Powerplay politics

If only Merkel could bend it like Kroos

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The chancellor could also use a lucky shot. Source: Handelsblatt Global

You don’t have to look far these days to find parallels between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German national soccer team. Both are under tremendous pressure to deliver and face endgame scenarios. And both are in a situation you wouldn’t typically expect of Germans — they’re not in control.

Let’s start with the national team because, well, it could be booted out of the World Cup soccer tournament in Russia before Ms. Merkel is pushed out of the chancellery in Berlin. But then Die Mannschaft, like the Kanzlerin, could surprise all of us and refuse to admit defeat and make the improbable possible.

That’s exactly what Toni Kroos did on Saturday. Five minutes into second-half added time against Sweden, the German midfielder curled a free-kick ball inches inside the far goal post and beyond the fingertips of Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen to deliver the World Cup defending champions a crucial victory. “The perfect goal” came just 30 seconds away from Germany possibly leaving the World Cup in the group phase — a first. And it could well breathe life into a team that has been everything but perfect so far.

“A bit of luck”

The players smothered Mr. Kroos in hugs, displaying a mix of joy and relief, after a listless loss to Mexico in their opening game. The 28-year old footballer, a key member of the star-studded Real Madrid team and not one to show emotion, let it all out, pounding the ground in sheer euphoria at the end of the match.

Minutes later, Germany’s elated trainer, Joachim Löw, nearly squeezed the air out of his prized midfielder in a victory hug. Admitting the winning goal was “a bit of luck,” Mr. Löw quickly added it was also a sign of the team “believing” in itself, against the death rattle of an early exit and on the back of weeks filled with discord. A controversial photo of Turkey’s president together with Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan, two team players of Turkish descent, had roiled fans ahead of the tournament. Many also criticized the mentality of a generation of players who, after winning the trophy in Rio de Janeiro four years ago, appeared to have lost their hunger for success.

How far the Germans will go in the tournament is anybody’s guess. They need to beat South Korea on Wednesday and hope that Mexico, which only needs a draw to qualify for the next round, makes an effort to knock out Sweden. Although the Germans are usually masters of peaking at the right time in major tournaments, they’ve misjudged their opponents and themselves so far. They’re not in control and could still face a dramatic exit.

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Bend it like Toni. Source: DPA

Like Ms. Merkel. The four-term chancellor and the EU’s longest-serving head of government has overcome numerous political crises, rivals and power struggles, but she is clearly struggling this time with the migration fiasco she has brought on her government. Not all of her team players accept her strategy — her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, for one. The head of Christian Social Union, the chancellor’s Bavarian sister party, has threatened to use his ministerial power to start rejecting asylum seekers at Germany’s borders if they’ve already been registered in another EU country.

The tough-on-migrants politician has forced her hand, leading the German chancellor to promise a set of bilateral agreements with other EU states ahead of a summit on June 28. Apart from the fact that Ms. Merkel is unlikely to deliver those deals, the bilateral or even trilateral strategy clashes with her declared goal of finding a common European approach, instead of letting each country fend for itself.

The chancellor is known for taking her rivals by surprise — by dropping her opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance, or exiting nuclear energy for a radical transition toward renewables. In tight predicaments like these, the experienced leader has shown how she can switch from defense to offense to disarm her adversaries.

An ardent fan of the national team, Ms. Merkel could surely benefit from bending one like Toni to end the European migration crisis she helped create with her open-door-policy — and secure her legacy.

To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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