid of me just in time. They had to make sure I left for them to get better," Hitzlsperger said jokingly. "Spain was always the team they looked up to. Low used to say constantly: Keep the ball on the floor, keep the ball on the floor. If you go long, it is harder to control, you lose time. German football had focused on what you do without the ball; now it came to think about what you do with it. Low's [tactical] background was 1990s Italy, but everything changed.
"It wasn't just about winning tournaments; the way we looked at developing young talent changed. It used to be that we went into tournaments and it was all based on mentality. We will win because we're Germany. We needed to play. Low loves Spanish football, keeping possession, and they won the 2014 World Cup." A new identity was forming.
In Doha on Friday, Spain coach Luis Enrique said: "Germany are the team most like Spain."
Maybe it's not quite that Spider-Man meme, the two identical superheroes pointing at each other, but it is similar. "Germany are a team that attacks, that wants to be in the opposition's half, that wants to control the game, dominate it. In that sense, they're the team most like us. They have the same objectives," Enrique said. When those words were put to Flick, the German coach replied: "I can confirm this."
"If you look at the system, with both teams it's one-on-one in every position," he added. "Spain have always played 4-3-3, like Barcelona, and regardless of who their opponents are, they have their clear, automatic moves."
Spain's Dani Olmo, who plays his club football there with RB Leipzig, agrees: "Germany also want to dominate. They want the ball. In that sense, they are like us. And Flick is a coach who wants the ball. You saw that at Bayern Munich and a lot of the national team players are from Bayern. They know what they want to do and they know us very well."
Sometimes, though, the fear is that if you try to be something else, somebody else, you will always fall short. Germany were a team that always terrified Spain, based more on character than quality, the idea that this was a team that always competed -- even if you didn't always know how. The debates now are partly existential as they stand on the edge. What are they? Who are they? Is there something of themselves missing? Something else was shifting; a focus on technical midfielders changed the paradigm and the production line; centre-forwards were not rolling off it anymore. Spain exposed them with a 6-0 win in Seville a year ago; now they could expose them to something far worse.
On some levels, this should not be seen as a crisis. Germany's 2-1 loss to Japan in their first match in Qatar is only one defeat and, for 60 minutes or more, Germany dominated. But then they started to come undone, and the defeat leaves them hanging. Nor did they react as they needed to when the Japanese came for them. Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan complained that there were players who did not want the ball, who hid.
"It is important that you have the courage to offer yourself for the ball," Flick said -- it was exactly the kind of line you hear Luis Enrique say. That conviction, that determination to play, to avoid the urge to be more direct, even to get rid, is fundamental. It is also incredibly hard when you're under pressure, and Germany could not be under any greater pressure.
"Of course they are under pressure because they need to win, but we know Germany are one of the best national teams in the world," Olmo said. "You cannot put them down after one game. It will be a final for them because they need to win to be in the next round. We need to focus on our journey, and if we win we will go through."
For Spain, that journey is clear. For Germany, on the brink, the doubts are naturally deeper. "We are in a s---ting situation," Julian Brandt said. Now, they must get out of it. Standing before them, the team that showed them a way out before, their inspiration poised to play the role of executioner.