Weltmeister Deutschland! Jaaaaaaaaaa!” reads the celebratory front page of Germany’s most popular daily newspaper, Bild. Germany won soccer’s World Cup and the victory is a symbol of the country’s resurgence.
Last time Germany won the World Cup was in 1990, when they also played Argentina for the title. That game was a slogging, dirty affair, the first World Cup final in which a player was sent off (two, actually). And, as Sunday night, Germany won 1-0.
The 1990 tournament was the last in which the German team played as West Germany — the Berlin Wall had fallen, but the country faced a long path toward reunification against opposition from some of its neighbors. To all practical purposes, the process only ended last year, when East-West migration within Germany finally evened out.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Germany of the 1990s was a country of hope and caution. The government’s main goal was to stitch the country back together and that meant assuaging lingering fears of a too-powerful Germany. The sutures have almost healed by now and Prenzlauer Berg, the Berlin district where Chancellor Angela Merkel once lived modestly as an East German academic, is now an affluent area with fancy boutiques and high rents.
Ms. Merkel’s Germany makes no excuses about the past or future: The apologies have been made. It is the most populous country in the European Union, with more than 80 million people, the biggest net contributor to the EU’s budget (to the tune of $19 billion in 2012) and the second biggest contributor to NATO, providing 14.5 percent of the alliance budget, compared to 21.7 percent for the United States. Germany is also the world’s fourth biggest economy and, according to a recent report by management consultancy McKinsey, the most connected one, in terms of flows of trade, finance, people and data.
Germany has everything, from old-style family-run industrial businesses, such as BMW, to an exciting start-up scene (SoundCloud is based in Berlin). Unlike some other European economies, it also has growth that is not a statistical accident but is based on making things people around the world want to buy. No wonder it was able to finance the bailouts that followed the European debt crisis. And it hasn’t been shy about claiming the central role in the EU as its reward, all the while sighing about the added responsibility.
Berlin, not Brussels, is the true political capital of the bloc: President Barack Obama met with Ms. Merkel in Germany twice in his first year as president (and visited Berlin during his election campaign). He put off his first visit to the Belgian capital until this year. It is Ms. Merkel who has taken on the role of chief Western negotiator with Russia’s increasingly hostile president, Vladimir Putin, not just because each speaks the other’s language, but because of her implied seniority in Europe.
No top EU appointment happens without Ms. Merkel’s approval. She made it look as if she was bowing to political inevitability when she backed Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination as head of the European Commission, but she could have blocked it had she wanted. And German influence in the EU’s institutions will only grow. Starting in November, the important job of supervising large European banks will be done from Frankfurt, where the European Central Bank is based.
Germans are meticulous in most things they do, so they have a training program for bureaucrats who want to win EU posts. That’s how they won at the World Cup, too, patiently building up a training and management system that eventually bore fruit.
Sunday night’s victory against the fierce and determined Argentines was a beauty, with veteran Miroslav Klose apologizing to rivals after fouling accidentally, the young German midfield playing a joyful passing game and the powerful Bastian Schweinsteiger fighting like a gladiator. It was 22-year-old Mario Goetze who scored the flawless winning goal. Germany deserved to win: It controlled the ball 60 percent of the time and seven of its 10 shots were on goal, compared with two out of 10 for Argentina.
The German soccer team’s stars include players of Polish, Ghanaian, Turkish and Arab descent, but they all sang the national anthem spiritedly before the game. Sunday night on the streets of Berlin, people of many ethnicities launched fireworks, danced and clinked beer mugs in celebration of their soccer victory, but perhaps also of something bigger: a new, non-threatening pride and confidence that Germany has allowed itself to feel now that it is finally one strong country again.
Literally translated, weltmeister — world champion — means master of the world.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Moscow-based writer and contributor to Bloomberg View.