The German national team’s disgraceful exit from the World Cup on Wednesday may be just a soccer defeat, but it feels like more than that: The expression of an anxious, luckless moment of hesitation and uncertainty for Germany.
I moved to Berlin in 2014, during the previous World Cup, in which a joyfully confident German squad didn’t just squeeze its opponents like a ruthless machine, in the style of its predecessors, but wove lace around them with smart passing and stunning speed. The 7-1 victory over Brazil had a dreamlike quality but was somehow expected from a team that combined the cunning and imagination of players of Middle Eastern origin, Mesut Oezil and Sami Khedira, the easy, cool athleticism of Jerome Boateng, son of a Ghanaian father, the chivalry and daring of Polish-born Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski with the bulldog tenacity and engineer-like precision of Bavarian Catholic Bastian Schweinsteiger.
I know this is a collection of national character cliches, but soccer thrives on them. At its best, it reminds nations of their root qualities and strengths. Modern Germany, which Monocle magazine had ranked No. 1 in the world in soft power in 2013, was easy to understand and like through those players’ varied backgrounds and the magical way their skills and characters merged into a coherent whole, a Mannschaft. That team promised the vision of a country recreated, enhanced by the creativity of newcomers, cured of a horrible past with its hatreds and divisions.
German politics also looked hopeful at the time. Two parties that won a combined 67.5 percent of the vote in late September 2013, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), succeeded in forming a coalition by late November. Its program combined the fiscal conservatism of the center right with center-left sensibilities. Merkel was one of Europe’s most experienced leaders, a wily negotiator who was proving indispensable in every crisis and who was able to uphold European values - not least by standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose annexation of Crimea was the reason I left my native Russia. I could identify with the style and substance of Merkel’s governance just as I could identify with the 2014 national team.
It’s harder four years later, with other German cliches coming to the foreground. The German word “angst” exists also now in English because it means something more than just fear. The Brothers Grimm defined it in their German Dictionary as “not just a lack of courage but a torturous worry, a general condition of doubt and of being squeezed.” Angst comes from the root “eng,” which means tight, narrow. Luther described it as the feeling of unhappiness that works “as if the wide world were too narrow for me.”
It seemed to fit the 2018 Germany squad perfectly. Oezil looked aimless and petulant when he was on the pitch at all; Boateng got sent off; Khedira was a shadow of his former self; Podolski and Klose had retired. A spastic anxiety showed in the imprecise passing, the uncertain defensive playing, the trembling desperation of last-minute attempts to replicate the machine-like quality of previous teams, if not the inspiration of the 2014 one.
A similar bumbling angst permeates politics and government. The current ruling coalition took from September until mid-March to put together, almost six months of fretting, recriminations and doubts, and it only represented 53.4 percent of the vote; it barely gets 50 percent support in current polls. Merkel’s negotiating magic has faded, though the prowess is still there. Other European leaders sense her weakness and aren’t eager to help. The future of her government is threatened by a needless quarrel with her Bavarian allies from the CSU, who insist on reintroducing border controls to be able to push back asylum seekers who register in other EU countries but travel to wealthier Germany to seek benefits.
There’s no evidence that such “asylum tourism” is widespread, immigration has slowed considerably since 2015 and 2016, immigrant crime is down. The CSU, headed by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, is digging in its heels to do better in October’s state election in Bavaria, but polls there don’t show any gains for the party from the fight. Yet angst isn’t rational: It’s the perfect foil for German practicality. Seehofer’s angst is making him as jittery as the average German player in the final 10 minutes of the disastrous game against South Korea, and it’s making Merkel’s position as uncertain as that of national team manager Joachim Loew.
The possibility of an inexplicable economic slowdown (in 2014 the German economy grew 1.9 percent after two years of 0.5. percent growth) and the political instability are not a fitting background for soccer victories. Soccer is a sensitive barometer of a nation’s spirits. Germany’s are in a slump.
What I’ve learned in these four years, though, is that Germans are unrivaled at pulling themselves by the hair out of any self-created mess. Angst is only temporary. This is just a moment of hesitation that comes before regrouping and rebuilding, on and off the pitch.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.