Soccer fever is once again the happy indulgence of the Germans. After three victories in this summer’s European Championships, Germany is an odds-on favorite to win the whole thing this month. Germans are flying national flags from their cars and windows. They’re celebrating, as they did when Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, the unaccustomed fact that Germans can once again celebrate-being German.
Following World War II, it took more than half a century for Germans to make the flag leap. They’re still uneasy about displays of national pride in political and economic matters. But when it comes to soccer, they’re positively giddy about being giddy.
Which means they’re in for a big sugar crash if Germany loses its quarter-final match on Friday night to Greece.
Greece-of all countries! Not only is Greece small and chaotic-the German team is disciplined and controlled-but also the baddest boy in the euro zone today. Greece’s financial shenanigans over the past decade take the cake in a playground of misbehavior and still threaten to undermine the whole idea of the euro.
But-and it’s heresy to say it here in Germany-the best thing that could happen on Friday night would be a Greek victory over the black-red-gold team from Germany.
Following their pride-swallowing vote last Sunday to stay in the euro project, Greeks deserve a little Schadenfreude on the soccer field. It would add the cultural piece to Greece’s political decision to tame their anti-European rejectionists. They voted, in effect, to follow the rules by repaying their bail-out money, and a new prime minister was sworn in this week.
But the return to sanity in Athens was also a victory in Berlin for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the euro enforcer. She thus won two points in a single day, since Germany also beat Denmark Sunday night on the soccer field. That’s why a cultural point for Greece would be nice right about now.
Why is the cultural component-one might also call it simple revenge-so important in cooling the bitter wrangling between Europe’s North and South?
Because deeply-felt cultural differences threatened to run policy right off the rails. Europe’s underlying cultural conflicts are the solvent that is melting the glue of monetary union designed to hold the continent together until it can really, someday, become a political union.
It took only a couple of loose words and photoshopped pictures in recent months to pull back the scab of cultural mistrust between those over-industrious Germans and those laid-back Greeks. Chancellor Merkel in a Nazi uniform in the Greek press. Greeks as “hammock-loving” deadbeats in the German press.
The invective triggered a cottage industry in cultural analysis, redolent with cliches and reminiscent of, say, eighteenth-century guidebooks. “It’s all about the climate,” headlines a German newspaper this week, tongue only slightly in cheek. It quotes the provocative Thilo Sarrazin, author of a new book called Europe Doesn’t Need The Euro: “The foggier, the colder and the wetter their winters, the greater [a nation’s] attention to financial policy matters,” he argues without irony. That means you can’t think straight about money where it’s warm and the wine is plentiful.
Even Goethe is invoked. During his famous visit to Naples in 1786, he was influenced by a travel book that described the Italian city as “thirty to forty thousand idle people” whose “inclination to laziness” is difficult to overcome. Goethe disputed the thesis but the travel book’s claims still resonate.
Are they true? Maybe. But people used to say things like that about the American South, where I come from, vis-a-vis those flinty New Englanders.
Then we invented the Sunbelt, stealing their thunder, their industry and their people. Maybe southern Europe can do the same thing.
Europe’s latest spasm of cultural animosity almost got out of hand. The anti-Euro campaign run by Greece’s anti-bailout candidate Alexis Tsipras descended into an anti-Merkel campaign instead, red meat for the masses.
Tsipras lost last Sunday, but just barely-he got 27 percent of the vote, two points behind his pro-Europe opponent.
If those angry voters could revel a bit in taking Germany down on the soccer field, maybe they would quit calling the German finance minister a new Gauleiter. Germans, for their part, would feel the sting of humility. But with the mighty Teutons on a roll-they’ve won all three of their soccer matches so far and are favorites to win the championship-it seems unlikely that little Greece can topple the galloping giant. Still, David did slay Goliath. And Greece was the surprise winner of the European championships in 2004.
My German friends will never forgive me for saying it, but most of Europe, except for a few million people around me in the German industrial heartland, would breathe easier if the beleaguered Greeks finally had their day. The beast of cultural conflict would be served, and Greeks could get out of the Merkel-bashing business and back into the bill-paying world.
Germans would pull down their flags in sadness, but this would be remembered as another summer of German pride in the harmless world of sport. This can only be a good thing for a Europe struggling to find its way out of a profound mess. A big brother whose sense of itself is constantly crippled by allusions to its history, and a little brother that can only lash out in frustration hardly make for reasonable negotiating partners.
And if Germany wins? No matter. They were supposed to.