Used firework casings, beer cans and confetti littered the cobblestone streets in cities and towns across Germany. Something truly remarkable had transpired the night before, but it wasn’t the waste or lofty banners that gave it away. You could hear it in the conversations the morning after the triumph.
The date was July 9, 1990. A day after West Germany’s 1-0 victory over Argentina in the FIFA World Cup final and eight months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The names on everyone’s lips were Lothar Matthaus, Rudi Voeller, and Juergen Klinsmann.
Now, 22 years after the reunification of the country, those heroes of the past have been replaced with names of the present, people like Mesut Ozil, Miroslav Klose and Jerome Boateng.
Today, the nationalmannschaft is a shining example of a more tolerant and multicultural Germany. The team’s popularity amongst the different immigrant groups has also soared. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the squad as a model of integration.
While I was too young to remember the details of the 1990 World Cup final, images on television of East and West Germans celebrating together demonstrated the unifying power of the sport.
Although soccer has always been a magnetic force in the country — including the success of 1954 (Das Wunder von Bern/The Miracle of Bern), which brought together a demoralized population after the war — the national team has undergone a radical transformation since its first and last World Cup titles.
Eleven of the 23 players on the 2010 World Cup roster had foreign roots. It’s no wonder that some referred to the team as the multikulti nationalelf. The teams that placed third at the 2006 World Cup and runners-up at Euro 2008 also reflected the changing demographics of the country.
Sabine Sparwasser, who is the German Consul General in Toronto, believes this is a reflection of the growing diversity within German society.
“The soccer team shows that we’re a much more multicultural society than we used to be,” she said. “Soccer is espousing much more the concept that we need immigration … that is a shift from 20 years ago.”
Changes to the country’s immigration laws have also made it easier to gain German citizenship and allowed players of different origins to represent the national team. But prior to these reforms, it was difficult to find Germans of foreign background rallying behind the country as passionately as they do now.
My family fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and settled in Germany. Many of my relatives followed, with some moving to Europe and others to North America. Although my parents and relatives made Germany their new home, they weren’t always rooting for the country’s soccer teams of the 1980s and 90s. In fact, some were quite pleased to see them lose.
Germany an unwelcoming society
They viewed Germany as a racist and unwelcoming society. They felt zero allegiance to a country that neither accepted nor tolerated them.
Twenty years after my first World Cup experience, I found myself in Germany again standing amongst a sea of black, red, and gold, in the city of Nuremberg - the site of the Nazi war crimes tribunals.
I had attended a public viewing for the quarter-final match against Argentina. Once again the Germans defeated the South Americans. And once again, I left the game with a strong impression, except now, the crowd of supporters looked very different from the ones I had seen on television two decades earlier as a child.
This audience constituted all colours of the rainbow, mirroring the very team they cheered.
Different ethnicities, 1 team
It wasn’t just a celebration of two sides. Germans with diverse roots were identifying with the national team. Germans alongside Turks, Poles, Afghans and Russians were dancing on the hoods of cars and carrying German flags. They were chanting: “Ozil”, Poldi” and “Schweini”, different ethnicities, one team.
The German press reported that the only group not enthusiastic about the victories were the far-right, who despised the multicultural character of the squad.
But that never diminished the fan base. Two years earlier, during the UEFA European Football championship, the support was of similar magnitude. But one game in particular was seen as testing the unity of the country. I was advised not to catch the semifinal match against Turkey at a public venue.
There was fear that the Germans and Turks would clash regardless of the outcome, worries that led to a greater police presence across the country. But even after Turkey was eliminated, the country remained calm and peaceful.
Rival fans shake hands
Everyone was pleasantly surprised to see rival fans shaking hands. Many Turks didn’t even see it as a loss given that Germany, their other home team, was still in the running.
But to some the level of support is more than just an issue of diversity and representation.
Past generations were taught that displaying an excessive degree of nationalism could easily have been misinterpreted in Germany because of its history.
According to Jutta Brendemuehl, of the Goethe Institute, the level of pride depends on the generation.
“I grew up with the impact of the post-war, where flag waving and anthem singing were associated with dictatorship,” she said, pointing to how, now, the post-unification generation feels more removed from the past.
“In the 1990s the world looked to Berlin,” she said. “With the unification of the country there was all of a sudden something to be proud of.”
I’m sure the integrating influence and diversity of the German soccer team has only doubled that level of pride.
Alima Hotakie was born in Afghanistan and raised in Germany. She is now a sports journalist in Toronto.