Saturday, July 12, 2014

Germany goes for World Cup history. No pressure.

Second-best just won't cut it for Germany anymore.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, July 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Across Berlin this week, German flags droop from apartment balconies, flutter from the windows of passing cars and festoon the fronts of driving schools, kebab shops, party stores and bars.

It's a rare release for Germany's pent-up patriotism following their 7-1 drubbing ofBrazil and going into Sunday's World Cup final against Argentina.

But the uncharacteristic expressions of national pride have put even more pressure on the German side to make history.

In every World Cup since 2002, Germany has at least made it to the semifinals, but has yet to bring home the trophy.

“When a team comes so close to the title so many times, the desire for a victory gets stronger and stronger,” said Rafael Wieczorek, director of Coerver Coaching in Germany and Austria.

“At the same time, this team is considered by fans and experts to be the best German team since 1990, perhaps since 1972. So the expectations are very high.”

A favorite to win the tournament from the beginning, by trouncing Brazil, Germany convinced virtually everyone that the final is in the bag.

Yet as press reports this week revealed that the German team had made a halftime pact not to embarrass Brazil too badly after going up 5-0, German coach Joachim Löw and company have strived to emphasize “focus” and “concentration” — perhaps fearing that the blowout may already have turned high expectations into hubris.

Symbolism only heightens those expectations further. Though the former West Germany has won the tournament three times, most recently in 1990, a win by Löw's side would mark the first victory for unified Germany in history.

With immigrant stars like Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira, among others, the team represents an unified, multicultural Germany where the foreign-born are no longer considered outsiders. Five prominent players on the national squad were either born abroad or would be eligible to play for another nation — mirroring Germany's broader effort to attract, rather than exclude, immigrants with measures like a liberal dual citizenship policy.

Moreover, in a country where hanging the flag would normally get you labeled a “right winger,” if not worse, the match comes as the nation finally seems ready to slough off the memory of World War II and demand to be treated as a “normal country” — with political might and military responsibilities to match its economic importance.

In recent months, Germany's president and defense minister have each pushed for a greater German military role in foreign conflicts, even as Germany's role in the Ukraine crisis cements Chancellor Angela Merkel's position as the de facto leader of Europe.

At “Zur Traube,” a neighborhood bar in the heart of Berlin, confidence is running particularly high. Ordinarily, the joint supports one of the Bundesliga teams, with free shots of liquor for every goal. But like every other bar in the city, this week it is draped with the black, red and yellow of the national flag.

“If Germany wins, this place will explode with joy,” says bartender Gerd Hettenhausen. “Everybody drinks more when Germany wins.”

In that case, there will be a victory parade in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, where the so-called “Fan Mile” is already draped with symbols of national pride.

But if the team loses — making it five losses out of eight trips to the finals — there won't be a reception at all, according to off-field manager Oliver Bierhoff.

In other words, second-best won't cut it for Germany anymore — and that pressure could make winning just a wee bit harder.