Football patriotism has saved modern Germany from its worries about national identity

No country has worried more about the dangers of national identity than modern Germany. That is why football patriotism has been good for it.

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The 2014 World Cup victory is the first to be won since German unification, following three triumphs for West Germany in the post-war era. It will also demonstrate how the World Cup has, several times, helped Germany’s sense of national identity to evolve. Football has provided the showcase moments at which a changing story of modern Germany has been told to the world, and ratified at home. But it has also played the crucial role in reassuring Germans themselves that they can fly the flag with pride.

In the beginning, there was a miracle. Germany was once a plucky underdog. Their 1954 World Champions were the Costa Rica of their day. That West German side still remain, by some distance, the most unlikely of winners that the World Cup has ever seen, having still been banned from the community of nations for the previous tournament in 1950. After all, Hungary had already beaten West Germany 8-3 in the first round when the teams took the field for the 1954 final, for a rematch which everybody assumed was the formality of crowning the great Puskas and the “Mighty Magyars” as champions.

Instead, “the miracle of Bern”, despite quickly trailing 2-0, somehow came back to lead 3-2 and to hold on. German commentator Herbert Zimmerman’s “Its over! Its over!” on the final whistle seemed to speak to more than the end of 90 minutes. “We are somebody again,” was the phrase which captured the German mood though, as Paul Legg’s excellent recent History Today essay sets out the international reaction was hostile and resentful. The East German censors struggled with how to deal with an evidently popular result against Eastern bloc allies. Le Monde blew a gasket: “that’s how it all begins again”, their lead commentator wrote.

What had really begun was a tradition of German football success though, curiously, the German hosts could claim underdog status again when their 1974 World Cup victory over the Total Football of Johann Cruyff’s Holland confirmed their dominant status.

With two World Cup triumphs and two losing finals in the five World Cups from 1974 to 1990, this was a great era for German football, but footballing success made this a trickier era for German patriotism.

What made footballing success more difficult for Germany was that other European countries were still playing out their own post-war national identities at the football. When nine million took to the streets when the Dutch finally beat Germany in 1988 on their way to becoming European champions, they were not only thinking of the defeat of Johann Cruyff. It was the largest Dutch public gathering since the Liberation. “It feels as though we have won the war at last,” a former resistance fighter said on TV. The academic author of the official multiple volume history of the Netherlands in the war told football writer Simon Kuper: “What these boys have done! Of course it has to do with the war. Strange that people deny it.”

This Germany, from Beckenbauer to Lotthar Matthaus, was certainly respected, and often feared, on the field – but rarely loved. It was the team that everybody wanted to beat, and that neutrals hoped would lose. Football’s dominant Germany was typecast as a villain: the World Cup heartbreaker. The team would go home with the trophy – leaving everyone else to debate whether Hungary and Holland most deserved the title of the greatest side never to win the World Cup. The players found the fragility behind the flair of Platini’s great French side, dumping them out at the semi-finals at successive World Cups in the 1980s.

Sometimes, the Germans earned the status of tournament villains, especially in 1982, as the infamous arranged result with Austria in 1982 – making Algeria the victims of a footballing Anschluss  – was followed by goalkeeper Harald Schumacher’s vicious assault knocking a French player unconscious, yet going unpunished. At other times, it was simply that the Germans had set the benchmark.

So whenever the Germans lost a big game, it was often the greatest moment in their opponent’s national sporting history. For the Czechs in 1976 and the Danes in 1992 they won the European Championship against the odds. For the Bulgarians in 1994 and the Croatians in 1998, it was obviously a big deal to knock the team who were World or European Champions out of the World Cup. It usually resonated more because it was Germany.

Yet these defeats were a sign too that German dominance was fading after unification. Famously, Germany reinvented its football after their disappointing performances after 2000.

For a third time, Germany discovered the charm of being the underdogs.  2006 changed German sense of its national identity during what became known as the “summer fairytale”, as the country revelled in the role of hosting the tournament during one of the hottest summers on record. That was the summer that rehabilitated the German flag as a public symbol. Germans gathered in large fan parks, and waved their flags as their coach Jurgen Klinsmann encouraged them too. The German media debated whether it really was OK to wave the flag and decided that it was.

The proof surely was that this was a Germany which, though disappointed to lose in the semi-finals, could take to the streets to celebrate winning third place. 

This was a new Germany on and off the pitch.  It was now the young German side who played with flair and some fragility, being checkmated by the Italians in 2006 and suffocated by Spanish possession in 2010.

Off the pitch, German identity had become more inclusive too. It had taken a long time for the Federal Republic to reform the citizenship laws to provide a civic, rather than ethnic, account of who was German. The young and talented multi-ethnic German football team now provides the widely discussed and celebrated symbol of this New Germany, a phenomenon which Daily Mail celebrated by asking, “Are you Poland – or Turkey, Ghana, Bosnia and Brazil – in disguise?” during the last World Cup.

Germans have long known they were expected and allowed to be “constitutional patriots”. It has sometimes been suggested that the “constitutional patriotism” of the Federal Republic should be a model for other national identities. In truth, this was a German response to the distinct horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi era. No country could now claim to have done more to come to terms with its own past, in education, politics and international affairs.

So constitutional patriotism certainly matters but, on its own, it can be a little too anaemic. Having done that hard work, “football patriotism” has added an emotional dimension, which admirable democratic institutions could not achieve on their own, rooting the ownership of a civic and inclusive national pride.

What the 2014 World Cup has now shown is that Germany can win and be admired abroad as well as at home. Germany has won on the football pitch – to popular acclaim and approval around the world. Any country on earth would be proud of that team, and of the approach which has made it possible.

Of course, the Germans are proud of how they won the World Cup. Surely nothing could be more normal than that. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.