At Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the crowd roared as the ball settled in to the back of the goal. Germany’s goal.
Just before the end of a humiliating 7-1 defeat at the hands of the German side, host-nation Brazil had finally scored in the July 8 World Cup semifinal. And nobody seemed happier than the tens of thousands of German fans on the “Fan Mile,” the tree-lined Berlin avenue where games are shown on TVs the size of drive-in movie screens.
“I almost want to say ‘Thank God’,” commentator Bela Rethy said on national television as Brazil scored in the 90th minute. On the field, Germany’s players placed consoling arms around the Brazilian opponents they had just finished thrashing. Coach Joachim Loew hugged his Brazilian counterpart.
That modesty in the face of one of the World Cup’s most lopsided victories is emblematic of a new face of Germany. The team’s performance is altering perceptions of a country still reluctant to show too much patriotism even in moments of national triumph.
“The state of the nation has changed, outside and inside Germany,” said Christophe Fricker, a researcher of German culture at the University of Bristol in England. Until recently, the Nazi stereotype “was still prevalent in places like England. The word Germany was uttered with an undertone of embarrassment and irony. That has changed.”
The humility displayed on the pitch has even helped soothe frayed nerves across Europe, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has an image of an iron-fisted advocate of austerity. Gone were the outcries in tabloid headlines from London to Rome that might traditionally have followed a German victory.
Sure, a surfeit of Nazi jokes popped up on Twitter, but these were mostly bad puns rather than malicious digs at Germany. (“Brazil did Nazi this coming” and “Germany, relax! They’re not Poland” were typical tweets.) Instead the country’s young squad has earned accolades and is gaining new partisans. Almost 4,000 miles away in New York, the Empire State Building glimmered in black, red and gold, the colors of the German national flag.
“I happen to know a lot of people who are closet Germany fans,” said Evan Matthew Cobb, a 34-year-old working in digital communications in New York. “A lot of people over here look for the team playing in the most inspiring fashion, and there were a lot of gasps and jaws hitting the floor on Tuesday in the Germany-Brazil game.”
With their measured celebration after drubbing Brazil’s Selecao, the Germans have even won fans in Brazil. Some in the crowd cheered the squad as the defeat deepened, and given the historical animosities between Brazil and Argentina -- the team Germany will face in the final on Sunday -- there’s little doubt which team will get the bulk of support in the host country.
“Germany has been dignified, they were even apologetic when they beat us,” taxi driver David Almeira said after dropping off a fare in Sao Paulo. The Argentines “are going to want to rub it in our faces if they win. If I went to someone else’s house, I would be respectful.”
The last time Germany won a World Cup championship, in 1990, the squad also played Argentina. Its 1-0 victory in the final, just a few months before the country was reunified, ushered in a new era for Europe’s largest economy.
This year’s team represents the new generation. Of the seven goals against Brazil, five were scored by players born after 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell: Thomas Mueller, Andre Schuerrle and Toni Kroos.
It is these athletes, and fans of their age, who are driving the changing attitudes among Germans, said Henning Meyer, a German-born political scientist at the London School of Economics.
“The younger generation has not forgotten, but they have a different identity, because history doesn’t weigh on their psyche in the same way,” Meyer said.
The team is helping to break down preconceptions, according to New York soccer fan Cobb, who has backed Germany in the tournament.
“You expect to see these blond robots but it’s a really diverse team and they’re a happy-going bunch,” Cobb said. “It’s becoming the face of the country that’s emerged as the wave of newborns after reunification has grown up.”
Still, while the 2014 squad has unhinged some of the country’s historical burdens, overt demonstrations of patriotism remain rare away from soccer. Even on October 3, the national day, it’s unusual to see Germany’s flag anywhere but government offices.
“Listening to the shouting on the street on Tuesday, there was an interesting awareness not to overstate celebrations, that reactions should not be inappropriate,” said Ulrike Guerot, a Berlin-based political scientist at the European School of Governance.
The World Cup has proven an exception. Since 2006, when Germany hosted the competition, Germans have grown more comfortable with the idea of rooting for the home team -- and using the national colors in doing so. Berlin’s Fan Mile is awash in German national symbols, thousands of cars have small flags fluttering from their windows, and bars and restaurants -- many of them showing the games on big-screen TVs -- sport black, red, and gold bunting.
“We have learned that we can be proud,” said Christian Boellhoff, managing director of Prognos AG economic research institute in Berlin. “And that we can be relaxed about it, too.”