MOSCOW — In the blink of an eye, shame and despair turned to delirious joy.
To be sure, the full importance of the Nationalmannschaft’s great escape in Sochi is yet to unfold in the context of this tournament. It could prove massively significant — if the World Cup holders end up defending the trophy, which still feels unlikely — or completely inconsequential — if they get knocked in the third group game next week, which now feels unlikely again. Or it could be neither of the two.
But Toni Kroos’s ice-cool thunderbolt in the most desperate of hours did more, much more, than to pull back the holders from near-certain elimination to a position of relative strength. It had a magical effect all by its own, unconnected to the complicated permutations in Group F or the wider prospects of this team in Russia.
With one clean strike of the ball, that moment of hugs and screams and open mouths and fists in the air and shaky mobile phone footage brought Germany, the team and its people, back together again, in the first riot of collective ecstasy the country experienced since Mario Gotze smashed in the golden goal at the Maracana four years — an eternity — ago.
No one had been prepared for this much drama, least of all this early in the competition, and the sheer relief that flowed from Kroos’s coup de classe. Only a few days ago, a football nation that had gotten used to easy wins despised Joachim Low’s side for the misery and anger they had inflicted on them it with that expected defeat against Mexico.
On Saturday night they adored the same men — down one player for the last 12 minutes and chasing a goal after their frailty at the back had come to the fore once more — for delivering them at the other emotional extreme, without any forewarning. Nothing beats a late winner for the rush of endorphins.
“The butterflies started flying,” Thomas Muller put it, rather poetically. Love was in the air.
A few centimetres to the right, to the left, up or down, and the audacious attempt on the Swedish goal by the Real Madrid midfielder would have been described as the last convulsions of a team that had fallen prey to overestimation.
“Cross it, cross the ball,” Mats Hummels had screamed on the touchline. Kroos didn’t listen. The 28-year-old plays his own game, unperturbed by mundane considerations such as the score-line.
Against Mexico, he had been slow to track back and unable to impress his metronomic style on the game, prompting Suddeutsche Zeitung to write about powerful figures in the dressing room doubting him for the very first time. It was Kroos, of course, who had given the ball away ahead of Ola Toivonen’s opener, and a selfish 95th minute mishit would have brought some of that rumoured discontent out in the open for sure, along with plenty of other recriminations.
A rift in the squad. Too many old players. Wrong tactics. Wrong attitude. The spartan team camp in Moscow. Everyone would have blamed everyone and everything for Germany’s worst World Cup in 80 years but, worst of all, not everybody would have really cared all that much.
A strange sense of un-involvement and disengagement at home has accompanied the team to Russia, made up of many different factors such as unease about the political motives of the host nation, terribly overblown marketing speak by the German FA and many players coming across as one-man brand ambassadors, more interested to collect social media followers than to connect with their public.
On top of all that, the undead army of “proper football men” from the 1980s and 1990s — the Stefan Effenbergs and Mario Baslers — who have always distrusted Low’s cultured ways and the current generation of quiet, technical professionals, felt encouraged by the bad start to snipe at the team from sidelines.
Some of the attacks on Mesut Ozil — “he seems to feel unhappy in the German FA shirt,” Lothar Matthäus told Bild — carried dark political undertones, too. For all those reasons, the climate surrounding the national team has not been this cold since Jürgen Klinsmann and his assistant Low had rung in a revolution in playing style and built a multi-cultural blend of good old Germanic values and migratory-flavoured flair.
“I had the feeling that relatively many people in Germany would have been happy if he had got knocked out today,” Kroos said after the match. “But we won’t make it that easy for them.”
He explained that those words were directed at a press “that doesn’t help” and at the pundits back home, not the supporters in the streets and in front of the televisions.
But in truth, those delineations have long blurred. The country — in football and beyond — has been gripped by divisive forces, feeding on fear. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Angela Merkel, whose chancellorship began one year before the 2006 World Cup romance, appears on the brink this summer — just as football chancellor Low was on Saturday, with a few seconds to go.
A first win at the World Cup will not nearly be enough to disperse all the negativity that’s been hanging over both sets of Germanys. But Kroos’s sensuous, sensational free kick at least freed his compatriots from having to cope with additional, unknown levels of misery.
Instead, it served as a last-minute reminder that the potential for happiness and unity, however fleeting, still exists.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC’s German football expert and author of “Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story.” Follow: @honigstein