Bend it like Beckenbauer

The German World Cup squad shows a country lost in transition

Germany Mexico Soccer Moscow June 17 2018 DFB headcoach Joachim Jogi LOEW LÖW sad disappoint
Don’t overthink it, Jogi. Source: imago/ActionPictures

On Sunday, a great team lost because it lacks a compass. After Germany’s national soccer squad went down 0:1 against Mexico, the German press was unforgiving. Last week we were the reigning World Champions. This week the whole country doubts that “Die Mannschaft” will even make it out of the opening round and to the sudden-death phase.

Self-doubt and despair not only describe the mood among German soccer fans. They also capture the feeling in the country as a whole. Germany seems lost in transition: From a golden but complacent era of economic and political strength to an uncertain future of mass migration, trade wars and global disorder.

It was symbolic that a day after the poor start at the World Cup, Germans found their government in disarray over its migration policy, and the boss of one of the most admired German carmakers (Audi) going to prison because of Dieselgate. Three pillars of recent German self-confidence — soccer, political stability and automotive prowess — crumbled all at the same time.

Germany’s national soccer team has arguably always been a weather vane of the national mood and state. When Germany won its first World Cup in 1954 the whole country was in a comeback mood, as World War II was followed by an “economic miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder). When it won its second trophy in 1974, the country still had the optimistic spirit of the era of former chancellor Willy Brandt, who had famously asked Germans to “dare more democracy.” When Germany won a third time, just after its reunification in 1990, the German soccer “Kaiser,” Franz Beckenbauer, famously quipped: “We will be unbeatable for years to come.”

DEU: FIFA World Cup 1954
Germania resurgent. Source: Bongarts/Getty Images.

What followed instead was a long hangover in football, politics and in the German economy. The country was dubbed the “sick man of Europe” for its low growth and stubborn unemployment. The national team lost in the quarterfinals at the World Cups of 1994 and 1998.

Then, in 2005, Angela Merkel became German chancellor and harvested the economic fruits of political reforms that had cost her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, his job. It took the football team a bit longer to get back into shape. But by 2014, a charismatic and enchanting squad won its fourth Cup in Brazil.

The whole country seemed at peace with itself: The economy was strong; “die Mannschaft” was the envy of the world; the soccer-crazy chancellor was the undisputed guardian of German success. “Auf uns” (Cheers to us) was the title of the song the whole country joined in after winning in Rio.

The country has lost its footing

Four years later the world has changed dramatically. Since Merkel opened Germany’s borders in 2015 to more than one million refugees, the country has lost its footing. Germans have lost their confidence, as a populist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), keeps rising in the polls, as seven agonizing months went by after last September’s election without a proper government, and as the once-iconic German car industry undoes itself in slow motion.

Germans sense that the underlying forces of a disorderly world and technological revolution cast doubt on their beloved stability and threaten what they fear most: insecurity. Slowly, too slowly, Germans are realizing that they have to adapt faster to a fast-changing world, in which old friends across the Atlantic are no longer reliable, competitors are new and shifting, and adversaries are cynical and arming.

All this was on full display at the World Cup on Sunday night when Mexico outplayed, outran and outperformed a German national team searching for the order of 2014 that has since been lost.

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