There is one outstanding favourite for this tournament: Spain. They have dominated international football for the past decade, barely putting a cultured, tiki-taka foot wrong. Exemplified by Xavi’s languid, almost slow-motion arrogance, they are the team to beat. They haven’t, however, been the only team in renaissance. Yapping in their shadow like an excitable mini-schnauzer is a younger, physically stronger, more direct and, in my view, more thrilling team. That team is, of course, Germany. If Spain are cerebral, patient and cultured then Germany are visceral, outspoken and playing with a chest beating pride that speaks of the nation’s wider cultural, economic and political renaissance, of a strong and unified nation that has looked at itself in the mirror for too long, and is now ready to look the world squarely in the face again.
The 2006 World Cup was a watershed moment for the country, symbolically and practically. One simple but very powerful example of this was the flag-waving. Understandably and crucially Germany had been very, very wary of overt expressions of prideful nationalism. But this was different. This was untainted. This wasn’t pride in Germany’s dark history or horrifically misguided notions of superior ethnicity, but pride in its current achievements, pride in how far it had come, pride in its own often mocked values of efficiency, collectivism and mercantilism which just happened to be the perfect traits for organising a hitch-free and highly entertaining World Cup not coincidentally fuelled by some of the very finest beer in this or any other world.
That World Cup was only really the icing on a black-forest gateau that the Germans had been expertly baking since the Marshall Plan kick-started one of the most spectacular recoveries in history. Playing to their strengths, the Germans recovered economically from World War II with almost terrifying speed, and in a way which mocks the short-sighted selfishness and idiocy of the laissez-faire capitalists. Outwardly they are as economically ruthless and rapaciously capitalist as any other current Western state, as is clearly visible in their current dealings with Greece. Inwardly they have incredibly strong trade unions, invest enormous amounts into both vocational and academic education, and underpin it all with some of the most impressive social democratic infrastructure in the world. It’s not just that the trains run on time, it’s that the streets are clean, the people are healthy and have real free time and real job security and that the trappings of social democracy – the transport system, for example – are accessible to more or less everyone. In huge contrast to the United States or the United Kingdom, in Germany it’s perfectly feasible to live without a car and still have access to almost anywhere you would want to go.
Now Germany has a manufacturing sector envied and, crucially, bought from by the rest of the world, one which the England can only look upon and weep at as it provides a mirror of our national myopia. The big test for the new German economy came in 1989, when a country more or less the size of the UK suddenly had to integrate a relatively underdeveloped nation of 16 million people. Not just to put them to work but to give them, immediately, exactly the same social democratic safety net that West Germans had been enjoying for so long. Can you imagine what the effects would be if the U.K. suddenly had to integrate, employ and support the entire population of Chile?
Thus, a big part of the 2006 cake was simply a product of this lengthy process of post-unificatory integration. Of course there are large inequalities within Germany, but Eastern Germany is now a viable and productive part of the nation, with Berlin beating at its heart as one of the most interesting and entertaining cities, the du jour destination of creative tourists everywhere.
At the same time there was a quieter but much deeper cultural renaissance going on. An older generation dying off, and a younger one growing up, made for a fundamental shift in the country’s attitude towards itself. Without hiding away from it, or denying its own past, Germany was waking up to the fact that the war was over. That it could not now hold itself, or be held up by others, as a convenient by-word for all the evils in the world. The generation that were responsible opened up even as they were dying off, and the younger ones were glad to learn, but simply did not and would not feel guilty about it anymore. No, the country must never forget, but that does not mean individual young Germans have to own that guilt any more than young Brits of my generation have to own the atrocities committed in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising.
A particularly impressive cultural marker was the film Downfall. Part of the resurgent German film culture, this film represented Germany looking honestly in the mirror, seeing its past, coming to terms with it, and then sharing its new self-knowledge with the world. The result was quite possibly the definitive cinematic study of Hitler. By presenting him as a plausible human being, and eschewing the kitsch villain stereotype so beloved of Anglophone film-makers it received predictable and unjustified criticism. Some critics acted as if humanising someone we had turned into a bogeyman would somehow bring him back to life. In fact, the film made the West deal with a fundamental and crucial truth: that it has been too busy condemning Germany to see the shadow of fascism lurking within its own societies.
A third strand in Germany’s renaissance, one both fuelled by and fuelling these two streams is that of Germany’s multiculturalism. Like the great France ’98 side, the German football team is a beacon of what multiculturalism can be, but sadly still all to often isn’t. Turks, Poles, Balkan immigrants and the naturalised Brazilian Cacau have all featured in German teams over the last 10 years, and in the case of the ethnically Turkish Özil they have even provided the spark of magic to ignite Klinsmann’s fun but ultimately limited team into one with the potential to be the ‘new’ Spain, though a more accurate way of putting it would be that Spain are the new Germany. Germany never shied away from building the grassroots infrastructure and putting in the rigorous training required to be the best.
Germany’s World Cup showed us the new face of Germany. An exciting 4-4-2 team managed by Klinsmann, who injected a dose of U.S. Americanism into the German ethic. They played like a gifted and self-confident English team of the 80’s, all hustle and bustle, bravado and endless running. But the teutonic has been put back into the German team under Löw, without losing what made Klinsmann’s team so refreshing. Having shifted to the 4-2-3-1 formation with Schweinsteiger pulling the strings, this new Germany is capable of stern resistance but also, crucially, of exerting a high level of control and a steady application of pressure that characterised the great West German sides. However, this new breed show a level of exhilaration and sheer creativity that those sides all too often lacked.
All this team lacks is the confidence of a big tournament win. Aside from Spain, no-one really has the game, the players and, most importantly, the togetherness to touch them. These players will bleed for each other, and feel totally secure in themselves as a team. Just look at Podolski. The ethnically-German Pole, a naturalised German citizen, is a notoriously poor traveller. Excelling for his home team F.C Köln but with a failed stint at Bayern Munich, Podolski has rarely looked less than excellent for Germany, a barnstorming striker-cum-winger with a rocket shot and lethal finishing skills, for Munich he looked all too often like a lumbering ox, all muscle and no-finesse.
With Özil and Müller he forms a devastating trio behind Gomez, the sometimes ungainly-looking target man who has been on fire at club level this season. Ominously for the rest of Europe, a truly lethal striker with more than finishing to his game is what Germany have lacked for the past two tournaments. They go into the European Championships on form, mostly at the peak of their powers, with more experience at the sharp end of tournaments than anyone bar Spain, and with the Bayern contingent straining at the leash to get onto the pitch once again and quash any self doubt engendered by Chelsea’s smash and grab raid on ‘their’ champions league trophy.
I have a lot of time, love and respect for Spain and its football, but there’s no doubt who I’m excited by this time around. Germany is a country that has earned and deserves respect. Our misplaced pride in winning a war that is virtually beyond living memory, and cliched jokes about a lack of sense of humour, even as German crowds gently mock us in perfect English, make us look exactly what we are: a dysfunctional nation with no clear sense of what it should be proud of, clinging onto irrelevant past glories while sneering at those who we still can’t admit are treading a fundamentally different but arguably more effective path.
Germany are also the team to watch for sheer footballing reasons. Spain play beautiful football, but it’s a brand of controlled demolition that brings to mind a small boy slowly pulling the legs off an insect before eventually stepping on its head. Germany with the exuberant, skill and the sheer joy of being on a football pitch, chasing a ball and smacking it into the goal. Of course it takes skill, craft and control to do it properly, and of course they have plenty of all three, but like in Beethoven’s 9th, while it’s happening you almost can’t appreciate it, because you are simply carried along by the apparently simple joy of it. Here’s to the new Germany – I can’t wait to watch them again, and this time, it might just be their time.
Posted by Seb Crankshaw