The German national soccer team starts the Qatar World Cup with great ambitions. Even the title is called out loud as a goal. But the reality is relentlessly frustrating. After 2018, the German team fails for the second time in the preliminary round. It’s not an accident.

German football is on the ground, it is even in ruins. Anyone who sees it differently misjudges reality. Like four years ago, the DFB team failed in the preliminary round – and reaching the round of 16 at the European Championships last year is only a small intermediate high for even the boldest optimists. Germany is far away from the top of the world. And, to be honest, it has been treading water for four years. The steps that Hansi Flick took with the team as national coach were not a total. A fast forward and a tough back – without gaining space.

And this Thursday evening, the fantasy that everything will look better in the summer of 2024 is missing. The home EM is coming up in a year and a half. By then, Flick should have formed a title contender from the DFB team. Hardly anything in Doha seems more utopian these days. The structural problems in German football seem too big.

It starts with the staff: In addition to Antonio Rüdiger, a second top-level central defender is missing. A heroic bulwark like in 2014 with Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng is not in sight. Nico Schlotterbeck may have the potential, but he didn’t have the form and had too many dropouts in the game. There has always been a dispute about Niklas Süle. He also lacks at least consistency. Maybe Armel Bella-Kotchap will be the next big thing in the German defense. He is reminiscent of the young Boateng – but he is still very young at 20 and has no experience at international level.

The prospects on the defensive flanks and in the storm are even bleaker. Right and left, Germany currently only has mediocrity on offer. Thilo Kehrer, Lukas Klostermann, David Raum, Christian Günter and Benjamin Henrichs – all good footballers. But none embodies world class, none combines the qualities of Alphonso Davies, for example, whose German equivalent Flick would love to have for his offensive tactical orientation. So he has to decide for a player who is defensively stable or puts pressure on the front.

In the storm, a Kai Havertz rarely manages to feed the world-class reputation that precedes him with actions. Its development seems to stagnate rather than progress. Niclas Füllkrug is a good, self-confident placeholder for the moment, but at 29 years old he is no longer a promise for the future. Maybe one day Youssoufa Moukoko will solve the efficiency problems in front of the opposing goal. He has enormous talent, but has only just turned 18 (!) and has established himself at a good level in the Bundesliga over the past few months. But where is the world class? Sure, in Jamal Musiala’s feet, maybe in those of Florian Wirtz. But otherwise? Will it be tight? There is also a lack of assertiveness. Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Ilkay Gündogan certainly didn’t play a bad tournament, but in the decisive moments they were unable to stabilize the team as outright leaders and save them from going under.

And Flick will also have to question himself. How much of his own conviction has he asserted against the realities of the squad? How much courage did he show in the line-up? How much regard has he shown for good vibes while avoiding painful decisions? The weak Thomas Müller is the keyword. Regardless of this, Flick remains the right man. He showed at Bayern Munich how he can quickly pick up teams that are on the ground. There, however, it was less due to a lack of quality at the highest level and more to players without self-confidence.

In order to get German football back on its feet in the next few months, the first step is a mercilessly honest admission: Ambitions are good, utopias are fatal. There is now a lot of talk about the fact that the background noise around the “One Love” bandage would have burdened the players too much. In 2018 it was about the photo of Mesut Özil and Gündogan with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This accusation is aimed at the head of the DFB, President Bernd Neuendorf and Director Oliver Bierhoff. They failed to take the pressure off the team. The buckling before the FIFA ban on the subject of bandages and a strong sign of reparation was carried out on the backs of the footballers. Not everyone has managed the balancing act between enforced moral responsibility and playing on the field.

Unlike Flick, unless he himself is thinking about retiring (although he doesn’t), the third debacle in four years could be dangerous for Bierhoff. He had misappropriated German football. Had chilled fans’ affection with weird marketing claims. In the past few years, the DFB team has at times, especially in the summer of 2018, looked like an enraptured art product and no more than what it used to be: the team that Germany kept their fingers crossed.

The team was never able to free itself from all the heavy burdens, never been able to build its own identity, a hierarchy, a leadership – now it has collapsed for the third time. The fact that it’s not even enough to get through the preliminary round reveals the ludicrous contradiction between self-assessment and reality.