IT is easy to admire many things about Germany, from the trains running on time, to German pragmatism and consensus, employee protection, high quality products, Kraftwerk and refusal to discard industries that appear to have little in common with modern trends. Back in the 1990s, some people in Britain laughed that Germany was still “bashing metal” to make money, while the UK was looking to become a technology hub that didn’t need heavy industry or pencil manufacturers stuck in the narrative of the industrial revolution. How misguided and short-sighted that view appears to have been.Embed from Getty Images
As the financial crisis broke, Germany’s economy held up better than most, in fact it became the crutch on which much of Europe was leaning. Furthermore, Angela Merkel emerged as Europe’s most strong and stable leader, a mother of the nation that could be trusted. German football, which had its own crisis in the period between 1998 and 2002, when they “only” reached the last eight of the 1998 World Cup and failed to get out of the European Championship first stage group.
German football reinvented itself in time for the 2006 World Cup, in fact the world started to look at Germany in a different way as it hosted the competition for the first time since 1974. The nation went on a charm offensive that also resulted in young Germans waving their national flag with fervour, something that many people had been uncomfortable about since the Second World War. The 2006 World Cup might not have been won by Germany, but the country’s image Was transformed and the rest of the world realised that Europe’s most powerful democracy was not just a meticulously-organised nation.
Whatever your view on Germany’s overbearing strength being bad for projects like the euro, it is difficult to criticise their way of life. Sure, Germans have, historically, been a little too self-assured at times and that’s why failure, from corporate misdemeanour to problems around migrants, is jumped on as signs of failability. They have a perfect word for it, schadenfreude, which has been adopted by the rest of the world as a substitute for gloating. Yet there is one fact that people find hard to accept – Europe, indeed the world, needs a strong and influential Germany.
And so does UEFA and FIFA. That said, it doesn’t do Germany any harm to be reminded that success is not a given, and their exit at the group stage in Russia 2018 is always going to look like a temporary blip on the German football seismograph. Most fans watching football today do not know what it is like for serious German failure in football – since losing in the 1966 final, they have won three World Cups and three European Championships. They have been beaten finalists in another six competitions and been semi-finalists in another six. Compare that to England’s record – just three semi-finals (Euros 1968 and 1996 and World Cup 1990) in that timeframe, and you can understand why it is so hard for the man on the Berlin tram to accept German failure.
But is Die Mannschaft’s capitulation somehow a symbol of the current situation in Germany? The Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has never been so insecure in her position, with a protracted period of negotiation over establishing a coalition, and the much-admired leader has also been heavily criticised for her policy over migration. Merkel’s days are drawing to a close as Germany’s guiding hand just as less tolerant elements have crept into politics.
What’s more, corporate Germany, for so many years seen as a standard-bearer for quality and reliability, has received a series of setbacks. In financial services, their biggest bank, Deutsche Bank, has been in decline for a few years and is a constant worry for the markets. As the national team tumbled out of the World Cup, Deutsche Bank’s share price was well below the psychological barrier of € 10, a far cry from the days when it touched €100.
Moreover, one of the beacons of German industry, Volkswagen, is still mired in controversy. The very symbol VW has long stood for a brand that can be trusted, but a year ago, the leading magazine, Spiegel said the “made in Germany” label had been badly damaged by the emissions scandal.
All of these things may be indicative of a difficult time, but Germany will inevitably bounce back and in the case of the football team, a bit of soul-searching will soon put things right. Whether that will be with Joachim Löw remains to be seen. He’s been in charge since 2006, a year less than the Chancellor. Both Merkel and Löw are figureheads of modern Germany, a post-2006/post-crisis Germany that has become more accessible to the rest of Europe. Germany is not only admired for its economic stability but also for the way it runs its football, from domestic leagues and club structures to consistency at a global level.
Deep down, although the rest of the world will be enjoying Germany’s exit (that’s football!), this schadenfreude is based on envy and whether we like it or not, a desire to be a little more like Germany in the way we run our football, perhaps our country. At the same time, their shortcomings are enjoyed because it makes us feel better about our own limitations. They are, after all, human.
One thing needs to be acknowledged, though. This Germany side is not a bad team, group stage exit is not a sign of deep-rooted decline, but it may be the beginning of the end of an era if Löw decides to fall on his sword. Something went horribly wrong and there’s no better nation at confronting its demons. Germany won’t just be back, they will be adding to that impressive list of honours very soon. Enjoy the break while they regroup!
Large photo: Marco Verch CC-BY-2.0