[email protected]

June 05, 2012, Tuesday

Will Germany have the upper hand?

This is not an article about the ongoing euro crisis in which Germany plays a pivotal role. There is no doubt in anybody's mind that Berlin will dominate the drafting of new plans to regain the confidence of financial markets and European citizens and save, if not the Greek, at least the Spanish economy from going bankrupt.

At the moment, the EU institutions in Brussels are working on what seem to be ambitious plans to further coordinate the financial and economic policies of the eurozone countries. At the end of the month, EU leaders will have to decide whether or not they agree with these new integration steps that are necessary to save the euro but are not very popular with large parts of their electorate. Nothing will be adopted then that does not have the blessing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

So this column is not about Germany's economic and political hegemony, loathed by some but accepted by all. It is about the German national football team.

In the 1980s and 1990s German soccer dominated Europe and the rest of the world. West Germany won the European Championships in 1980, a united Germany won the World Cup in 1990 and again beat all European competitors in 1996. In between, the Mannschaft, as the team is called at home and known abroad, ended in second place in three other tournaments.

Their successes did not make the German football team very popular. Their performance was never spectacular but based on discipline, hard work, good organization and the ability never to give up. Some players were outstanding and sympathetic like Jürgen Klinsmann, but many other German stars like Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Möller were seen as arrogant posers. The rest of Europe grudgingly accepted German superiority but deep down hated their efficiency. Much like the present appreciation of Merkel and her preference for austerity measures.

Since 1996 the antipathy towards the German national team has slowly died down, but that was mainly due to the fact that the Germans were not as successful anymore. They won silver medals in 2002 and 2008 but failed to win any major title. During the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, one could see for the first time some admiration for what seems to be an exciting new generation of football players that does not resemble their unappealing predecessors. In the semifinals, Spain proved to be too big an obstacle, but their victory over Lionel Messi's Argentina in the quarterfinals was impressive and showed the rest of the world that these days German football can be both effective and attractive.

Now, in the run-up to the European Championships that kick off this Friday, the appreciation for the German national squad has reached new heights. According to most analysts and bookmakers, Germany, together with Spain and the Netherlands, is one of the favorites to win the title. For me, they are the number one candidate.

The Spaniards are missing some key players as a result of injuries (Carles Puyol and David Villa), while others are tired after a long season for Barcelona and Real Madrid and lack the ultimate motivation to win this time after they won both the European and the World Cup in 2008 and 2010. The Dutch, I am afraid, are too vulnerable in defense, and some of their attacking stars (Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben) are not in perfect shape as they were two years ago.

But the role of favorites does not only belong to the Germans because the others will probably fail. German coach Joachim Löw has managed to introduce a style of playing that is based on an inviting combination of technical and tactical skills, not coincidentally personified by players such as Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira and Jérome Boateng. All three “new” Germans, not only because of their personal family background but also for their ability to add appeal and allure to the “old” German qualities of physical strength and a winner's mentality.

In a special edition on the German national team last weekend, the liberal Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad made the point that we should learn not to hate but to enjoy German soccer. A few years ago such an appeal would have been considered inappropriate and undeserved. Now many Europeans have to admit that they are looking forward to the matches of Özil and his colleagues. Times have changed.

Maybe Merkel could learn from the soccer experience and add some charm and unpredictability to her performance. Or is that asking too much?

Previous articles of the columnist