KAZAN, Russia — Everyone was waiting for Germany to score another late World Cup-saving goal.
It never came.
Instead, the Germans have become the fourth defending champions in the last five tournaments to be eliminated in the group stage following a 2-0 loss to South Korea on Wednesday.
The four-time champions allowed a pair of injury-time goals while knowing a 1-0 victory would have been enough to advance because of the result in the other group match, in which Sweden beat Mexico 3-0.
“It’s very, very hard to put it into words,” Germany defender Mats Hummels said. “We believed until the end today. Even when it was 0-1, I think we kept trying to turn it all around.”
Germany ended up last in Group F while Sweden and Mexico advanced to the round of 16. South Korea was also eliminated despite the victory.
It was the first time Germany has been knocked out in the first round since 1938.
“I couldn’t imagine that we would lose,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said.
Even in Yekaterinburg, nearly 800 km away, the Mexican fans expected Germany to score. They were still in position to advance despite trailing Sweden, but they were waiting — some with tears in their eyes — for Germany to do the inevitable and ruin their chances of moving on.
That’s when South Korea stepped up.
Kim Young-gwon scored the first goal in the third minute of injury time, a goal that sent the Koreans cheering in Kazan and the Mexicans delirious in Yekaterinburg. Originally called out for offside, the goal was given after video review.
Son Heung-min made it 2-0 in the sixth minute of stoppage time after Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer came up the field to help his teammates outside the South Korea box. Son tapped the ball into an empty net after a long pass from Ju Se-jong.
Besides Germany this year, France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014 were the previous defending champions to get eliminated in the group stage.
“We deserved to be eliminated,” Loew said. “For us, this is a huge disappointment. But we have young players who are talented and have the potential to go forward. It happened to other nations before. We need to draw the right conclusions.”
All four teams in the group had a chance to advance in games that were being played simultaneously, but Sweden’s 3-0 lead over Mexico put Germany in prime position to move on as well — if the Germans could score against the South Koreans.
That was the problem, for Germany.
Loew changed his line-up to mix youth with experience, calling back Hummels, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil while also fielding Niklas Suele and new Bayern signing Leon Goretzka. Suele made his first World Cup appearance as a replacement for Jerome Boateng.
Germany made a nervous start, playing slower than it usually does to avoid being vulnerable on the break. But the strategy did not bring much success in the first half.
The Germans kept peppering the South Korea box with harmless crosses and it was their opponents that came close to scoring from a set piece in the 19th minute after Neuer failed to control a 25-metre free kick from Jung Woo-young. The Germany keeper bobbled the ball and needed to swipe the rebound away from the attackers after a spectacular dive.
The Germans continued at the same pedestrian pace after halftime and Ozil had another poor display, with many of his passes uncompleted.
Loew brought on substitutes Mario Gomez and Thomas Mueller on either side of the 60-minute mark but his players kept giving the ball away, with most of their attacking combinations lacking precision and speed.
Gomez had a decent header stopped by goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo in the 68th minute and could not properly connect with a low cross from Joshua Kimmich in the 72nd as Germany’s hopes vanished.
“We did not deserve to be winning the title once again,” Loew said.
Germany ended up last in a group it expected to win. But the team never really seemed to recover from its opening 1-0 loss to Mexico.
South Korea lost its opening two matches but still entered the game with a chance to advance. It did its part by beating Germany, but Sweden’s 3-0 victory over Mexico allowed the Swedes to win the group ahead of the second-place Mexicans.
Germany had made it to the quarter-finals at the past nine World Cups, and reached at least to the semifinals at every tournament since 2002.
Loew, who guided Germany to the title at the 2014 World Cup after a routing host Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals, said it was too early to talk about his future with the national team.
“We need a couple of hours to see things clearly,” Loew said. “The disappointment is deep inside me.”