world cup

Germany – winning with no leaders

Germany has no interest in emulating its football triumph on the political stage. It realises that the world needs more teamwork

So we won the World Cup. Add that trophy to the country’s current economic overachievement and we may have the start of an age of German dominanceand not just in world football. However, there is still one field in which Germans don’t excel: in global politics, the country is a secondary power. Its army is far smaller than that of France and the UK, and shows little interest in changing that. In June, just days after the US admonished Europeans for not doing enough on global security, the German parliament voted to cut its defence budget by around €800m. So will Germany’s win at the Maracanã alter our reluctance to take the lead?

Footballing success does not, of course, have much to do with either economic performance or political clout. Just look at Spain, whose team dominated world football during one of the worst crises of its history. Brazil, despite some woeful performances this year, is still the most successful international team but has not exactly been a political giant for most of its existence. But football does have the power to change a country’s self-perception and, consequently, the way it conducts itself on the world stage. The relaxed and inclusive patriotism on show at the joyous 2006 World Cup in Germany took observers – including many Germans – by surprise, and ushered in a new image of the country that was not dominated by Auschwitz and SS uniforms. For the first time, foreigners didn’t ask awkward questions about the war, but complimented us on our hospitality and the beauty of our cities.

Still, hosting or even winning a World Cup will – rightly – not banish the guilt of the Holocaust or the memory of two lost world wars. These experiences have made the Germans politically risk-averse and explain why down-to-earth (some would say downright boring) politicians such as Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl have prevailed. What’s more, with an economy driven by exports, it has a vested interest in not offending nations who buy from us, and strong leaders will commonly upset. So, because of its history and out of sheer self-interest, Germany is unlikely to step up and become a global leader. This is a good thing, for both Germany and the world.

The way the Nationalmannschaft played in this tournament aptly reflects the way Germany behaves in global politics. Before the final, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger were criticised for lacking the personality of a born Führungsspieler (leading player), like German players of old, such as the rowdy Stefan Effenberg or the strutting Lothar Matthäus. Lahm countered by arguing that such “alpha dogs” had no place in modern football. “Today you share responsibility,” he explained.

This thinking seems to rule German politics. Like Lahm, Merkel is a team player who abhors grandstanding. Solitary actions such as David Cameron’s doomed attempts to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as European commission president are alien to her. And while the British press likes to paint Merkel as Europe’s “iron Frau”, she is not an all-powerful leader, irrespective of Germany’s economic power. As in modern football, there is no longer a place for solitary leaders in today’s global order, with China, India and Brazil emerging as new powers. Germany, which lost the title of Exportweltmeister (world champion exporter) to China in 2009, is particularly aware of this.

As the disaster of the Iraq war has shown, nothing good ever comes from a country overestimating its resources, influence and leadership. Today’s world lacks not leadership, but good team work. It may be less inspiring than one mighty nation dominating the field, but ultimately, like the squads built around Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, such orders and the political deals they create are fragile constructs. The team will always be stronger.