Fußball, the World Cup, and German National Identity

Jan Kotowski's picture


It’s almost over. After four football-packed weeks with more than 60 games, the 2014 World Cup comes to a close on Sunday with the third edition of a Germany vs. Argentina final – one of the great classics of international football. Full disclosure: as a Germany supporter, I am very, very excited – and nervous. But what am I (and millions of others) really nervous about? Whether Thomas Müller will get his first touch under control? Or whether the German defense will be able to control Lionel Messi? Or isn’t it in truth more about “us” finally winning the fourth Cup (i.e., a narrative), regardless of what actually happens on the pitch on Sunday?

Choosing to understand the World Cup as a global theater play rather than merely a sporting competition is also a useful exercise for conceptualizing national football teams as representations of characters that have to play a role (hero, villain, etc.) and not simply a game. While teams can play different roles at different times (e.g., the Dutch were the tragic heroes in 1974 and the ruthless villains in 2010), many teams get cast in the same role over and over again due to the power of national stereotyping. Such is also the fate of the German Nationalmannschaft: achieve a historic 7-1 victory over Brazil and people will still refer to you as an efficient machine rather than, well, something more genuinely positive, less stereotypical, and less begrudgingly appreciative.

To take the theater play analogy further, we may also think about the World Cup as having two distinct, yet overlapping audiences: the first is the global audience that follows the spectacle as a whole (and, at times, without direct identification with a specific team), while the second is a specific national audience that follows their own team first and foremost. It is fascinating to analyze the distinct assemblages of collective memory produced by each audience. In Germany, for example, the 1990 World Cup (won just three months before reunification) is widely remembered as a great triumph of an outstanding team with a legendary manager, while much of the global audience simply remembers the 1990 Cup as the worst – in terms of quality of play – in recent history.

Football has come a long way in Germany. While it is Germany’s undisputed national sport today, it was once seen as something foreign and even “un-German.” Derided as an “English disease,” it was illegal for Bavarian students and teachers to play the game until 1927. Against this backdrop, it seems remarkable that the 1954 World Cup – the “Miracle of Bern” – would serve as one of the foundational myths of the Federal Republic. Wining the 1954 final against the mighty Hungarians has been enshrined in the country’s collective memory ever since, but football has also maintained a strong relationship with issues related to contemporary German national identity, patriotism, and nationalism.

According to Nietzsche, it is “characteristic of the Germans that the question: ‘What is German?’ never dies out among them” and football increasingly occupies a central position within this continuing discourse. Since the 2006 World Cup in Germany, this relationship has been analyzed countless times, resulting in a broadly accepted narrative: the 2006 “summer fairytale” allegedly helped Germans to overcome their inhibitions regarding a visible kind of patriotism. The World Cup thus allowed Germans to come out of the patriotic closet and be just as exuberant and happy about their country as everybody else. Flags and national colors could be seen everywhere and the public discourse broadly welcomed this “normalization” of German patriotism and also emphasized its joyful and open-minded qualities: this was a “party patriotism” nobody had to be scared of.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa added a further dimension to the public discourse on German national identity by emphasizing the increasingly diverse ethnic backgrounds of the players on the German team. On some level, this diversity simply reflects a long overdue public recognition of Germany’s legacy as a country of immigration, but it also points to ongoing problems – both real and perceived – with the integration of immigrants in Germany (as can be seen in the rather silly debate on why players with a “migration background” choose not to sing the national anthem before matches).

Another interesting aspect is the ritualization of national festivals through international football in Germany. Every two years, during the World Cup and European Championships, millions of Germans now take part in so-called “public viewings” and convert public spaces into seas of black, red, and gold. This phenomenon has come to be known as Schland, a term resembling ’Merica and Ingerland, with connotations ranging from dim-wittedness to jingoism. The “new German patriotism” has become a mass-phenomenon and critics have begun to point out that “good” party patriotism may in fact be a version of “bad” nationalism” or even racism. Personally, I think that it is impossible to analytically distinguish between nationalism and patriotism, but it is fascinating to follow current debates in social networks where critics of Schland are often singled out as uptight party poopers, even though some of their concerns are certainly warranted.

These are just some of the myriad connections between football and national identity in Germany. As mentioned in my previous posts, (international) football seems to have a unique quality in engendering “(national) identity talk.” The analysis of these relationships is a fascinating and fruitful field for students and scholars of nationalism, but, frankly, I’ll quietly and temporarily set them aside come Sunday.