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Football Nation Germany
“A positive shift in the image of Germany worldwide”

German and American fans get together at the Amerikahaus in Munich to watch Germany play the USA in a World Cup group stage match in 2014.
German and American fans get together at the Amerikahaus in Munich to watch Germany play the USA in a World Cup group stage match in 2014. | Photo (detail): © Picture Alliance/Ulmer, Lukas Coch

Football plays an important role in the way nations are perceived by others and by themselves, says philosopher and football expert Wolfram Eilenberger. He talks in our interview about old clichés and new signals.

Mr Eilenberger, how important is football for Germany’s image abroad?

Football plays a crucial role in the way Germany is perceived by other countries, and particularly by its European neighbours. Since the end of the First World War at the latest, many stereotypes have emerged about the characteristics that can be ascribed to individual nations.

For example?

The Italians are known for a certain resilience, something almost akin to a partisan nature, with the players in defence taking centre stage. The Germans are like tanks. Even today, one hears and reads this in the foreign press – whenever the team appears highly organized, it is reported that the Germans “steamrollered” their opponents.

“Joie de vivre was evident on the streets”

This image has changed in recent years. How important was the 2006 World Cup – dubbed a “summer fairy tale” – hosted by Germany?

The 2006 World Cup put an end to many clichés. It revealed something that is not normally associated with Germany: a warmth and cordiality communicated clearly towards visitors from all over the world. Joie de vivre was evident on the streets. This made many people in Europe and worldwide change their minds to a considerable extent. They experienced a Germany that had little to do with the clichés dating back to the Nazi era. That was a positive shift in the image of Germany worldwide.

Football can influence not only the way a nation is perceived by others, but also the way it perceives itself. What were the decisive moments when football enabled Germans to see themselves in a new light?

  Wolfram Eilenberger Wolfram Eilenberger | Photo (detail): © Michael Heck The classic example is Germany’s victory at the 1954 World Cup, dubbed the “miracle of Bern”. This gave a huge boost to the self-confidence of a nation that had absolutely no concept of its identity any more following the Nazi dictatorship and its defeat in the Second World War. Suddenly it was possible once again to think: We are good for something after all! The situation was similar when Germany won the 1990 World Cup in Italy, though to an almost excessive degree. A lot of people asked themselves what the reunited Germany would now want to achieve worldwide. And to top it all, Franz Beckenbauer said after Germany had won the final: We will be unbeatable for decades! That sparked fears and prompted many people in Europe to wonder whether the reunited Germany would become too strong, and whether it would end up dominating Europe.

“There were no arrogant gestures”

The World Cup in Brazil in 2014 was won by the German team at a time when many European countries were still in economic crisis mode. Did that fuel fears once again?

That could have happened, especially following Germany’s 7:1 victory over the host in the semi-final. However, the German team behaved very intelligently: there were no overbearing or arrogant gestures but rather a show of sympathy towards Brazil. The team’s entire stance was very positive and modest. With this in mind, it was perhaps almost fortunate nonetheless that Germany was beaten in the semi-final of the UEFA Euro 2016 in France. After all, this happened during a politically very delicate phase when Germany was suspected in any case of wishing to exert its dominance. In actual fact I believe that the representatives of Germany’s national team are highly aware of this risk – which is why their communication, sensibly enough, is almost always very defensive and sympathetic, and never overbearing or arrogant.
These days, it is taken for granted that the German national squad will include players of migrant background. How does this diversity influence the image of Germany and the Germans abroad?

The highly multicultural character of the team has come increasingly to the fore since 2006. This sends out a new signal to the world that Germany is not a homogeneous society, but an open and multicultural one. And this considerably changes the image of Germany worldwide. Of course, this is by no means representative, especially given that far fewer people of migrant origin are in positions of power outside the world of football. In terms of international perception, however, it certainly points in this direction.

Nowadays, German football has also broken with its tank image in terms of playing style, and is now even regarded as aesthetic.

That is true. It was long felt that the German team simply played to win, no matter how. That it made no concessions to aesthetics and had its sights set solely on the end result. This has changed completely in the last 15 years. Joachim Löw, the current coach of the German national team, believes of course that it is important to win – but that one wins by playing beautiful football. And this is something that is noticed and appreciated worldwide.