A few months before the pandemic I went to a European Championship qualification game between Germany and Northern Ireland in Frankfurt. Germany had already qualified for the 2020 tournament (which eventually took place in 2021), while Northern Ireland was as good as eliminated. Germany won the game 6-1 in a stadium far from being sold out. Only one set of fans enjoyed the game, however. The supporters from Northern Ireland started singing long before the game kicked off, then kept on celebrating through the night. The German fans greeted their country's goals with polite applause and then went home.
For several decades after World War II, it was problematic for many Germans to show real pride in their national team, Teutonic patriotism having twice fired Europe's destruction. That finally changed when hosting the 2006 World Cup, followed by a generation of likeable and popular players such as Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski and Sebastian Schweinsteiger leading the country to its fourth World Cup at Brazil in 2014. However, in just a few short years, both the team and the scandal-ridden German federation (DFB) have managed to undo all that good work and, in short, very few people in Germany care right now about the men's national team. Club soccer at all levels — from the Bundesliga down to teams anchored in their local communities — has in any case always been more attractive to the majority of German fans.
In contrast, the German women's team that finished runner-up to England in last summer's European Championships is more popular than ever. This can of course be partly explained by the two teams' contrasting performances on the field. Germany's men have exited the last two World Cups at the group stage, and only made the last 16 of Euro 2021. But there's more to this than mere results. There's also the question of identification. The German women look like they want to be out there. The men, more often than not, look like they're just going through the motions.
Another likable and very bright 2014 World Cup winner is team captain Philipp Lahm, who is now the tournament coordinator for next summer's European Championship in Germany. It's not just his job to make sure the stadiums are ready and that the games kick off on time. He's tasked with firing up a German public that pretty much ignored last year's Qatar World Cup, and seemed to think that their country's early exit was karma for having gone there in the first place.
Lahm told the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung last weekend that German players have to pay more attention to how they come across to the public, and to give out a vibe that playing for the national team actually means something. He also posed a question you don't often hear from soccer players, current or former. "What does soccer mean to our society?"
What characterized the best teams at the World Cup, Lahm wanted to know? "Identity," he said. "You could see it in every Argentine player that he knew why he was playing: for Argentina, for the whole country. Or look at the French: Olivier Giroud gets subbed out at halftime [in the final], but instead of resenting the coach he fires on his team from the bench and ends up with a yellow card for dissent."
German soccer needs to recreate the feeling that both its amateurs and its pros are part of the same whole, and that it's not about the cash — "the players get enough of that from their clubs already."
Lahm also ventured that society's increasing culture of individualism at the expense of the collective was clearly reflected in the team's decline. That is, too many players are out for themselves. And he agreed with German women's team coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg that a large slice of the men's pay could be allocated to the women instead. "The women's team played a brilliant tournament last summer," said Lahm, "and you had the feeling that the players completely identified with the task at hand. And when that happens, the supporters at home can identify with the team too."
That night in Frankfurt, as the several thousand-strong Northern Ireland support enthusiastically sang their team to a heavy defeat, a small, 20-strong oompah band among the German fans attempted to create 'atmosphere' by playing tunes that you could only file under 'Uneasy Listening.' I felt sorry for them.
You can't manufacture love and devotion. And the players need to show they're turning in more than a half-hearted performance to avoid reporting back to their paymaster clubs with an injury. That they want to be out there, playing for each other, and that they're not just showing up out of a sense of obligation. That they can even manage a smile every now and then.
"We want to stage a tournament in the heart of free Europe," Lahm said of next year's Euros. "We want to celebrate a huge festival where all are welcome, and we want to showcase our values and our open life-style. That's a huge responsibility after so many recent mass sports events have been hosted by Qatar, China or Russia." The tournament will also focus on making environmental sustainability more than just a token phrase.
Those are all worthy aims. However, if the competition is to enthuse the home public like the 2006 World Cup did, it will require a change of attitude foremost among the players. That doesn't mean waving flags, kissing badges and airing hollow patriotic clichés. It means authentic displays of togetherness and dedication both on and off the field. The Organizing Committee for the 2026 World Cup in North America would do well to sit and take notes on all that goes right or wrong.