This article first appeared on The FCF.
German football used to have a bit of an image problem. Despite being highly successful, there wasn’t much to get excited about, a bit like the perception of Germany itself. And, just as the re-birth of a unified Berlin did much to re-brand the country’s cultural scene (bad denim and bright colours: out; waifish art hipsters: in) the football team has undergone dramatic change in recent years. Younger fans who don’t remember the 1980’s and 1990’s will grow up regarding Germany as one of European football’s great entertainers – a scenario that was unimaginable only a decade or so ago.
The West Germany and Germany teams of the 1980’s and 90’s didn’t win prizes for aesthetic beauty, but they did win. It was this period that cultivated those negative stereotypes that clung to German football for so long. Ruthless, cynical, efficient – the kind of words that executives love to hear in the boardroom, but you’d never hear anyone say, ‘that Brazil 1970 team – wonderfully efficient’. Even so, professionalism and dogmatic focus would not have maintained Germany’s outstanding record without a talented cast, and during this period they produced gifted footballers. But, something was missing, something to change the unflattering perception of the team as humourless and devoid of romance.
Did it matter to Germans how their team was regarded? England are hardly Mr Popular when they turn up for one of the main bi-annual summer parties; it doesn’t seem to dent the enthusiasm of their support – and they don’t even win trophies. But, the context for German football, and therefore the national team, is markedly different.
Regional identity in Germany is profound. The country is governed by a federal model, and as a nation it lacks a focal point; Berlin is the capital, but there are many other thriving famous cities, such as Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, and Frankfurt. The highly successful Bundesliga is fuelled by this regional pride, with record numbers of fans attending domestic football in Germany, so do they need a national team too, or is it club before country?
Historically, the national team was a nice sideshow for many German fans. A brief moment to put rivalries aside, and for some that’s still true, according to Isabell Nagel from Hamburg, “there are fans who only care for their club and feel supporting the national team is too patriotic and nationalistic – something that can still be quite touchy in Germany.” But, as many German fans will tell you, the 2006 World Cup was a game changer, exposing the team to a far wider audience, at home and abroad.
The new fans might have little or no interest in Bundesliga clubs, but ensure the national team’s games at tournaments become truly national events. The emergence of fans focused almost exclusively on the national team hasn’t gone unnoticed by the old guard, prompting a few disgruntled sneers; “In the eyes of lots of long-term supporters they are not real fans of the sport,” says the Bayern Munich blogger, Red Robbery, “ but the World Cup made people learn to fall in love with the national team again, and improved the reputation of the entire country and its people.”
That continued into the 2010 World Cup, when Germany were one of the few teams brave enough to play consistently entertaining, attacking football, “the 2010 team’s style and success took the German and international audience by surprise and destroyed many prejudices about German football” says Nagel.
The winners of three world cups (runner up four times), and three European championships (runner up three times), Germany’s record in major tournaments is one of the best in world football. But, despite their success, there is an inherent pessimism built into the German fans’ psyche. To the bewilderment of other nations, some German fans claim their pessimism is a result of previous disappointments. In recent memory, it is hard to identify the source of their anguish. Germany were on their way down at the 1998 World Cup and reached the bottom with an awful team at Euro 2000, but two years later they reached a World Cup final, and four years after that, they were playing without fear in front of delighted home fans. By that reckoning, their slump lasted about four years, and even then, they never failed to qualify for a major tournament.
Instead of being the result of emotional scars, the pessimism might be a deliberate defence mechanism against the kind of rampant, unrestrained hyperbole that suffocates England whenever they enter a tournament. Niklas Wildhagen, a Werder Bremen fan, explains, “the amount of lop sided coverage in England is insane. For instance, consider Alan Shearer stating that England had a better team than Germany – player for player – after England’s woeful start to the World Cup in 2010, and you get an understanding of why the English are the way they are.”
By preparing for defeat, German fans are deliberately restricting the amount of pressure they can apply to their own team. It seems to work, but maintaining this approach will be increasingly difficult when interest in the national team is rising all the time, “Overall, the German fans are way more confident than before. It will be interesting to see how the team reacts to that,” says Ansgar Löcke, from Fehmarn, “plenty of people I know who are usually very critical are openly saying that we’ll win the Euros”.
This is the big question for the new team – as good as they are, do they have what it takes to add to the Deutscher Fussball-Bund’s impressively stocked trophy room. Is it, as Red Robbery suggests, enough to ‘look good first, win second’ – an attitude that would have Lothar Matthäus frothing with fury. Plaudits are one thing, but the football world is fickle. A legacy demands results, “In England, fans remember our performance at the  World Cup, so they know how our team can play,” says Löcke, “But, to really establish us as a great team we need to win the Euros this summer.”
A comparison between the current crop and the 1990 team of Matthäus’ generation shows how much else has changed, not just in style, but in appearance. The main figures of the 1990 team adhere to a fairly generic German image: Klinsmann, Voller, Brehme. They were followed by the likes of Bierfhoff, and He-Man himself, Oliver Kahn. But, if you ask German fans which player most epitomises the new generation, the answer is unanimous – Mesut Özil.
An obvious, but important choice, given Özil’s Turkish ethnicity. The assimilation of Turkish migrants has been the dominant ethnic minority issue in Germany for some time, but it was only in 2000 that Germany changed its laws on citizenship to allow those of non-German lineage to apply. Özil represents a step change. Not only because of his ethnicity, but because he represents the modern, skilful approach of the new German team. In time, others may surpass his achievements as a player, but his impact on the image of the German team, at home and abroad, should not be underestimated.
With the image problem clearly resolved, Germany will be one of the star attractions at this summer’s European Championships. A situation that brings unique pressures to a nation that has achieved so much as self styled underdogs. If you’re still not convinced, consider these remarks to German GQ by the former Bayern Munich and Italy striker, Luca Toni, “when it comes to taste Germany is much better than its cliché.” However, he also added that “sometimes you dress pretty badly”. Well, there’s no room for complacency in football.