Germany's European Leadership Extends to the Soccer Field

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BERLIN – France's finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, warned on Tuesday against caricatures and misunderstandings over Germany's handling of the euro crisis, but quickly qualified his conciliatory statement about the European Union's most powerful country.

"There is one subject where Germany's image is certainly bad," Mr. Moscovici told an auditorium full of students at the Free University in Berlin. "Germany wins too often at soccer, particularly now in the Champions League."

Europe's equivalent of the Super Bowl does not kick off for more than two weeks, but in a development that feels all too fitting under the current circumstances here, Germany has already won. Two German clubs, one from Dortmund in the Ruhr Valley and the other from Munich in deepest Bavaria, will face off for the European title, which means the nationality of the champion is already assured.

The local news media is calling it the "dream final." The daily newspaper Berliner Kurier summed up the mood in Germany perfectly in a front-page headline last week that read simply: "We versus us."

"One thing is certain," Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "Germany wins."

Of course, a game is just a game, but when the game in question is European soccer, it tends to be viewed as a Rorschach test for the health and confidence of nations. The success on the field of German teams has helped reinforce the broader narrative of Teutonic dominance that has emerged during the years-long debt crisis.

Germany's stock market is riding high, its unemployment rate has remained stubbornly low and the Continent's best and brightest are moving here in droves. Attitudes toward Germany in Europe are more complicated than they would seem from the images of angry protesters waving signs with swastikas on the streets of Athens.

Europe's largest economy is viewed not only with resentment but with a mixture of apprehension, envy and admiration, informed by a belief that the Germans have cracked the code of how to compete in the globalized world, coupled with an uncertainty about whether their efficient, export-driven economic model can be replicated.

Much the same is true currently with soccer. After Bayern trounced Barcelona for the second time in a row last week, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera wrote that "the lesson of order and talent goes beyond soccer." In Britain, the cover of the New Statesman magazine this week shows photographs of Angela Merkel and German soccer star Bastian Schweinsteiger with the question, "Why can't we be more like Germany?"

Just this past weekend Spain's Socialists discussed the German model for helping companies pay for idled workers to stay home without laying them off. "There is resentment at the current austerity policies attributed to Merkel," said Jordi Vaquer i Fanés, a political scientist and director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe in Barcelona, "but Germany still comes out at the top of the most admired countries."

Europeans are voting with their feet: The government statistics office reported Tuesday that 2012 saw the largest net gain in migration here in 17 years. Nearly 1.1 million people moved to Germany last year, with rising numbers of jobseekers arriving from crisis-stricken countries and Eastern Europe. Nationwide, unemployment is just 5.4 percent, and on Tuesday Germany's main stock index, the benchmark DAX, hit an all-time high.

Spain is losing not just engineers and software designers to Germany, but players and coaches. Pep Guardiola, Barcelona's former coaching genius, announced this year that he would move to Germany to coach Bayern. A decade ago the idea of a coach like Mr. Guardiola leaving Spain for Germany would have seemed absurd.

That's because not so long ago the positions were reversed. Germany was struggling to regain its footing in the post-unification period, and its soccer fortunes declined badly. The economy was stagnant and, with its rules against foreign ownership and insistence on keeping debts low, the professional soccer league Bundesliga seemed downright old-fashioned.

German teams, it was believed, would never keep up with the Russian oligarchs and Arab billionaires sinking untold millions into their investments in England's Premier League. The Spaniards, meanwhile, were flush and booming, like much of Europe's periphery.

Long before the financial crisis brought high-flying economies like Spain's back to earth, Germany began plotting a comeback, economically speaking, instituting labor reforms aimed at making the economy more competitive. On the soccer side, it began building up a new youth training system.

"I don't want to point the moralizing finger, saying 'We're super, we're saving the euro,'" said Martin Nolte, a professor of sports law at the German Sport University Cologne. "We make mistakes here in Germany too, but the professionalism and management from the economic side leads to a solid athletic effort."

The daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in a self-congratulatory front-page editorial last week, credited an openness to the world and a willingness to learn from others, matched with "German virtues" like fighting spirit and solidarity. "Professional soccer is also a mirror of economic possibilities," the paper wrote. "In this manner the Bundesliga benefits from Germany's economic strengths over Europe's crisis countries."

Rightly or wrongly, a sense here and abroad of German teams and businesses as farsighted and built for stability has taken root. In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama even praised Germany's dual-education system, mixing hands-on training at businesses with coursework.

But the easy comparisons between economic and soccer success can be overdone, many experts say.

"Everyone wants to hold up Germany as the perfectly-run antidote to the sloppiness of the southern Europeans, and the Bundesliga is kind of treated as this analogue to the German national economy," said Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic and author of the book, "How Soccer Explains the World."

"There's some truth to it, I think," Mr. Foer said, though he cautioned that "many of the great clubs and the great national teams come from countries in which the economies are run in slipshod ways and the local systems are a mess."

John Springford, an economist at the Center for European Reform in London, said the winner-take-all aspect of soccer could also be troublesome for Europe as it battles the debt crisis.

"The euro crisis has been dominated by that narrative of competitiveness," said Mr. Springford. "That kind of zero-sum thinking that is analogous to the football mentality is one of the reasons why it's been so difficult to create a lasting solution to the euro crisis."

Germany may have won the championship before the opening whistle, but it is not clear that it will be a "dream final" for the rest of the Continent.

"Because the league is so well-managed it means there's less flashy expenditure," said Mr. Foer. "There's a little less internationalism there. The modesty and competence that underlie the whole thing also constrain it from being as sexy as Spain or England."

Chris Cottrell contributed reporting from Berlin; Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome; and Raphael Minder from Madrid.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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