Inside Story

Champions no more

Our correspondent detects parallels between the fortunes of German football and the travails of the Merkel government

Klaus Neumann 13 April 2021 3251 words

Happier times: German chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s head coach Joachim Löw (right) at the height of their careers in February 2010, with the manager of Germany’s national team, Oliver Bierhoff. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Germany 1, North Macedonia 2. North Macedonia? Really? Surely nobody saw that coming. Only twice before has the German men’s team lost a European World Cup qualifier, first against Portugal in 1985, and then against England twenty years ago.

Prior to its encounter with North Macedonia on 31 March, Germany had won eighteen World Cup qualifiers in a row. Just days earlier, it had beaten Iceland at home and Romania, the most highly rated team in its group, in Bucharest. “The most important question is not who will win this game,” read one pre-match assessment, “but by how much the winner of the 2014 World Cup will prevail.” After all, Germany had triumphed in the World Cup four times and in the European championship thrice, whereas North Macedonia had never even qualified for either tournament.

The teams played in an empty stadium, but that could hardly count as an excuse for the German loss. At least the lack of a crowd saved the home team the humiliation of being booed by its fans while North Macedonia proceeded to its well-deserved win. Germany’s only goal came courtesy of a questionable penalty decision. German coach Joachim “Jogi” Löw’s team was outfoxed, outplayed and outclassed by a disciplined but by no means outstanding opponent.

This was not the first time Löw and his men have stumbled badly. In a first for Germany, they were eliminated in the first round of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Then, in November 2020, they went down by six goals to Spain. As the calls for Löw to be sacked became louder, he announced in early March that he would retire right after Euro 2020, the European championship postponed until June this year by the pandemic.

Löw has been Germany’s head coach since July 2006. His contract was extended for another four years in 2018, well before Germany’s dismal performance in Russia, and it seemed at the time as if he was going to be around forever. The youngest player in the current German side, Jamal Musiala of Bayern Munich, wouldn’t be able to remember a time when Löw was not in charge of Germany’s national team.

Depending on whom you ask, managing the national side is either the most important job on offer in Germany, or a close second behind the task of running Germany’s government. Angela Merkel has been in office even longer than Löw, since November 2005. Her contract was last renewed in 2017. She too is on her way out, and the parallels don’t end there.

Lately, most Germans have been as dismayed by Merkel’s team as they have been by Löw’s. That’s mostly to do with Germany’s response to Covid-19.

Germany did well in the first wave of the pandemic during last year’s northern spring. The rate of infections and the number of fatalities were much lower than in most other European countries, let alone the United States and South America. But the authorities reacted too late and not decisively enough when the second wave began building in October, even though the expert calls for a hard lockdown were hard to ignore. After shops and schools eventually had to close, the country got through that wave as well, but the price — in terms of deaths from Covid-19 — was much higher than in spring.

Early this year, virologists predicted that Germany’s caseload would once more go up because of the mutations that had emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. From mid February, case numbers began climbing as the prevalence of the so-called British variant, also known as B.1.1.7, grew. On Monday, the rate of new infections per 100,000 over seven days reached 136, the highest incidence in twelve weeks. It keeps rising. The virologists’ predictions were proving accurate, but the federal and state governments still couldn’t agree on measures to stop this third wave of the pandemic, or at least flatten the curve.

Not only did the incidence figures keep rising, so did the number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care wards: from about 2800 in mid March to more than 4600 on Monday. Soon, more Covid-19 patients are likely to be in intensive care than at the height of the second wave. Because most people aged seventy-five and over have been vaccinated, hospitals are increasingly treating young people. Their chance of survival is better than that of octogenarians, but many of them will suffer what is popularly called Long Covid and referred to by scientists as post-acute Covid-19.

Meanwhile, the number of people who have been fully immunised is still too small to make a real difference. As of 11 April, about 6 per cent of the population had received both doses of any of the three available vaccines, and only about 16 per cent have been given at least one.

Behind the sluggish immunisation campaign is a shortage of vaccines. That can’t be blamed on the German authorities, because the European Commission, rather than the Merkel government, was responsible for their procurement. It’s true that Merkel lobbied her European colleagues to agree to a concerted approach rather than let each EU country buy its own supplies, but that was the right call. If the poorer EU countries had missed out, the recriminations would have damaged the European Union beyond repair. Countries such as Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary and Slovenia have already suffered disproportionate human losses because their hospitals are not as well equipped as those of Germany, Denmark, Austria or the Netherlands.

But the German government could be blamed for sowing confusion about the AstraZeneca vaccine. First it deemed the vaccine unsuitable for those aged sixty-five or more; now it considers the vaccine too dangerous for the under-sixties. The message that the benefits of this vaccine far outweigh its risks didn’t get through, and now a considerable number of those due to be immunised are frightened to receive one of only three vaccines available in Germany.

Strictly speaking, Merkel and her ministers aren’t responsible for the dilatory response to the spread of the virus either. It’s up to Germany’s local and state governments to impose curfews and shutdowns of schools, childcare centres, shops and restaurants. Throughout the pandemic, the federal government has tried to convince the states to agree to uniform measures. Merkel has met regularly with the sixteen state premiers, although such heads-of-government consultations are not a formal feature of German federalism.

Usually lasting many hours, the meetings have sought to bridge the divide between Merkel, the trained scientist who tends to argue for more measures to halt the spread of the virus, and some of the state premiers, who want fewer restrictions. While these meetings have usually concluded with an agreement, individual premiers have often been quick to distance themselves from decisions and deal with the pandemic as they see fit, oblivious to expert advice and seemingly unconcerned about the consequences.

The last such consultation began on the afternoon of 22 March and lasted until 2.30 the next morning. Its only significant result was the declaration of additional public holidays on the Thursday and Saturday before Easter, thereby creating a five-day “rest period” during which schools and businesses would be closed and the pandemic, it was hoped, slowed down. Only a day later, though, Merkel had to concede that the plan wasn’t feasible. She then apologised — uncharacteristically — for announcing and then cancelling the measure. But she had no plan B. Each state has continued to prescribe its own measures, and it’s become impossible to keep abreast of the myriad different rules and sanctions.

The patchwork approach is partly explained by electoral pressures. Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrat in charge of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Markus Söder, the premier of Bavaria and head of the Christian Democrats’ Bavarian sister party, are both vying to lead the conservatives in September’s federal election campaign and then succeed Merkel as chancellor. They have used the pandemic to sharpen their public profiles: Laschet by arguing against lockdowns and other restrictions, Söder by endorsing Merkel’s hard line. With five state elections this year, other premiers have also sought to impress voters first and deal with the pandemic second.

States with comparatively low infection rates refuse to agree to measures designed to flatten the curve in high-incidence states. And then there are the usual differences of opinion between states led by Social Democrats and those led by Christian Democrats, and between East German and West German state governments. That some premiers seem to find it difficult to understand how the virus spreads hasn’t helped.

To say that Merkel isn’t to blame for any of this would not be entirely correct. For one, her decision to relinquish the leadership of her party a few months before the end of her last term in office has undermined the authority she needs to make the state premiers act in unison. And when it became clear that individual states weren’t doing enough to contain the disease, the federal government should have stepped in.

It will try to do so, belatedly, this week. Merkel cancelled the heads-of-government meeting that had been scheduled for Monday. Parliament will debate a bill that would give the federal government the power to impose lockdowns and curfews. But such an initiative should have come much earlier.

A fortnight ago, Merkel took the unusual step of participating in a live one-hour interview with Anne Will, whose eponymous program on Sunday evenings, immediately after the latest episode of the popular crime drama Tatort, is the most-watched talk show on German television. In the interview, she reprimanded the premiers (singling out two who belong to her own party) and threatened a federal move to take control of Germany’s response to the pandemic. At last, things seemed to be moving in the right direction. But then she waited for almost two weeks. Perhaps she was hoping that such a move would prove unnecessary, or perhaps she was just dithering.

And then there was the federal health authorities’ decision to remove Spain’s Balearic Islands from the list of risk areas just in time for the Easter holidays. Maybe they thought nobody would book a trip — and it’s true that the airlines were offering hardly any flights to Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, which is Germans’ favourite holiday destination (sometimes called Germany’s seventeenth state). But around 45,000 holiday-makers descended on Mallorca over Easter, proving that the laws of supply and demand also work during a pandemic. Because of the time lag between infections and symptoms, it remains to be seen what impact this mass gathering will have.

Meanwhile, the reputation of the ruling Christian Democrats has suffered a further blow after several of its members of parliament were accused of corruption. In some cases, the politicians concerned had received large amounts of money — €660,000 in one instance — for putting the suppliers of medical masks in touch with the federal health ministry when it was desperately seeking large quantities of masks last year.

Looming above all of this is the question of why on earth the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party have been unable to nominate a successor for Merkel. It’s been more than fourteen months since her designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, fell on her sword after she failed to prevent collusion between her party and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD) in the East German state of Thuringia. Since then the speculation has been endless: first about who would succeed her, and then about whether her successor Armin Laschet would be the conservatives’ candidate for chancellor. The conflict between Laschet and the Bavarian premier Markus Söder entered an extra round on Monday, with both receiving a ringing endorsement by their respective parties.

Germans, regardless of their political persuasion, age or class, are exasperated. A majority is in favour of tougher restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. A vocal minority, represented in parliament by the AfD, refuses to believe that the virus is dangerous and wants no restrictions at all. I suspect the only reason why few outside the AfD are calling for Merkel’s resignation is that there is no one in her party who would be able to replace her.

On Saturday, the front page of Hamburg tabloid Morgenpost featured just one word in lieu of the usual article: Nichts* (nothing*). The asterisk explained: “This is what the chancellor and the state premiers have implemented to alleviate the state of emergency in the hospitals.”

The bungled response to Covid-19 didn’t come as a total surprise. Germans know that the country’s bureaucracy is slow to swing into action at the best of times. The fact that crucial technological developments seem to have bypassed the public service didn’t help. It’s no secret, for example, that federal, state and local governments have only slowly come to terms with the digital revolution. German health departments still report the number of infections by fax, rather than digitally. When schools were told that students needed to be taught remotely, some teachers took that to mean that they would simply post photocopied worksheets to their students once a week. And don’t even mention German Rail and the coverage of the mobile phone network.

But now, as Covid-19’s global reach prompts comparisons not just of infection numbers, vaccination rates and fatalities but also of government responses, German inefficiency is no longer a well-kept secret. Germans can’t keep complaining that their trains are always late but then find solace in the idea that others believe Germans are naturally more efficient. It’s the realisation that German stuff-ups are now regularly reported in the New York Times that has come as a shock.

Similarly, the millions of Germans who are convinced they would do a better job than Jogi Löw have long known about the weaknesses of Germany’s national side. Löw and his team just haven’t been that good since their triumph in Brazil seven years ago. But nobody else seemed to take much notice of the slide. That’s changed: now that Germany has succumbed to North Macedonia it is no longer possible to pretend that this was the same side that beat Brazil by six goals in the 2014 semifinal and went on to win the cup.

Germans feel that they not only need to get on top of the pandemic, they also need to restore their reputation as world champions of efficiency and innovation. They need not just to win their next qualifier — given that their opponent will be Liechtenstein, that’s perhaps not such a big challenge — but also to convince others that they are still one of the heavyweights of world football.

When it comes to football, there’s a short-term remedy. Germany just ought to field its best side — which means that Jogi Löw must admit it was a terrible mistake to tell Thomas Müller, the star performer of Champions League winner Bayern Munich, that his services were no longer required. Having Müller in the side might at least prevent the embarrassment of exiting Euro 2020 at the group stage.

Then there is the pressing question of who will be Germany’s new coach. Four of the eight clubs currently competing for this year’s title in the Champions League are coached by Germans, and their names naturally came up when Löw announced his resignation. But that’s not how the German Football Association works. It won’t appoint a Thomas Tuchel (the head coach of Chelsea) or Jürgen Klopp (who’s in charge of Liverpool); they are too independent or too flamboyant. (Not that either of them would want to give up their current gig in Britain.)

Löw’s job is more likely to go to an understudy, in the same way that Sepp Herberger’s assistant Helmut Schön became head coach in 1964, Jupp Derwall followed Schön in 1978, and Löw got the job when his immediate boss, Jürgen Klinsmann, resigned. Perhaps Germans should simply transfer their attachment from the men’s to the women’s side, which has won thirteen of its last fourteen games, including, most recently, a friendly against Australia.

Unlike Jogi Löw, Angela Merkel can’t draft somebody for her cabinet whom she had previously sent packing (although there would be no shortage of potential candidates). And, to stay with the analogy, while the Christian Democratic Union might be as conservative as the German Football Association and pick an uninspiring understudy as Merkel’s designated successor, it won’t be up to the party to appoint the next chancellor.

Germany could well do with a Jürgen Klopp of politics: somebody to motivate and inspire them as they face their next big task, curbing the emission of greenhouse gases. They also need somebody to remind them that their glasses are half full rather than half empty; after all, despite the chaos surrounding the government’s handling of the pandemic, so far proportionately fewer people have died of the virus than in eight of Germany’s nine neighbouring countries. (Only Denmark has done better.)

On 19 April, the Greens will announce who will run as their candidate for the chancellorship in September. As the Christian Democrats are only five percentage points ahead of the Greens in the latest polls, Merkel’s successor might be either of the two Green contenders, Annalena Baerbock or Robert Habeck. While neither has the charisma of a Jürgen Klopp, both would be keenly aware of the need for Germany to arrive at last in the twenty-first century. Both would lead a government intent on changing the country rather than administering the status quo. Both would know that the challenge of climate change will eventually dwarf that of Covid-19.

Germans’ concern with how their country is perceived has led them to believe that their government’s lack of action is a very recent phenomenon. But when was the last time the Merkel government did what was necessary without backtracking afterwards? Some would say that this was in 2015, during the so-called refugee crisis, but it should be remembered that the image of Merkel as an activist relies on a simple narrative: she decided that Germany should open its borders. Germany didn’t do that; it just didn’t close them. When the Merkel government swung into action, it helped negotiate a deal with Turkey to halt the flow of refugees while simultaneously tightening the asylum laws. In fact, Merkel last acted decisively in 2011, following the Fukushima accident in Japan, when her government decided to phase out Germany’s nuclear reactors.

Preoccupied as Germans are with appearances and perceptions, they tend to believe that the decline of Germany’s fortunes on the football field began after the 2014 World Cup. But the team that won the cup that year was arguably not as good — and certainly not as exciting — as the team that competed in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Germany won in 2014 because the competition was not as strong as four years earlier. In other words, the defeat at the hands of North Macedonia and the government’s ponderous response to the pandemic came after a long period of wasted opportunities. The summer of welcome in 2015 and the World Cup in 2014 just felt like moments when Germans were champions of the world. •