Germany and the German football team in Brazil

Hitler would have made the Germans and Germany rulers of the world. And he might have succeeded if he hadn’t been Hitler, a little man, a petty man, a man with no greatness of soul, who retained power only by surrounding himself with a personal army of thugs. Much like Vladimir Putin today in Russia.

Perhaps you remember reading about “Alexander Litvinenko who had angered the Kremlin with repeated claims that Putin was running a thuggish and brutal regime? He sought refuge in Britain but  was struck down inside an upmarket London hotel by a rare radioactive poison that had been slipped in to his pot of tea,” probably by representatives of Putin’s army of thugs.

The Germans during the Hitler era were better than their leaders, how could they not have been, yet they did permit Hitler to become their Führer. Incomprehensible. Siimilarly we today fail to understand how the Russians, who must be better than Putin, much like Hitler, a little man with certainly no greatness of soul, with no greatness period, —how they allow him to take away their freedoms, and then even say they like the guy.

Could a  Hitler, or a Putin ever happen here?

I don’t think so, although there are always those who seem to hate our president, this president or an earlier one, enough to say that yes, it could and is happening here. But it’s not of course, and those who believe it have always seemed to me a bit crazy. “It can’t happen here” is perfectly OK, so far anyway, for Americans to say.

President Obama may not be decisive enough, may not lead when he should be leading us out of the morass of questions and problems engulfing healthcare, education, immigration, and much else in our country. So far these and other seemingly unsolvable problems do divide and bedevil us and at present there is no end in sight. Still our president is a good man, and whatever his faults they are as nothing at all along side the faults of the bad man Putin.

But why am I writing about two men who are obviously among the very poorest representatives of our species? Well, for one thing while we can almost forget about the one, Hitler, the other, Putin, is still very much with us, delighting in nothing more than sticking it to the West, and particularly to us.

However it may not be that Russia is the way it is today because of the man Putin. The fault may lie in the so far unbridled corruption of Russia’s ruling classes, that which didn’t disappear but was rather totally unleashed by the downfall of the Soviet Union. More the result of generations of Tzarist and later communist follies than the machinations of a single, shallow, and ignorant man, Vladimir Putin.

I had actually begun to think about all this while watching on my big Sony TV screen the recent World Cup football matches in Brazil. This year Russia did not make it beyond the Group Stage (actually neither Russia nor the Soviet Union has ever won the World Cup, although the Soviet Union often made it into the final 16). Nevertheless Putin and the Russians will host the Cup in 2018.

How, I ask myself, did that ever happen (FIFA corruption?) that this little man, Putin, was given the Cup matches? And this seems even more incredible now given what Putin has wrought, what he has brought about single handedly in eastern Ukraine, just a few days ago turning a warm and happy summer field of brilliant sunflowers into a final abrupt, cruel, and tragic resting place for the broken, and unattended, bodies, looted of anything of monetary value, of the mostly Dutch passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

But this is not about Russia and Putin, but about Germany and German football (football, not soccer). The now united German football team was in Brazil and made it easily into the final 16. According to many observers this was a new Germany, or at least a new German team. And early on the story of this year’s games became more and more the story of the German team, a team that had last won the Cup 24 years ago, in July of 1990 when it was still a separate country, West Germany, not yet united with the East as they would be in October just a few months later in the same year.

This year the all German team was there, whole, and somehow very special. Right away there were seen as a probably Cup winner. Right away by the quality of their team play they were winning fans even among their opponents. They were playing as a team of 11 players, 11 young men all working together, working with and for one another. Not as other teams, past and present, that were most often built around one or two stars, like Argentina this year built around their star Lionel Messi whom the 11 Germans all together would beat in the Cup final.

GermanteamCool, calm and collective: There is a team spirit within the German national set-up that is more akin to club football, something that England has often tried to replicate with minimal success Photo: REUTERS

Many of the journalists in Brazil  who wrote about the games recognized the specialness of this German team.

Michael Owen in the Daily Telegraph of July 11, while comparing Germany to England wrote, “Why selfish England must learn from selfless Germany. The superiority of German football culture over ours can be summed up as an obligation to always put the greater good over any individual needs.”

And he went on, “Cool, calm and collective: There is a team spirit within the German national set-up that is more akin to club football, something that England has often tried to replicate with minimal success. When you look at the German and Argentina sides there are modern ‘superstar’ players all over the team sheet, and yet I would argue their progress to the final is based entirely on this team ethic.”

Then Nate Silver, in 538, of July 13, wrote, ” Germany didn’t begin the World Cup as the favorite. That honor belonged to (ahem) Brazil. But that’s a slightly deceptive measure. This was a top-heavy World Cup; not only Brazil but also Germany, Argentina and Spain would have been the front-runners in many past editions of the tournament…. By the end of the World Cup, Germany left little doubt it is the best team in the world. In fact, it may be the best national soccer team ever assembled.”

And Jeremy Stahl, who writes for Slate Magazine,

MessiDon’t cry for Messi, Argentina.  Jeremy quotes one of the German defenders, Mats Hummels who says, “I think this is one of the best generations we ever had in Germany, at least the best generation I’ve seen in Germany.”

And he goes on to say, “Germany coming off of one of the greatest wins the sport has ever seen, deserved to lift this World Cup trophy. The German victory was a fitting end to a great tournament, one that tied the record for goals scored and for the number of matches that went to extra time. This is one of the best German sides in history, and that’s saying a lot. But most of all, we should applaud Germany, one of the best teams most of us have ever seen.”

Leon Krauze, a Mexican journalist and writer, who anchors Univision’s evening newscasts in Los Angeles, hosts Open Source on Fusion, and is the former official historian for the Mexican national team, is here writing for The New Republic Magazine: “I Love Messi, But I’m Rooting for Germany. Here’s Why You Should, Too. I know it makes me a traitor. But neuer deutscher Fußball has won me over.”

“‘I will be rooting for Germany in Sunday’s World Cup final.’ Now, there’s a sentence I thought I would never write. I grew up with an intense dislike of German prowess on the football field….So, as a Barça fan, as a devoted follower of the great Lionel Messi, I feel like a traitor. And still, I want the Germans to win. Not only that: I want them to win in spectacular, undeniable fashion.”

“Why? Well…the thing is, I love football for what it really is: a game in which a group of eleven players triumphs by the virtues of creative association. And no national team associates so brilliantly, with such vitality and grace, as Germany…. The Germans have been, by far, the most complete team in Brazil. They work in almost seamless synchronicity. Unlike, say, Brazil or even Argentina, Germany interprets football not through disruption but through constant creation…..”

“But what I really admire, what finally made me decide to root for the Germans, is that none of this virtuosity is the product of chance. There’s immense hard work behind what we’ve seen in Brazil. And yes, I know you might say that every national team works hard. You’d be half right, of course, because while most teams do indeed train like crazy, very few teams—if any—have been so devoted in their passion for reinvention. Because sometime in the decades past, Germany decided that their brand of football—brutish, bellicose…German—had an expiration date.”

“And then they chose to try and find joy in discipline. And, by God, they’ve done it. It took them years and years (many of these guys have indeed played together for that long), but they’ve done it: disciplined, relentless, joyful, thrilling association football. Neuer deutscher Fußball.
How could I—how could you—not root for that?”

What is there left to say about German football and the German team?  Well there is still Roger Cohen who in  my opinion gets it just right in his Times op ed piece, German is Weltmeister.

While the little man, Hitler, not only failed to elevate his country into a leading world power, let alone a “Weltmeister,” but almost caused Germany to disappear among the ruins he left behind, the all German football team has lifted Germany by its play back up on top, a world master, and not only has no one suffered but everyone is the better for it..

Here is Roger Cohen:  ” With Germany there is always something unmentionable that rhymes with war. It is not easy to be German. But in that difficulty, as this team has shown, there lie strengths. Everything about this team, from its talent to its ethics, was admirable. The right team does not always win. In this case it did.”

“Germany, I said, does not believe in quick fixes. … Germans on the whole think what the rest of the world builds is flimsy. Anyone who has felt the weight of a German window, or the satisfying hermetic clunk of one closing, knows they have a point. The German time frame is longer.”

“Why Germany differs in this may be debated. Having plumbed the depths of destruction and evil, having understood the depravity into which a “civilized” country may descend, Germany had to rebuild from the “Stunde Null,” or “Zero Hour,” of 1945. It had to hoist itself up step by step; and it had to build into its reconstituted self the guarantees that ensured no relapse was possible. This took planning. It took persistence. It involved prudence.”

“Even before all this the first German unity of 1871 came only after centuries of strife at the European crossroads. Geborgenheit is an untranslatable German word but no less important for that. It means roughly warmth, home, trust and security, everything that is so precious in part because it may go up in smoke.”

A few final comments and observations about all this.

1945 was the end of Hitler’s dream for Germany. But now, just three generations later Germany’s position among the nations at least of Europe is dominant, leading its European neighbors in most economic measures including GDP, total value of exports, job and economic growth numbers (although growth levels have faltered though out the EU and also in Germany during the past two years).

And all this without firing a shot, without a tank crossing one of its borders with its neighbors. Not as Hitler would have done it, not as Putin also three generations later would do it today, sending his special forces with armored cars and tanks across the border into Eastern Ukraine.

What was it that enabled Germany to rise up from the ashes? The answer is simple, not by crushing his neighbors by force of arms but by staying at home and working hard and doing things so much better at home that the neighbors took note and were won over and a resulting vibrant community of  trading partners was established.

Simple enough, but still rare among the nations of the world. What was it that prevented Russia from doing something similar after throwing off the Communist yoke in 1989-90? I don’t know. But I do know that they continued to do things terribly at home, and worse they continued to dream of walking over their neighbors and restoring a tzarist or communist empire, the two having become in their eyes one and the same.

But are we right to compare the rise  during almost a single generation of a new, strong and united Germany to the building of a football powerhouse during the very same 24 year period? Or vice versa? I don’t know but both the country and the team, die Mannschaft, are now, as we have seen, widely admired.

Is there now a German way of doing things, a slow, methodical, thoughtful, and prudent manner of doing one’s  job, in the shop or on the field, while all the time being respectful of the rights of others? Is that the best explanation of what has happened with both Germany and Die Mannschaft?

Cohen says that just as you feel the weight, and the solidity, and the quality of a German made window from “the satisfying hermetic clunk of its closing,” so we feel a similar satisfaction by what the country and their football team have accomplished.


German players celebrate after Germany’s 1-0 victory over Argentina in the World Cup final.
Frank Augstein / AP

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