The World Cup and New Nationalism

In 3 hours Germany will play its final game at this World Cup, with the host nation playing in the third place match against Portugal. The third place match has historically been seen as unimportant, somewhat of an exhibition game, its primary purpose being to tide football hungry fans over during the break between the semi-finals and final, and to give the players of the winning semi-finalists one extra day of rest before they play the biggest match of their lives. However, having spent the last three weeks in Germany, I expect this match to be highly contested. This World Cup has had a profound impact on Germany, most notably because it has given Germans a chance to experience what so many other nations take for granted: guilt-free nationalism.

Speaking with Germans in their early twenties about differences between America and Germany, one thing is clear. Though they disagree with our politics, they envy our national pride. I was told often that the Germans do not feel proud to be German, because of "the history," an oblique reference to World War II and the Holocaust, and because Germany is still struggling with issues resulting from reintegration after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These issues include a noticeable gap in the standard of living between former East and West Germany, and West German anger that a disproportionate amount of their taxes are still going to pay off the Germany's decision in 1989 to honor the West German mark and the East German mark equally, despite clear differences in their value. Before the World Cup, I was told that the German flag was rarely seen in any capacity, and that the national anthem was sung with a degree of apathy. I arrived the day after Germany eeked out a 4-2 win over Costa Rica, and the mood was still profoundly pessimistic; the Germans believed their team was sub-par, their coach inexperienced, and their prospects for success bleak.

However, all that has changed in the last three weeks. The change is noticeable and it is real. Football is not a cure-all for national malaise, but in the case of Germany it has done wonders to create a sense of national unity that other nations take for granted. For the first time in the memory of older Berliners, they have seen people driving around with the German flag hanging out their car windows, a sight that is common in the cities of very other nation participating in the World Cup (with the exception of America).

Gripes about the team and the coach have melted away. The tournament has given the Germans an opportunity to dispell stereotypes about their "national character," (cold, somewhat dour, unexpressive, and disciplined), and the Germans have taken full advantage of it. The sight of the slightly frumpy Chancellor Merkel jumping up and down with reckless abandon when Germany advanced to the second round by beating Poland 1-0, and of Jurgen Klinsman, the current German coach and ex-star player, doing the same, is evidence enough of that.

For other teams at this World Cup, football has served as a proxy for struggles and triumphs of nationalism in their respective countries. Most notable is the Ivory Coast, a country that effectively put off a civil war for the sake of national unity ahead of the World Cup. Their squad is a perfect mix, ethnically, of each of the warring factions involved, but the squad and the nation came together well to seriously challenge Holland and Argentina, deserving to win both games but unable to convert a bevy of scoring chances. I was at the stadiums for these games, and I saw firsthand the degree to which football had brought a war-torn nation together. Muslim and Christian mattered less than being Ivorien. Of course, this brief spell of harmony may not last, but the spell itself speaks volumes about how football explains nationalisms triumphs and failures.