With only two UEFA Women's Nations League group stage games remaining, Germany face a must-win match against Denmark in Rostock this Friday if the 2016 Olympic champions are to have any hopes of qualifying for the 2024 edition.
Three points behind Denmark in League A Group 3, Germany need to right their ship quickly, but their struggles extend far beyond the pitch. The eight-time European champions did make it to the final of Euro 2022, losing 1-0 to England, but that was rare for a team that have been plagued by the same issues for years.
Whether it was the struggle to break teams down, the tendency to get caught on the counter attack, or how then-coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg picked too many players with similar styles and skillsets to fill too many different roles, Germany have not yet found a way to break a bad cycle.
Their overreliance on individuals to paper over the cracks hit them hard at the 2019 World Cup, as the early loss of midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán sapped the creativity of the team and they fell to Sweden in the quarterfinals. That result saw them miss the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (only three UEFA teams qualified based on their performances in France, plus the hosts), while they crashed out of last summer's 2023 World Cup in the group stage behind Colombia and Morocco for their earliest-ever exit in nine World Cup appearances.
An early leader of women's football in the modern era, Germany's 11 pieces of major silverware (two World Cups, eight European Championships and one Olympic gold) should mark them as one of the best in the world. With a strong domestic league (the Frauen-Bundesliga) that has seen at least one club make the Women's Champions League final in 16 of its 22 seasons, there is no denying Germany's past success or the ability of the country to produce talented footballers. So why have things been going wrong for Die Nationalelf?
After Germany's disappointing World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, things seemed to go from bad to worse when the team reconvened for their first Nations League games. Coach Voss-Tecklenburg was absent, with a German FA (DFB) statement on Sept. 8 insisting that she "will not be able to take part in the international break in September due to illness." Assistant Britta Carlson stepped up to take charge for the first two games against Denmark [a 2-0 loss] and Iceland [a 4-0 win], but that defeat to the Danes set the tone for the group.
Needing a more experienced coach than Carlson to lead the side in Voss-Tecklenburg's continued absence, the DFB turned to Horst Hrubesch on Oct. 7. The 72-year-old had previously taken charge of the women's team in an interim capacity in 2018 after Steffi Jones' tenure had left Germany in a state of disrepair, lacking identity, and struggling with the basics. And he proved a calming influence to steady the ship and eventually ensured qualification for the 2019 World Cup.
But ahead of the vital Nations League match against Wales on Oct. 27, confusion over the future of Voss-Tecklenburg continued. On Oct. 19 she gave a guest lecture at the Bavarian Dental Association and a few days later told the German Press Agency that she had been granted a 14-day holiday after her sick leave. Star midfielder Lena Oberdorf was asked about her absence and said: "It raises a few question marks for me. I would have wished for something different. For example, we could first clarify what happened at the World Cup and then she could go on vacation."
Ultimately, Hrubesch led Germany to a 5-1 win over Wales and a 2-0 win over Iceland to get their campaign back on track, with Oberdorf insisting: "He has brought back the joy we've been missing for the past few games."
And a near-three month saga was ended when the DFB announced that it had parted ways with Voss-Tecklenburg on Nov. 4, despite having only extended her contract in March. The 55-year-old revealed later that month in an interview with German public broadcaster ZDF that she had been granted a period of leave to seek treatment for mental health reasons including panic attacks and insomnia, saying she "almost completely collapsed" and was plagued by "fears, an uncertainty and emptiness in my head."
With the lack of communication around her absence only muddying the waters -- there had been no window for assessment from either the DFB or players following the calamitous World Cup campaign -- Voss-Teckenburg said there was little she could do but focus on her own wellness.
"I was ill, and I didn't know how long this process would take," she added. "I realized that I just had to be there for myself. And that's what I tried to do ... In hindsight, you can say: 'How stupid -- [it was a] mistake' [to appear in public while on leave]. But I had to pay the price to a certain extent, both with my health problems and in the media."
With Hrubesch still at the helm, Germany (6th in the FIFA World Ranking) somehow have to focus on getting a win against Denmark (12th) on Friday. Thanks to the tiebreakers in place, with head to head coming first if teams are level on points, Germany must beat Denmark by two or more goals to top the group and then also win against Wales on the final matchday on Dec. 5 to progress to the Nations League playoff finals.
The discussions over who the DFB brings in to replace Voss-Tecklenburg in the long term will have to wait for another day. As he did in 2019, Hrubesch will need to conjure some more magic to get Germany into a spot for potential Olympic qualification, but it will be a tough job after such a turbulent time for one of the best national teams in the world.