On one of the most memorable days in World Cup history, it really was there, somewhere between minute 69 and minute 73. The two European superpowers, both world champions in the previous decade, were virtually eliminated in the group stage. Germany and Spain. Deep in trouble in their last game in Group E, at the hands of two relative newcomers to the world stage, Japan and Costa Rica, World Cup participants since the 1990s.

    It was an unreal moment on a sweltering evening that was full of plot twists. Germany had to win against Costa Rica by at least two goals, and then hope that Spain did not lose to Japan. Then it would qualify for the eighth final. But around that 69th minute it was all the other way around. Costa Rica led 2-1 against Germany, Japan 2-1 against Spain. Status, history, order in global football – none of it counted for a while.

    Soul and bliss put the courageous Costa Ricans in the personal duels. On hope, on adrenaline, on sheer willpower. Out of nowhere they set up, after being played away for large parts in the first half and trailing 1-0. But suddenly there was the 1-1 via Yeltsin Tejeda, and not much later the 2-1 after goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had missed a free kick. Delirious scenes – this couldn’t be true, could it? Forgotten was the 7-0 defeat against Spain eight days earlier.

    Debatable target

    But where should you look, on which screen? In Spain against Japan, the developments were just as amazing. Nothing wrong in the first half it seemed, Spain leads sovereignly with 1-0. But then, the first five minutes after rest. First, Ritsu Doan, former player of FC Groningen and PSV, equalizes. Shortly followed by Ao Tanaka’s 2-1. Debatable, because the cross that preceded it really seemed to have been over the back line, but the VAR ruled not.

    Just before Japan’s 2-1 against Spain, the ball seems to have gone over the back line. Not according to VAR.

    Photo Jewel Samad/AFP

    Was it underestimation or just carelessness on the part of Spain? In the first game, Germany already choked on the tough, resilient Japan.

    But Spain is indirectly helped by Germany. In the meantime, that puts things in order against Costa Rica, turning the game around to 4-2 in fifteen minutes. Good news for Spain, which is certain of the next round with this position.

    But the other way around, Spain is not helping the Germans by making Japan harmless. Spain is still trying, but the conviction is missing. Is Spain really going for the equalizer? Which may play a role: if they lose, they will finish number two in the group and avoid Croatia, finalist in 2018, in the next round.

    In the sixth minute of stoppage time, Spanish midfielder Dani Olmo shoots meters wide in a desperate attempt. It remains 2-1. Party, early morning in Tokyo. Group winner, ahead of Spain and Germany. The biggest surprise of the tournament so far, after Belgium’s elimination earlier in the day. On Monday, the Japanese will meet Croatia in the eighth final, Spain will play against Morocco on Tuesday.

    In other words: Germany out, because Spain loses. Spain through, because Germany wins.

    Well organized football country

    The elimination will be felt in Germany, world champion in 2014 and widely regarded as one of the best organized football countries. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it was also eliminated in the first round, at last year’s European Championship the round of 16 was already the final station. In between, it still lost 6-0 to Spain.

    Apart from the elimination, Germany did not play a bad World Cup: the game was offensive, with nice combinations. A data journalist from Football International noticed on Thursday evening on Twitter that Germany had the most shots on target of any country in the group stage (69), the most shots on the post or crossbar (5) and the highest expected number of goals (10.5).

    But that will not lessen the sadness of the untimely elimination of Germany, traditionally a country strong in ‘tournament football’.