It tends to be long drop from the summit that is scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final. Andres Iniesta, author of Spain’s winner in Soweto in 2010, has perhaps managed the vertigo best of this century’s instant heroes. Since he made history, Iniesta has won another 80-odd caps and can look forward, this summer, to his fourth World Cup tournament.
There Iniesta may well be unique as the only man among the 736 playing participants named for Russia who knows what it is to deliver the moment that wins the sport’s most coveted prize.
For sure, Iniesta will not be sharing the special memory with Mario Gotze on Friday night in Dusseldorf, the occasion a high profile friendly between the last two nations to own the World Cup. Gotze, who struck the injury time goal that gave Germany the prize in Rio de Janeiro four years back, is not included in his country’s squad.
The implications of his omission are clear. Germany manager Joachim Low named a 26-man party for the matches against Spain and, next week, Brazil. These players are, two and half months ahead of the official naming of squads, the leading contenders for the 23 World Cup spots (or rather the 22, given that Manuel Neuer, currently recuperating from a broken foot, is expected to be first choice goalkeeper again once fit).
If Gotze, who turns 26 in June, is to lurch suddenly up the queue, he must produce a very handsome portfolio of performances in the last six weeks of the Bundesliga season.
He no longer has a European stage to press his late claims. His club, Borussia Dortmund, have now been eliminated from both the Uefa Champions League and the Europa League earlier than anticipated this season. The much-heralded reunion of Gotze and Dortmund, after his three mixed seasons at Bayern Munich, is looking less like the happy reboot of a once-brilliant career than it did when, in 2016, he came back to the club he grew up with.
Gotze has just endured stern criticism from Dortmund’s manager, Peter Stoger, after Dortmund’s surprise 2-1 aggregate defeat in the last 16 of the Europa League to Red Bull Salzburg, of Austria.
“We were frankly not satisfied with what Mario Gotze had to offer,” said Stoger, who withdrew the player with Dortmund 2-0 down in the first leg in Austria and then took Gotze off at half-time of the goalless second leg. “There was simply nothing to see from him.”
There was not much in the Champions League, either, where Dortmund fell out of the group stage, beaten home and away by Real Madrid and by Tottenham Hotspur.
Though the club have regained some form after a poor start domestically, and the replacing of Peter Bosz by Stoger, Dortmund’s doldrums have been an impediment to several players’ World Cup aspirations, not only Gotze’s.
Also excluded from Low’s latest squad is Marco Reus, the pacey striker whose injury problems have hampered him regularly during his career. A fit and in-form Reus would certainly be considered a potent possibility for the Germany squad, but a fit Reus remains a rare creature.
Poignantly, Gotze displayed a Germany jersey with Reus’s name on it while he celebrated the World Cup win in Rio. His old friend had missed the tournament because of fitness problems.
That famous night, Gotze had come on as a substitute to score with a skilfully taken volley. The pass came from Andre Schurrle, another substitute and another man whose move to Dortmund – from Wolfsburg, in 2016 – has proved a mixed blessing. Schurrle and Gotze, like Reus and Gotze, go back a long way. They made their Germany debuts together in 2010.
Their opportunities to combine at Dortmund have been restricted by Gotze’s periods of illness last year – he was diagnosed with myopathy, a muscle complaint – and a Schurrle injury that kept him out of action in the early part of this season.
Schurrle, 27, has not been included in Low’s latest Germany squad either. He has 57 caps and featured in Germany’s last three major tournaments.
But loyalty has limited currency. Low has younger talents who supply the speed of Reus and Schurrle, notably Leroy Sane, enjoying a superb season with Manchester City. Lars Stindl and Julian Draxler have also jumped ahead in the hierarchy.
Low would still like to see the Gotze who used to bewilder opponents with his skill on the ball back to his best. “He is a player with unbelievable potential,” said the Germany manager, “and he is a player I trust. We need him to use the next two months to get into the best shape.”