The rebranding of Germany

It was hot and I was late. There was a little tussle and I was soon in the company of the German mil

I'm sometimes asked if there is anything I don't enjoy about being here in Germany for the Observer to cover the World Cup. The heat and high humidity can be gruelling. But they're not really a problem. It's quite noisy outside my apartment, in the centre of Berlin, just off Pariser Platz and opposite the celebrated Adlon Hotel, especially as the supporters make their way home at night from the Fan Fest next to the Brandenburg Gate. On the days that Germany play, the festivities rumble deep into the night. But you get used to it. As for the travelling, by train and plane - where am I today, I think, waking in another unfamiliar room? Oh, yes, Gelsenkirchen. I must rush . . .

So, few problems and many pleasures, not least the chance to talk to so many well-informed Germans I have met in train buffet cars or in bars. Slowly, and after different encounters, an overlapping consensus of opinion emerges of a country not quite at ease with itself or its place in the world, a country resentful of the wealth of its own southern states, a country, notably in the east and in the post-industrial Ruhr, struggling with regional unemployment rates of nearly 20 per cent.

A new kind of patriotism

Before the World Cup, there was pessimism and much anxious self-evaluation. Would the tournament be destroyed by terrorism? What of the threat from hooligans? Would neo-Nazis from the east disrupt events? How would the world respond to Germany and its people? There was much discussion about how the World Cup could be used as an exercise in national "rebranding": an advertisement for the humane, tolerant and peaceful country that Germany has become. It was, said Franz Beckenbauer, the figurehead of the tournament, a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity".

Slowly these anxieties are fading, replaced by a new confidence, inspired in part by the serene progression of the tournament itself and the performance of the home team. Jürgen Klinsmann's side has thrilled and surprised with the swagger of its fast, direct, uninhibited attacking game. Most un-German in style, in fact.

A new kind of patriotism is emerging. When I arrived three weeks ago in Munich, there was little, if any, flag-waving of the kind that I'd left behind in England. Now, the flag is ubiquitous here - and its high visibility a source of continuous debate. "I'm 43 and my generation grew up to be deeply distrustful of the flag and overt displays of patriotism," Paul Nolte, professor of contemporary history at the Free University of Berlin, told me. "But what we're seeing around us is a good thing - a new kind of benign self-confidence."

News travels fast

One morning I received a call from a friend in Italy: "Are you all right? I hear you've been arrested?" He'd received a text from a mutual friend in London who had read in Private Eye of my arrest. Or something like that. How amusing, I thought, reflecting back on an incident a few days earlier when, in Dortmund for the Sweden v Trinidad match (the first football report I would have written for 15 years), I was refused entry into the stadium because of problems over accreditation. It was hot and I was late; let us just say a robust discussion followed between me and a steward, who resembled a cross between the former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and an enraged Bart Simpson. He was wearing a baseball cap, which I could not resist knocking from his head, as you would. There followed a little tussle and I was soon in the agreeable company of the German military. So not arrested exactly, but not entirely innocent, either.

Lessons of old age

I spent a couple of days in Dresden, away from the football. It was moving to discover how, since reunification, the old city has renewed itself, with the fine baroque structures of the Altstadt rising from the ruins of war. My guide was elderly and frail; she had lived in the city for most of her life. "What I see around me is a kind of miracle," she said. You knew what she meant. You knew, too, as Edgar says at the end of Lear: "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long."