Very few Germans seemed to take much pleasure from their 2-1 defeat against Japan in the opening game of the World Cup. One notable example, however, appeared to be the country’s far-right AFD party, for whom the surprise result – coupled with the decision to make a protest in support of LGBTQ+ rights before the game – offered irrefutable proof of the team’s confused priorities.
“If you care more about woke armbands than about football, you lose 1:2 against Japan,” tweeted Martin Reichardt, the party’s family policy spokesperson. “Defeat is symbolic of the decline of Germany, where ideology takes precedence over everything!”
The party’s deputy leader, Beatrix von Storch, agreed, writing: “I believe that if our team proudly wears the German colours and stops politicising the sport with woken crap, they will win again.”
The subtext here – and not a subtle one, all told – was clear enough. Loyalty to country trumps loyalty to universal values, even over something as unobjectionable as LGBTQ+ rights. Peer a little closer and you can even taste the familiar acrid notes of the globalist betrayal myth gaining ground in many western democracies: a deep-rooted sense of decline, an angst over one’s place in the world, the idea that the qualities that once made you great are being eroded from all directions.
These are not new conversations, or even really sporting conversations. But right now football – and in particular, the German football team – feels like the conduit through which these debates are being enacted. And so the question of whether Hansi Flick’s side can beat Costa Rica and avoid elimination in the World Cup group phase for the second time in a row is, in many ways, one that goes deeper than football.
Rather it strikes at the very heart of German society itself: a society in the grip of sweeping demographic change and political turbulence, where the old certainties no longer feel as certain, where the old assurance no longer feels as assuring. Who are we? What makes us us? What does the future hold? On a smaller scale, but under the harshest spotlight, and in full view of the world, these are some of the very same questions that Flick is currently trying to address.
Take the lack of a natural striker, an ongoing source of introspection in Germany and one brought into sharper focus in recent years. From Gerd Müller to Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to Jürgen Klinsmann to Miroslav Klose; the dominant, masculine No 9 is a central part of the mythology of German football. And so for many, the absence of world-class centre-forwards – generally believed to be a product of a youth development system that prioritises versatility and technical excellence over specialism – is emblematic of something deeper; a dilution of German identity, a divergence from tradition.
By the same token, the rise of the veteran Niclas Füllkrug – the stalwart Werder Bremen striker who was playing second-division football until this season – has been interpreted as a return to core values. “The German virtues, which we had been missing a bit lately, are back,” wrote Lothar Matthäus after Füllkrug’s emphatic equaliser against Spain on Sunday night.
Perhaps this feeds into a wider debate about whether, in an age of porous borders and the increasing fluidity of ideas, there remains such a thing as a national footballing identity. And if so, what is Germany’s? “I do believe there are identities,” Flick said on Wednesday. “Perhaps the nuances have changed in recent years. We want to have high intensity, be active and have possession. We want to force the opponent to make mistakes, which means we sometimes press hard. We want to stand for attractive and modern attacking football.”
All of which sounds great, but perhaps you will note that there is very little new or unique in any of this. None of the above marks Germany out as German. Flick could just as easily have been describing any of the top-16 teams in this tournament. And so: who are we? What makes us, us? For German teams of recent vintage, it came down to mentality. Yet three consecutive soft tournament exits have shattered the image of Turniermannschaft; the well-drilled squad that would win the key battles by simple virtue of being German.
This too is bound up in notions of decline, the sense that a new generation lacks the character and hardness of their predecessors. “With the exception of Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich, they are not as strong in their heads as other footballers used to be,” the respected former coach Winnie Schäfer said in a recent interview.
Nor is it simply wizened ex-pros and right-wing politicians questioning the fibre of German football. A widespread disillusionment over the moral dimension of the World Cup – human rights, commercialisation, climate change – has engendered an ambivalence to the tournament back home. “The strength of football used to be that there was a common thread from children’s and youth football to the national team with which one could identify wonderfully,” said the academic Harald Lange in an interview with Tagesspiegel at the weekend. “This is becoming increasingly difficult for many young people and adults alike.”
Meanwhile, the unpopularity of the DFB, the national federation, seems to cut across lines of politics and age. Fan groups report that the national team is struggling to engage young supporters, very few of whom have travelled to Qatar. Players like Füllkrug and Kai Havertz have talked openly here about a perceived lack of support.
And so for Flick there are stark realities to be faced and hard decisions to be made. Does he persist with the team that earned the creditable late draw against Spain? Does he give a first tournament start to Füllkrug, Germany’s new cult hero? Will he bolster a defence that has looked fragile in their first two games? Does he stick with the midfield triangle of Ilkay Gündogan, Goretzka and Kimmich? These are, on the face of things, bald footballing questions. And yet on another level there is a sense that Germany is fighting on a far broader front.