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Germany's long road

Jefferson ChaseJuly 14, 2014

It took 24 years for reunified Germany to win the World Cup. German football and the German national team changed enormously and unforeseeably during that time. And as Jefferson Chase points out, so did Germany itself.

Fußball WM 2014 Finale Argentinien Deutschland
Image: Reuters

The Kaiser can finally breathe easy.

In 1990, fresh from beating Argentina in the World Cup final, West Germany national coach Franz Beckenbauer was asked how good the German team would be with the addition of players from East Germany, which was then awaiting its imminent demise. His answer: “We’ll probably be unbeatable for years.”

History has a way of punishing overconfident remarks, and Beckenbauer’s smug assessment was no exception. The reunified German national team went on to win the 1996 European Championship, finish runners-up at the 2002 World Cup, but otherwise failed to distinguish itself.

Of course, reunification in general was nowhere near as easy as many Germans, eastern and western, envisioned. Instead of Helmut Kohl’s blossoming landscapes, another famously over-optimistic prediction, citizens of the reconstituted nation got high unemployment, massive government expenditures, and even a temporary resurgence of right-wing xenophobia.

From Steffen Freund to Ulf Kristen to Michael Ballack, players born in the communist GDR were prominent in the German national side, but the results didn’t come. The structures of the Germany’s football association, the DFB, carried over from West Germany, rapidly proved obsolete. The nadir came in 2000, when the team Beckenbauer declared unbeatable crashed out in the group stage of the European Championships, without winning a single match.

Painful reforms and fairy tales

Toni Kroos, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller
This team finally got the job doneImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Germans and Germany may have a tendency to think they know better than the rest of the world, but they’re also quite good at making necessary changes when things aren’t working. By the early part of the new millennium, it was clear that many aspects of the old West German system didn’t suit the new nation.

From 2003-5, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pushed through a series of social-welfare and job-market reforms (aka cut-backs) called Agenda 2010. These measures weren’t always pretty, pleasant or fair to all those effected, but they are now partly credited with leaving Germany in good shape to weather the global economic crisis of the later years of the decade.

Likewise comprehensive reform was imposed on German football. In the wake of the 2000 debacle, Bundesliga clubs were required to invest in youth facilities, money was pumped into training coaches, and emphasis was shifted from producing physically rugged strongmen (colloquially known in English as BFGs) to developing athletes who were quicker and better on the ball.

By the time Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup, the national team under young coach Jürgen Klinsmann was playing attractive, quick-passing football, and die Nationalmannschaft’s performances ignited a wave of euphoria. As commentators never tired of pointing out, suddenly it was okay to affix German flags to your car, paint your face in black-red-and-goal or - horror of horrors - sing the German national anthem.

The tournament went down in Germany’s collective memory as the "Summer Fairy Tale" - a phrase that conveniently ignored the fact that the hosts finished third. Why let reality spoil a feel-good narrative? Nonetheless, Germany’s footballing business remained unfinished, and further sporting and social changes were underway.

A miniature melting pot

Mesut Özil
Özil is one player from an immigrant backgroundImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In 2000, Germany’s top midfielders were a group of fellows called Matthäus, Ballack, Hamann, Scholl and Deisler - all good German names, if you will. In 2014, Germany’s midfield consisted of Schweinsteiger, Müller, Khedira, Özil, and Kroos – two western Germans, two western Germans from immigrant backgrounds and one eastern German.

During the initial years of reunification, while many Germans were navel-gazing about the compatibility of east and west, an influx of a third group, the neither-nors, was commencing. Today twenty percent of Germany’s population consists of people with immigrant backgrounds and non-German citizens. That’s reflected in the national team. Against Argentina, more than a third of Germany’s starting line-up (which also included Ghanaian-German defender Jerome Boateng and Polish-born striker Miroslav Klose) came from an immigrant background.

When I moved to Berlin twenty years ago, cultural commentators were obsessed with redefining "the Germans" and "Germanness." Nowadays, on the streets near my apartment, I’m slightly more likely to hear Spanish or English spoken than the nominal national language. I sometimes long for the days when Germany was a bit more homogeneous, and I was the exotic American.

To put it polemically: Germany has become mongrelized. And as any dog-lover knows, mongrels are usually smarter and live longer than purebreds.

This "Schland" is your "Schland"

Garden gnomes
Everyone got behind Germany this time roundImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The economic woes of the 2000s and the international crises of recent years have underscored the fact that Germany is the most powerful nation in Europe. Yet it remains an uncertain, skittish, at times even unwilling international heavyweight.

Before the World Cup very few Germans gave the national team any chance of winning the tournament, and truth be told, die Nationalmannschaft did not always play scintillating football. Jogi Löw’s team got through some of its matches by reverting to the "traditional German virtues" of well-executed set-pieces and physical defending. Germany claimed the title because of the top nations it was the most competent, or least incompetent. Kind of like Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a way.

A bizarre bit of language sheds a bit of light on how the 2014 World Cup has changed German football and German society. At some point during the tournament, fans began referring to the team as "Schland." Coined and indeed copyrighted all the way back in 2005 by a late-night TV host, this bastardization of "Deutschland" only entered common parlance this summer. It’s a way of simultaneously parodying drunken fans, ironically sharing in the general enthusiasm, and of acknowledging that while Germany excels in many things, it is also a society that often prefers familiarity to innovation, reliability to imagination, and propriety to inspiration. A society that still loves garden gnomes.

That was about as far as the national introspection went in the summer of 2014, and I for one was glad of it. Fans from Germany, a country with both good and bad characteristics, rooted for their team to win the reunited country’s first World Cup title, and die Nationalmannschaft won over a lot of supporters for playing pretty-good-to-watch, efficient football. There’s nothing objectionable about that.

For Germany, the 2014 World Cup was no fairy tale. It didn’t have to be. Reality was good enough.