Germany is tearing itself apart, writes IAN HERBERT, with football fans scared to fly the flag as they host Euro 2024 after it was hijacked by the Far Right

The pages of Der Spiegel have this week reflected a German nation desperately needing the kind of football fervour it discovered in 2006, when the World Cup arrived here for four blissful, sun-kissed weeks still remembered as the Sommermärchen, ‘the summer fairytale’.

The paper related, with full Germanic precision, what is — and isn’t — acceptable workplace practice during the four-week ‘state of emergency’ which begins with the hosts’ opening fixture against Scotland in Munich on Friday evening.

Watching games in the workplace is a ‘no’, though listening to them on a radio is rendered acceptable by labour legislation passed in 1986. Decorate your car with flags by all means, ‘so long as the driver’s field of vision isn’t restricted’. Only extend your ‘fan festival’ deep into the night if you have ‘municipal permission’.

But 2006 this is most certainly not. Walk the streets of Munich and there is an unmistakable lack of German flags in windows and on balconies. That hallowed World Cup, 18 summers back, was the nation’s first tournament after unification and its people could wave the Bundesflagge, unburdened by a dark past.

Newly-elected chancellor Angela Merkel promised better economic times to come and enthusiastically cheered along as a young Germany team coached by Jurgen Klinsmann defied expectations to reach the semi-finals.

Stuttgart ultras are seen with pyrotechnics during their match with Augsburg last month

A counter-protest against supporters of the far-right AFD is held earlier this month

A counter-protest against supporters of the far-right AFD is held earlier this month

There is a different mood to the World Cup in 2006, when fans felt confident to wave their flag

There is a different mood to the World Cup in 2006, when fans felt confident to wave their flag

Now, in a challenging political moment, acts of patriotic fervour feel uncomfortable again. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has surged to a position of power, finishing second in the European elections only five days ago. Germany thought it had long since buried the ghost of fascism. Not so.

Those who have mapped the contours of Germany’s home tournaments see a vivid change. Stephan Uersfeld, a sports columnist for broadcaster NTV, detects a nation where ‘there are conflicts everywhere — conflicts within German society, conflicts within Europe… it wasn’t the case in 2006’.

It is the AfD’s incessant use of the national flag which has deterred many Germans from displaying it. ‘They have stolen it and now you have conflicts about displaying it because you don’t want to make the wrong impression and somehow support the right-wing stuff,’ says Ali Liebermann, an HR manager in Munich. ‘We thought we had left all that in the past.’

Julian Nagelsmann’s Germany squad have been dragged into the guts of this fear and loathing. While other nations’ Euros preoccupations have been purely of a football kind — the Poles sweat on Robert Lewandowski’s fitness, the French worry if Aurelien Tchouameni will be ready and the Scots have Andy Robertson angst — the hosts are confronted by questions about the racial composition of their squad.

A documentary examining the role of Die Mannschaft in fostering integration in a multicultural German society has been a chilling precursor to the hosts’ campaign.

Defender Jonathan Tah and former internationals Shkodran Mustafi and Gerald Asamoah told the documentary, screened last week by national broadcaster ARD, about the racism and hostility they had faced.

Defender Jonathan Tah told an ARD documentary about the racism and hostility he has faced

Defender Jonathan Tah told an ARD documentary about the racism and hostility he has faced

A documentary poll found 17 per cent were unhappy to have a player of Turkish descent, Ilkay Gundogan, as national team captain

A documentary poll found 17 per cent were unhappy to have a player of Turkish descent, Ilkay Gundogan, as national team captain

But documentary-maker Philipp Awounou went so far as to conduct a poll — roundly condemned as crass in the days since — asking 1,304 participants if they would prefer more white players in the team. One in five replied they would.

The documentary also asked participants if they were unhappy to have a player of Turkish descent, Ilkay Gundogan, as captain. An extraordinary 17 per cent said yes. Gundogan, whose leadership qualities have long been evident, responded to this with a calm intelligence in Bild.

‘It’s sad that we still do this type of survey and give it value,’ he said. ‘What bothers me is the timing. It’s good there are people like me in leadership positions because this reflects the new reality of Germany. We may look different, but we are also German.’

Nagelsmann and defender Joshua Kimmich have said they were shocked that the broadcaster even asked these questions. ‘When you consider that we are about to host a European Championship at home, it’s absurd to ask such a question when the aim is to unite the whole country,’ Kimmich said.

The national team have been a lightning rod for racial intolerance in the past. When they flopped at the 2018 World Cup, Mesut Ozil was the scapegoat and his Turkish origins featured prominently in the narrative.

‘I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,’ said Ozil, after retiring from the national team.

The hope must be that a talented, multi-racial team, led by Gundogan, driven on by Antonio Rudiger at the heart of defence and Jamal Musiala at the top of the team, will be an expression of the multicultural nation Kimmich described.

Nagelsmann has certainly built grounds for belief out of the wreckage he inherited having succeeded Hansi Flick last September, when a 4-1 defeat by Japan had made it just four wins in 17, including the group-stage elimination at the Qatar World Cup. Germany needed just seven seconds to score in their opening game of 2024, a 2-0 win over France, and the Netherlands were beaten three days later.

Julian Nagelsmann hit out at the poll and stressed that people needed to 'wake up'

Julian Nagelsmann hit out at the poll and stressed that people needed to ‘wake up’ 

Joshua Kimmich who described the survey as 'absolutely racist' and 'counterproductive' ahead of this summer's Euros

Joshua Kimmich who described the survey as ‘absolutely racist’ and ‘counterproductive’ ahead of this summer’s Euros

Though the warm-up games have provided less promise — a stalemate with Ukraine was followed by a 2-1 win over Greece — there is an optimism born of the extraordinary depth of the nation’s club football.

Bayer Leverkusen’s astonishing season under Xabi Alonso has seen Florian Wirtz catapulted into Nagelsmann’s squad. Stuttgart’s success has provided a solution to Germany’s problems at left back in Maximilian Mittelstadt.

There is Borussia Dortmund, too, of course, though it is a measure of the depth of options that three of the Champions League final starters — Mats Hummels, Julian Brandt and Karim Adeyemi — did not make the cut.

The one player everyone can cohere around is Toni Kroos, the biggest star of this team, out of international retirement for what would be the ultimate career denouement. ‘Daddy Cool’ as Der Spiegel this week described the 34-year-old, has ventured to say that signing off on a 17-year senior career by winning the Champions League with Real Madrid and then the European Championship would be ‘almost too cheesy’.

When the squad left the Germany training ground at Herzogenaurach on bright blue VW-branded bicycles on Monday evening, Kroos found himself on a ladies’ model that was slightly too small for him.

‘He even looked cool on that,’ one commentator observed. The training session had been opened up to the public. A shade over 4,000 spectators attended.

One of the most-shared images on social media in Germany these past seven days depicts Kroos, newly arrived at the squad’s training camp, leaning on a counter in a retro shirt with German FA sports director Rudi Voller — hero of the 1990 World Cup-winning campaign — standing in the background, beaming.

Its appeal seems to reside in the reminder it serves of how Germany has always been a land of tournament champions. The nation this year lost Franz Beckenbauer, manager of the 1990 West Germany side, then Andreas Brehme, scorer of the only goal against Argentina in that legendary tournament’s final. The reminder of better times was welcome.

Rising stars such as Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz give Germany some cause for optimism

Rising stars such as Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz give Germany some cause for optimism

Stuttgart's Maximilian Mittelstadt's rise at left back has highlighted the depth at club level

Stuttgart’s Maximilian Mittelstadt’s rise at left back has highlighted the depth at club level

How, Kroos was asked this week, does he intend to help lead the side? By giving his team-mates the feeling, in the more difficult situations, ‘that this isn’t all that dramatic’, he replied. And by making them feel ‘safe’ when things get hectic.

‘If there is any doubt about what to do with the ball, give it to me,’ Kroos added, a smile playing across his face.

The German media fret about the reliability of goalkeeper Manuel Neuer who, having been selected at the age of 38, will start. Some question Gundogan’s presence. But Nagelsmann, who at 36 is the youngest manager in the tournament’s history, brings a reassuring charisma and intelligence, as well as a boldness in selection. ‘Thirty per cent of coaching is tactics, 70 per cent social competence,’ he once said of his approach.

It seems success really might lighten the mood and deliver a psychological boost to this country, whose economy, Europe’s largest, is stuck in a mild recession, battling high energy prices, an arcane bureaucracy and a lack of skilled labour, which needs to come mostly from abroad because of Germany’s demographic problems.

‘The economy is shaped by expectations and mood,’ says Michael Gromling, head of macroeconomics at the German Economic Institute in Cologne — one of the host cities. ‘The emotional significance of the European Championship should not be underestimated.’

Toni Kroos smiled as he said team-mate could 'give me the ball' if they had doubts this Euros

Toni Kroos smiled as he said team-mate could ‘give me the ball’ if they had doubts this Euros

Gromling went on to say that consumer spending would be shifting, not increasing, because of the Euros — ‘bratwurst instead of a restaurant, watching TV instead of going to the cinema’ — while, on a similarly pessimistic note, experts at the German Weather Service have pointed out that things are looking slightly bleak for the weeks ahead. Meteorologically speaking, there will be no Sommermärchen, it would seem.

In another dismal pre-tournament survey, the University of Hoffenheim revealed that 20 per cent of Germans do not want to go to public screenings of games for fear of ‘attacks’, while 34 per cent say there are simply ‘too many people’ there.

There was the same sense in those findings that this country remains to be convinced. That this really could go one of two ways, and whichever it turns out to be, there will be fireworks.

What happens next will certainly not, of itself, change Germany’s political or economic direction. This is a football tournament. Nothing more. But Euro 2024 can lift a country which sorely needs the elevation.

‘There is already expectation that we will do better than we have in recent years,’ Nagelsmann reflected. ‘Lots of things have to come together, as is the case for all teams. It’s not a sure thing for any team. But, of course, we have the idea of winning it. If we give it our all, it can happen.’

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