There are many images that define the abjectness of the coalition government to which we have been subjected since 2010. The student demonstrations. The burned out shops of the 2011 riots. The egregious fawning over Thatcher. George fucking Osborne simpering, gurning and generally coming over as the worst person on Earth. And yet, for me, no image sums up the grimness, the vapid moral redundancy and the sneering, retrogressive Little-Englandism that characterises this sham of a ruling party quite like the photograph of David Cameron lording it over Angela Merkel during the 2012 Champions League final.
The photo – snapped as Didier Drogba insouciantly rolled in the winning penalty – shows Cameron at his most extravagantly reptilian (a term here used by way of colourful adjective, as opposed to credulity-testing David Icke literality – although with him you can never fully rule it out). Leering puffy-faced with arms outstretched in ostentatious triumph, this was Cameron at his swaggering Bullingdon worst – dripping with the sense of ingrained, unshakeable superiority drummed in from birth. Cameron’s strut was, of course, a transparent attempt to impose dominion over Merkel. Part of an interminable pan-European posturing as risibly empty as his appropriation of any other cultural strand deemed vote-winning, this was the political equivalent of hurling threats towards opposition fans from behind the safety curtain of a line of stewards.
What’s so interesting about this photograph is the manner in which it demonstrates Cameron, as so often, failing to grasp the public mood as he tried to tap into a presumed anti-German sentiment. With the exception of a small enclave in Surrey and the mythical always-support-the-English-team types whom no one apart from commentators has ever met, Bayern were the neutrals’ clear and preferred choice. For all that FC Hollywood remain one of the game’s financial behemoths, their image within the popular consciousness is redolent with the egalitarian ideal of fan ownership and (the increasingly abstract panacea of) cheap tickets. They may be indelibly linked to the corporate giants of Bavaria, but contrasted to all that Chelsea and their obscene ownership model stand for Bayern – like many German clubs – became a de facto shorthand for righteousness.
This failure to capture the shifting mood has not been restricted to our Cameron. Commentators and pundits, those perennial arbiters of ill-sense, seem pathologically obsessed with such an anachronistic stance. According to the Immutable Law of Chiles, fans must persistently refer to them as “The Germans”, the definite article contrived to emphasise apparent otherness. Likewise, Tyldesley and his ilk seem perennially stuck on the edge of spluttering incredulity at the vaguest possibility that the fortunes of a German club side would be favoured over one of the Premier League’s plucky underdogs in European competition. Despite this, the German model – indeed, the Bundesliga at large – has become eulogised to the point of obsession. Discussion about the atmosphere, or lack thereof, at any given match has to contend with the looming Banquo’s ghost of the Südtribüne. The rise of Dortmund and, to a lesser extent, Leverkusen with their unrelenting speed and aggressive physicality have taken characteristics long synonymous with the British game and improved them, creating a confounding cognitive dissonance. An idealised version of ‘our’ self-identified characteristics played out with unattainable style and panache, like a computerised avatar.
The effect has been hypnotic. As with the lionisation of the domestic German game, so too the national side – covertly and with a sense of acute shame in some quarters, one suspects. By the third week of South Africa 2010 Germany had become the subject of an endless circle knee-jerk, roundly feted as the most expansive European team since the Aranycsapat with Mesut Özil as their Sándor Kocsis. So great was the infatuation with Germany barely a Lidl was firebombed in the aftermath of the 4-1 shellacking of England. From that point on, the Nationalmannschaft became a popularly-adopted cause celebre – a refreshing antidote to the relentless tiki taka of Spain, paradoxically painted as a surrogate emblem of ‘our’ no-nonsense, up-and-at-‘em way of doing things in the face of diminutive Iberian cunning. At least until Spain knocked them out, anyway.
It is perhaps in this last regard that a truth about the status of Germany as newfound darling of the neutral can be sighted. As a youngster, the chance of them getting knocked out of anything seemed remote to the point of implausibility. Already a monolithic winning machine throughout the 70s and 80s, the ease with which the side of Matthaus, Klinsmann and Völler cut a swathe through Italia 90 hinted at a domination of the international scene that would be as unrelenting as that team itself. To suggest that they would fail to win any of the subsequent five tournaments would have been unconscionable. Yet here we are, 24 years on and German dominance has proved a mirage. Worse still, the nature of their failure in the intervening tournaments hints at an unwelcome fact that Germany have taken on the mantle from Spain of international football’s Big Game Bottlers.
To ponder the Big Game Bottler is a semantically difficult exercise, with the term implying both over- and under- achievement. For Germany, however, the difficulty is less linguistic than based on straightforward and unsmiling numerical logic. Since that triumph in Rome, the surge through qualification has become routine – a barely fathomable total of one defeat in 25 years the only blemish on an extraordinary record. Likewise, in each of the five tournaments during this period Germany have topped their group with ease – the defeat to Serbia last time out their only loss. The pattern next is nearly as well established. Belief swells within the team and amongst the fans, pundits line up to discuss the re-emergence of a football superpower, and then Germany lose to the first half-decent team they face. Bulgaria, Croatia, Brazil, Italy, Spain have all shattered the burgeoning dream, and whilst there is no shame in losing to any of those sides, the cycle of inflated expectations followed immediately by a swift bursting of the bubble has served to amplify the exits and lend each a defining quality.
Germany, thus, travel to Brazil under a cloud. A squad that reads like a who’s who of European midfield talent – Özil , Müller, Draxler, Kroos, Götze, Reus –the questions that surround them all relate to the diminution of a mental fortitude that was once fabled. Should they fail to see it through once again, expect the improbable infatuation with Germany to continue.
Posted by Ron Hamilton