William Cook, a ‘closet Kraut’, grew up feeling ashamed of his country. This summer, during the World Cup, he finds that the stigma has finally lifted
I’m standing in a noisy bar in south London, watching a World Cup match on a giant TV screen, hemmed in on all sides by happy, tipsy football fans. The place is packed, but no one seems to mind. There are lots more people outside, peering in through the windows, all desperate to see the game. Yet these aren’t England fans. These supporters are all German. They’ve flocked to this German bar, called Zeitgeist, to cheer on the German national team. They’re a symbol of how much Germany — and our view of Germany — has changed.
Growing up half-German in England, I never used to mention the Nationalmannschaft. Supporting Germany was the love that dared not speak its name. In 1996, I went to Wembley to see England take on Germany in the Euro ’96 semi-final, and looked on furtively as Germany won on penalties, surrounded by devastated England fans. On the Tube journey home I saw a few other German fans, but we kept our eyes down and kept our distance. Being a German fan was a guilty secret, something grim and shameful. This summer, to my amazement, I find that stigma has disappeared.
In 1996 it would have been inconceivable to find a bar like Zeitgeist, decked out in German colours, right beside a large council estate. It might not have been dangerous, but it would have felt uncomfortable to say the least. Yet when I went there last week, the streets were awash with German fans wearing German football shirts, and none of the locals seemed to bat an eyelid. So what on earth has changed? As a Londoner and a closet Kraut, I have no doubt that Londoners are more open-minded about Germany than they used to be — 20 years of cheap flights to Berlin have seen to that — but after talking to a fairly wide range of German fans during the last fortnight, and the last few years, I reckon the biggest transformation has been among the Germans themselves.
In 1996, Germany still seemed unsure of its identity. Reunified but not reunited, it felt like a loose alliance of little countries, rather than one big one. If people flew the flag at all, it tended to be the flag of their hometown or their Bundesland, rather than the national tricolour. Some Germans were patriotic, but about Munich or Bavaria, not Germany. Lots of Germans were fanatical about their local football clubs, but lukewarm about the national team.
The 2006 World Cup in Germany changed all that. I went to Cologne before the tournament, to interview some German football fans. Back then, the main talking point in Britain was whether the sporting rivalry between England and Germany would spill over onto the terraces. The British press were wrong, as usual. Much to everyone’s surprise (somewhat to their surprise too), the Germans showed the world they knew how to throw a great street party. The World Cup became a fiesta and the national flag became a festive banner, rather than an awkward reminder of German’s awful past.
This transformation was confirmed by the German fans I have met watching this World Cup over the last fortnight. What surprised me most about them is how little they resemble stereotypical football fans. The supporters at Zeitgeist are predominantly young professionals, and a large proportion of them are female — not a beer gut or shaven head in sight. Of course, Zeitgeist’s clientele largely consists of German expats — maybe not the most representative sample — but last weekend I was in Berlin, and I found much the same thing. Watching the crowds flock to the ‘Fan Mile’, where half a million Berliners watched Germany beat England on the outdoor screens in Berlin’s Tiergarten, I was struck by how many young women were there, wearing black, red and gold garlands. It felt more like a music festival than a crucial football match.
Indeed what’s strange and rather wonderful about this new wave of German patriotism is that it doesn’t feel remotely partisan. Berlin’s tower blocks are draped with the flags of countless nations, alongside the German tricolour. On Saturday night in Berlin, when Spain played Chile, I came across a group of girls in Spanish and Chilean football shirts, all going out to see the game together. One girl even wore a Spanish and a Chilean flag — one painted on each cheek.
Germany’s new internationalism is reflected in the new national team. The youngest German side to grace the finals since the war, their cosmopolitan squad includes Germans of African, South American and Eastern European heritage, much like the streets and tower blocks of Berlin. Their star player, Mesut Özil — arguably the star of the tournament so far — is a third-generation German of Turkish descent who recites the Koran before big matches. Not that strange, really, considering that Berlin has the largest Turkish population of any city apart from Ankara and Istanbul.
So are England fans still stuck in a timewarp of tired old Dambusters clichés? And do German fans still despair of our enduring obsession with the war? Well, most German expats can recall the odd clumsy joke, or an attempt at friendly ribbing that backfired, but these tend to be isolated incidents. Even the British tabloids’ preoccupation with warlike puns seems to be abating. And these days the German papers give as good as they get. Sitting in a Turkish restaurant in East Berlin before Sunday’s England game, flicking through the sports pages, it is clear that the English journalists aren’t the only ones who can fight dirty when a big match comes along. They steer well clear of the war of course, but tabloids like Bild and even the middlebrow Berliner Morgenpost don’t mind landing a few low blows about the England players’ private lives. Thankfully, the Berliner Zeitung sticks to a more respectful battle between British and Teutonic cultural icons: Karl Lagerfeld versus Vivienne Westwood, Goethe versus Shakespeare. Meanwhile, out on the streets, fans in national colours are swarming towards the outdoor screens in ever greater numbers. For them, this isn’t a grudge match — their bête noire has always been the Netherlands — but even here in laid-back Berlin, England will never be just another game.
Changing planes in Munich that evening, on my way back to London, the German passengers are jubilant, and as we walk down the gangway I see a German flag draped out of the pilot’s window. Finally, it seems that Germany has found a multicultural form of patriotism that doesn’t rankle with the rest of Europe. This ‘multi-kulti’ team has taught a nation how to feel good. On the plane home I sit beside a young football fan on his way back to London, where, along with some 40,000 of his fellow Germans, he lives and works. ‘Aren’t you going to cover up that shirt?’ I ask him. ‘Why bother?’ he says. ‘I’ve never had any trouble.’ Now that everyone likes the Germans at last, maybe I should start supporting the England team.