Leon Goretzka could hardly have captured the mood any better. “We already have the feeling there is a certain euphoria after the difficult year and a half that is behind all of us,” the Germany midfielder said. “It’s just nice that we have 82 million national team head coaches again, rather than 82 million virologists.”
The Nationalmannschaft are gathering momentum in a major competition and, all of a sudden, there is a sense of nature’s equilibrium being restored. In common with much of central Europe, a country is being allowed out of its shell; Covid-19 rates in Munich are at their lowest for 10 months and, with many restrictions having been lifted, there is a wildness in the midsummer air. Add to the mix a football team that have rediscovered their ability to inspire optimism and the confluence of circumstances is intoxicating. This city is not quite able to present the vivid, cosmopolitan extravaganza it became at the 2006 World Cup; nobody would have expected that this year. It pulsates with an emotional rawness that might not readily be associated with the Bavarian capital, though, and the feeling will crank up another notch on Wednesdaynight.
Germany are expected to beat Hungary and reach the last 16, perhaps even as winners of Group F. While many onlookers were preparing their recriminations before what became a scintillating victory over Portugal, now it feels perfectly legitimate to posit that they are serious contenders. Such is the way zeros become heroes, and sometimes circle straight back again, in tournament football; Thomas Müller knows about that better than most and his likely absence is the only significant cloud in a rapidly brightening picture.
Müller had toiled in the defeat to France but was imperious against Portugal, directing the traffic and situating himself at the heart of Germany’s best moves. It was a performance that suggested his return after two years away could, in tandem with the freshness offered by new teammates such as Serge Gnabry and hero of the hour Robin Gosens, make for a devastating blend. But towards the end of that game he stretched to intercept a cross from Pepe, tireless to the last even though the outcome was secure and the danger limited, and sustained what has been described as a “capsule injury” to his right knee.
Given he trained individually on Tuesday there appears scant chance he will face Hungary, although Joachim Löw was outwardly keen to make a late decision. Goretzka is his likely replacement, perhaps operating further back and allowing Ilkay Gündogan to occupy a more advanced role, although that would mean Leroy Sané experiences further frustration. Gündogan took a knock to a calf against Portugal and Mats Hummels sustained a knee niggle. They should both start but Germany’s high-octane approach may be putting senior players on the very edge.
“My motivation goes right down into the tips of my hair,” Goretzka said on Monday. His team may need to channel it if they are not to find their resources stretched down the line. That may not be easy given the highly-charged buildup to the tie, which has seen widespread disbelief in Germany and beyond at Uefa’s decision not to allow the Allianz Arena to be lit up in rainbow colours in protest to recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation passed by the Hungarian parliament.
Löw made his thoughts on the situation reasonably obvious, via a clunky attempt to steer matters back to football. “I would have been happy if the stadium had been illuminated in the rainbow colours,” he said. “But on the other hand it’s important that we don’t turn off the lights of the team with our performance. The symbols and signals for these values should be lived and shown.” Hummels struck a similar note, saying: “I would have enjoyed it, I’m a supporter of messages like this.”
The Hungary head coach, Marco Rossi, predictably offered a non-answer when the topic arose. “If I’m perfectly honest we never speak about political matters in the dressing room,” he said. “What I would say is we are men, we are all sensitive to social matters, but I believe we have always shown through our behaviour that we respect everyone and everything.”
Rossi was more forthcoming about his team’s approach, which is likely to leave Germany counting a few more bruises. Hungary took Portugal to the wire in their first game and then fought with tremendous intensity to hold France; Rossi noted proudly that their fitness and physicality have improved under his watch. They will not have a baying home crowd to motivate them this time, though, for a match they must win to go through, and he admitted they must be circumspect to have a chance of bringing Germany’s insecurities back to the surface.
“If we think we can come here gung-ho, all-out attack against Germany, we’ll concede six,” he said. “We need to produce a tactically flawless performance in order to score one or two.”
If they can achieve that then, given Löw suggested he expected Hungary’s defence to yield fewer chances than Portugal’s, the night may become less comfortable than the millions of armchair coaches would hope. Searing daytime heat has given way to raging thunderstorms here in the past couple of evenings, with more scheduled around kick-off time. Germany’s newfound joie de vivre can survive a spot of rain, but the task now is to ensure the football does not dampen anyone’s spirits.