MOSCOW — About 15 minutes before kickoff on Sunday, Marc-Andre ter Stegen laughed with his teammate Niklas Sule as he made his way onto the field at Luzhniki Stadium. Ter Stegen is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and the starter for FC Barcelona. He has been in good form, too; this past season, he recorded the second-most shutouts in all of the top European leagues.
But here, as Germany faced Mexico in a World Cup group stage game, ter Stegen was a substitute, a reserve ambling out to the bench ahead of the formal walk-on for the starters. It was a strange sight, and — particularly after Mexico stunned the defending champions 1-0 — it shined a spotlight on a question that has hung over all sports, including soccer, for years.
Should an injured player keep his job?
Let’s review: Manuel Neuer has been Germany’s starting goalkeeper since 2010. He is also an incredible talent, a superstar, a rock for Germany’s top team, Bayern Munich, and he has served as the captain of the German national team since 2016. He is an all-timer. But he has played in exactly zero meaningful games in the past eight months as a result of a lingering foot injury.
After spending nearly all of this past club season rehabbing and watching ter Stegen excel, Neuer played his first match for Germany since last September just three weeks ago, in a warm-up exhibition. He was then promptly handed back his starting spot by coach Joachim Low as Germany arrived at the World Cup. Ter Stegen was dropped. He had replaced Neuer more than admirably, had been just as good and had become, undeniably, a legitimate No. 1 for just about anybody — just not his own team.
Sports are often cast as the ultimate meritocracy — if you play well enough, you’ll make it — but what about in this circumstance? Ter Stegen stepped in when his teammate got hurt and did the job as well (if not better) than the person he replaced but was seemingly not allowed to keep that job because of the way he gained it.
“When you have played all season and have always maintained the highest level, it is a disappointing situation,” ter Stegen told reporters before adding that he will “try to help Manuel.”
It was a reasonable (and admirable) reaction from ter Stegen, who certainly hasn’t done anything to lose the job. But is Low’s position — he said all along that if he brought Neuer to the World Cup, it would be as his No. 1 — the fair one?
German goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn said in various interviews during the buildup to the World Cup that Neuer’s experience and the consistency he has shown in the biggest moments, such as the 2014 World Cup, are irreplaceable. To Kahn, those intangibles are what put him beyond ter Stegen even if the latter’s physical abilities are undeniable.
That’s certainly a reasonable position. Neuer has been an amazing goalkeeper for years. Not playing for most of nine months doesn’t mean he automatically forgets everything he knew. It wasn’t like Neuer played poorly, either. He just didn’t play at all.
Unfortunately for Germany, Sunday’s performance will not do anything to make such questions go away. Germany’s showing in the stunning loss to Mexico was poor across the board, with an aging, leaden defensive unit likely taking most of the barbs.
Neuer looked far from authoritative, too. Playing in his customary position near the halfway line late in the second half, he was woefully slow in getting back toward his goal once Mexico gained possession, and a more ambitious player might have tried a fairly straightforward chip. On more than one occasion, he shanked balls rolled back to him.
Perhaps most importantly, on the game’s only goal, he was beaten at his near post by a shot from Hirving Lozano. It was not a glaring mistake (Lozano’s shot was powerful), but goalkeepers guard their near posts like jewels, and it was impossible not to wonder if ter Stegen might have gotten down a touch more quickly.
In the aftermath, Low is faced (again) with a situation that has hung over coaches everywhere at one time or another.
The most famous instance in American sports might be the opposite of this situation — Wally Pipp, as the story goes, was a starter for the Yankees in 1925 when he sat out a game with a headache and was replaced by Lou Gehrig, who went on to become one of the game’s greats — but there are plenty of others. Drew Bledsoe famously was replaced as quarterback of the New England Patriots when he was crushed during a game in 2001 and never got the job back, as a young player from Michigan (his name is Tom Brady) seized it and did not let go.
Unlike in those circumstances, Low took the approach of sticking with the established player who has played well for him instead of the one who is doing so in the moment. Yet after an unexpected defeat, he will, of course, have a litany of questions to consider.
Will his goalkeeper — should his goalkeeper — be one?