Before I went to watch the World Cup final, I made a phone call to Kathmandu. The student I talked to said, “By the way, tomorrow university classes are off and tuition classes as well.” Why, I asked, any religious holiday in Nepal? “No, the World Cup Final. Nobody will be in the mood to work after spending the night before the TV.” Sitting at my desk in my native town in Germany the morning after the final, I see people flocking to their workplace in their cars. The baker is open to sell fresh bread, the newspaper shop is doing business, the butcher is open from 9 o’clock sharp although the game finished way beyond midnight. People falling into their arms, congratulating each other? No, no, that’s not the German way to celebrate. Celebrations happened yesterday; today is another working day. This may be different in Frankfurt and Berlin, where the team presented itself to a roaring public the next day. But the rest of the nation will work with an extra spring in their step, with plenty of material for discussion at lunch-break — but it will do its job.
People here, disciplined and hard-working as they usually are, enjoy their visit to the playground on weekends to watch their favourite club team. During these two hours they can do everything they are not supposed to do the rest of the week: to scream and howl, brag and make snide remarks, to jostle and jump. This gives them the exhilarating feeling of togetherness, of community without doing anything to create it; all you need is to be there and watch and shout.
Young fans do carry their enthusiasm beyond the stadium, you see groups of them in the trains with beer cans in hand and you better steer clear of their drunken vulgarity. But the majority keeps their fan behaviour restricted to playtime in the stands or in front of the television sets.
When the German team trounced the Brazilian team 7:1 in the semi- finals, I heard the remark from all sides: Enough, no more goals! How humiliating for the Brazilians to get such a drubbing in their own country! I saw women wiping their tears in empathy. The players and their support staff were busy praising and consoling the sobbing Brazilians, and so were the commentators on German television who did not hide their embarrassment and struggled to cope with such an unexpected result.
Germany is a football nation, no doubt about it. Every smallest town has its football club and a team. Football skills are being honed systematically. Talents are spotted early and are being carefully developed. Football is big business, city clubs engage professional footballers. Their life is football and nothing else. All this would be impossible without the enthusiastic public ready to spend money, without sponsors and without a huge advertisement machinery in place. Football is huge in Germany. And yet, in Brazil and Argentina football has another dimension. This is what the Frankfurter Allgemeine wrote: “In no other country personal and collective identities are being created through the adherence to a handful of football clubs. Argentina as a people cannot be understood without the institutions, the myths and the heroes of the football game.”
Germans are deeply aware that they, as an economically powerful nation, are privileged over the South American nations, which are economically poorer and struggle to maintain their self-confidence in the face of corruption, criminality, insecurity and fatalism. All they have is football to keep their head high on the world stage. Germany has Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, Siemens, BMW and a dozen other brands to keep their ego shiny.
When the German team won its first World Cup in 1954, it was indeed an hour of national pride. The country had gone through twelve dark years, Adolf Hitler’s era of National Socialism, and had been vanquished in a devastating war merely a decade earlier. Now there was a flicker of hope that Germany had a future. That was sixty years ago. Meanwhile the two Germanys are united, the country has the strongest economy in Europe. So the World Cup title provides a surplus of national pride.
Soon enough neighbouring European countries will do two things: they will praise German football and make “German virtues” responsible for its success: the willingness to work hard, team spirit, the never-give-up attitude. At the same time, this will again be seen as a danger because the very same virtues were at work during the World War and destroyed Germany and caused unutterable misery in the world. When Germany united in 1989, the dark clouds of a dangerously strong Germany were spotted on the horizon. People are aware of this international image and suffer from it. Patriotism was a strict no-no in my youth. No national anthem in school or at any official function. The German flag only at government buildings, occasionally. No exaggerated show of emotions; idolization is dangerous. All this we knew and accepted as a legacy of the Third Reich.
The first relaxation of this national severity was seen in 2006 when the World Cup took place in Germany. Suddenly the country exploded in the colours of the national flag, red, black and yellow. People draped themselves in playful irreverence in huge national flags, which were available at every street-corner. It was a lovely summer and people young and old were roaming the streets all over Germany hosting the football nations of the world in a generous mood. ‘Public viewing’ became popular. Huge screens were erected in parks and on broad avenues in all towns and cities on which the games were broadcast. The German team secured only third position, yet 2006 remains implanted in the public mind as a Sommermärchen, a ‘summer fairy-tale’. For once Germans appeared as a playful, buoyant, happy-go-lucky people much against their world-wide image.
This fairy-tale has come to its completion now. However, the national mood is not nearly as easygoing as it was then. Yes, national flags adorn many cars and house windows. But public viewing has diminished, crowds are thinner. Maybe the late hours should be blamed, maybe the fact that the games took place in far-off Brazil. South America is a popular tourist destination, many Germans have friends in or from South America. Many were texting their friends in those countries: “Great game. Congratulations!”