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Saturday, 5 June 2010

Germany and the World Cup

In a few days the world cup will begin in South Africa and already, at least here in Germany, it seems impossible to avoid it. Every second packet in the shops seems to be decorated with football emblems. My local supermarket is giving away vuvuzelas – those plastic trumpets that the fans in South Africa use to make lots of lovely noise – and I’ve already threatened my daughter that, if she isn’t nice to me, I’ll give her three-year-old son one as a present. The commercials on TV are full of footballers earning lots of extra money by endorsing everything from chocolate cream and deoderant to credit cards and the newspapers are full of discussions of the line-up in the German squad and with gloomy reports of the negative consequences of the absence of a number of players, including Michael Ballack, through injury. Germans take the world cup very seriously. But then, in the history of the German national psyche since the Second World War, the world cup has had a very special place.

Switzerland, 1954

On July 4, 1954, the West German team defeated Hungary 3:2 in the final in Bern. The result was a sensation, as Hungary had been regarded as clear favourites to win the competition. The German team was composed of amateurs, professional football (like many other things) still not having regained its feet after the war. The effect of the victory on the German soul cannot be underestimated. In 1945, following the horrors of Nazi rule and World War II, Germany had, to all intents and purposes, been destroyed. Utterly defeated in war, Germans were also confronted with the evil they had tried to inflict on Europe and the world. For most people this was much too much and, simply shutting out as much of it as they could, they set about rebuilding their country and trying to integrate the millions of people displaced in former German provinces in the east who had streamed westwards in the years of chaos at the end of and subsequent to the war.

The “miracle of Bern” marked the first occasion after the war where it was possible for Germans to experience an unalloyed, unsullied moment of national pride and marks, in many ways the moment when West Germany started to finally put the trauma of the war behind it and get on with the “economic miracle”, that process of hard work and good organisation which would see the country into unprecedented prosperity in the following years. If you want to get a feeling of what Germany was like then and what that world cup victory meant to the country, then you could do a lot worse than watch Sönke Wortmann’s film Das Wunder von Bern [The Miracle of Bern] (2003)[1].

West Germany, 1974

Twenty years after Bern, a resurgent West Germany hosted the world cup and, having been defeated 1:0 by East Germany in the first round, went on to beat the Netherlands 2:1 on July 7 in the final in the Olympic Stadium in Munich. The team was captained by Franz Beckenbauer.

On first sight a confirmation of self-assured West German success, the victory in 1974 came at a complex time in German history. The charismatic chancellor, Willi Brandt, the first Social Democrat to rule in post-war Germany, the man who had pioneered a new strategy of rapprochement towards East Germany, the Nobel peace-prize winner who had knelt in humble shame at the Warsaw ghetto, had been forced to resign only weeks before as a result of the Guillaume espionage affair. The oil-crisis of the previous year had shaken confidence in the country’s economic primacy. The final was played in Munich, the scene of the Black September massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympics two years previously and the shock-waves of the sixties – the generational conflict between the young, born after the war, and their parents, who tried their best to forget and were thus silent about their part in the third Reich, growing criticism of the solid bourgeois attitudes which had driven the economic miracle – were still spreading. Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and other leaders of those radicalised young people who had turned to terrorism were already in jail but the orgy of politically-inspired violence would continue. Some of those on the fringe of the Red Army Faction, including Joshka Fischer, would subsequently reject the path of revolution and go on to found the Green Party.

Italy, 1990

In what some commentators have described as the worst world cup in recent times, West Germany (having knocked England out after penalties in the semi-final) defeated Argentina 1:0 on July 8, in the Olympic Stadium in Rome[2]. The team was managed by – surprise, surprise! – Franz Beckenbauer, now known all over Germany by his nickname, the Kaiser.

Not that anyone in Germany was worried about the complaints of experts concerning the quality of the tournament. In November of the previous year the Berlin wall had fallen. The winds of change had swept away the iron curtain and Germany was reaping the peace dividend. After the final was over flotillas of cars hooping their horns drove jubilantly through the streets of the country, east as well as west, celebrating the victory, the last world championship West Germany would ever win. For a few months later, on October 3, West Germany as an entity would disappear, subsumed into a reunified Germany.

At least in football terms. In a stricter political sense, it was the GDR which disappeared, the territory of the Federal Republic, its constitution and laws, expanding to take in the former Russian controlled east zone. The rapidity with which the two Germanys united had as much to do with practical realities as with any high national ideals. There were fears in Bonn about the stability of Gorbachev’s power-base within the Soviet Union. More practically, GDR citizens had automatic citizenship of the Federal Republic and they were streaming westwards, abandoning what many had judged to be a state without a future. A week before the world cup final, the Deutschmark had already replaced the East German mark as the official currency of the GDR, with a one-to-one exchange rate – a political decision which placed huge strains on the economy of West Germany extending far into the future. A basically bankrupt economy was merged with the most powerful one in Western Europe and united Germany is still paying for that today.

But on the evening of July 8 1990 no-one in Germany was thinking of future difficulties. The unimaginable was happening and Germany was world champion. Everything else could wait for tomorrow.

Germany, 2006

Before the world cup started, Germans went through a typical phase of national agonising. There was a dispute about the opening ceremony which led to it being axed completely and there were dire predictions about potential fan violence and racist-inspired attacks on foreign visitors. Worse still, the host team had been less than impressive in the months leading up to the tournament and there had been a lot of criticism concerning manager Jürgen Klinsmann’s insistence on continuing to live in the USA and flying back to Germany to carry out his job.

But then the competition began and all the doubters were silenced. The German team played attractive football and reached the semi-finals. More important, however, was the atmosphere which swept the country. Generations who had been born since the war, the youngest of which could not even remember the Berlin Wall, suddenly discovered that they could be unashamedly, innocently patriotic. The national flag became popular overnight, with people hanging it from their windows, or flying it from their cars. But it wasn’t just German flags; I remember seeing apartment blocks with German, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian flags, all hanging peacefully side by side from different balconies – a positive expression of an often difficult multi-cultural reality. In wonderful summer weather Germany celebrated a four-week long party for the world in what quickly became known as the Sommermärchen, the Midsummer Fairytale. There was a sense that Germany had grown up, that the nightmares of the 20th Century had finally been left behind.

South Africa, 2010 …

And so, it begins again. For the first time, the world-cup is being hosted in Africa, in a (despite all its problems) post-apartheid, multi-racial, democratic South Africa, and who would have believed that twenty-five years ago? Here in Germany, every city and town is erecting large screens in their squares and stadia and people are planning to party once more.

Who’s going to win? A majority of Germans asked believe that their national team can do it this time, but, while I hope they’ll go a long way, I don’t see it happening. Following their victory in the European championship two years ago Spain looks strong. So does Argentina, though I have my doubts about the competence of their trainer, a certain Diego “Hand of God” Maradona. Personally I fancy Holland – they have a cadre with some awesomely talented players – and I enjoy annoying my German neighbours with this view, given that the Netherlands and Germany have always been keen football rivals. Or perhaps an African country will surprise and thrill us.

One thing I am sure of. As a patriotic Irishman I am looking forward to seeing the French being beaten, humiliated, destroyed … Only on the football field of course!


[2] My Irish patriotism proudly notes that the Republic of Ireland reached the last eight in the competition.

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