Hansi Flick’s sacking was broadly welcomed, but the unfortunate timing of the German FA’s press release on Sunday afternoon, two minutes before the end of Germany’s basketball final against Serbia, angered plenty of people.
“It’s an incredible disgrace for the scandalous football association of failure to announce Flick’s firing during the decisive moments of the Basketball World Cup final and take away attention from the Germany basketball team’s greatest triumph in their history,” sports journalist Jens Weinreich wrote on Twitter. The sentiment was widely shared on social media.
FA chiefs had initially planned to wait until the end of the game in Manila but were forced to rush out the statement after the story had leaked in Bild. The bungled denouement was at least perfectly in keeping with Flick’s tenure: a scarily amateurish spell beset by flawed communication throughout. Comparisons with the newly iconic Gordon Herbert — the basketball team’s inspirational Canadian-Finnish coach — couldn’t have been less flattering for the 58-year-old.
“Watching the togetherness (of the Germany basketball side) and a coach with personality who’s in control of his team gave me goosebumps,” 1990 World Cup winner Lothar Matthaus said on Monday morning, kicking his personal friend Flick while he was already down and out.
The basketball team’s sensational victory in the Philippines has offered much-needed respite after a series of sporting disappointments in recent months, including the failure of both the men’s and women’s football teams to make it past the group stage at World Cups and Germany failing to win a single medal at the World Athletic Championships in Budapest.
Reasons for those embarrassments are varied and complex, but some pundits have spun them into a simple narrative of national decline, blaming the current cohort of footballers’ softness for their lack of success.
“We have lost our resilience,” 66-year-old high jump gold medal winner Carlo Tranhardt said recently, while former Germany international Matthias Sammer, an outside contender to succeed Flick as national team manager, told Sueddeutsche Zeitung last week that German football had sadly given up on the traditional “German virtues” of “being physically strong, excellent in the duels and always wanting to win”.
This brand of knee-jerk cultural pessimism plays well in times of economic crisis. Germany’s economy is shrinking this year, which has led to much navel-gazing, finger-pointing and fretting over the end of the mythical “performance society” that has underpinned post-war prosperity. The age-old complaint that young people have it too easy nowadays has become ubiquitous in that context once again. Sports is a relatively safe area in which such attacks can be advanced, a useful placeholder for more overtly political controversy.
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In that vein, there’s been a giddy rush to blame the group stage exit in Qatar on the team’s struggles with the armband affair, a take that has since been revealed as overly reductive in light of the many wider issues inside the camp.
The introduction of new, relative points criteria for the federal sports day in primary schools (“Bundesjugendspiele”) has also been seen as a harbinger of moral decay in some quarters and there’s been a strong polemic backlash against the German FA’s reforms of pre-teens football, designed to emphasise individual development at the expense of counting goals and points.
“If you never taste the feeling of losing as a six, eight or nine-year-old, you’ll never find the strength to win,” FA vice chairman and Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said last week. “It’s the totally wrong approach. They’re also discussing playing without goals. Next, we’ll play without a ball or with a square ball that won’t roll away from slower kids.”
Caretaker national team manager Rudi Voller, by contrast, defended the move, explaining that it doesn’t in fact do away with winning or losing at all. He made the salient point, too, that other countries, including England and Belgium, had long adopted such measures.
But the hugely popular 63-year-old also underlined his old-fashioned credentials earlier this year by agitating against effeminate latte macchiatos (yes, really), the wearing of bike helmets, and “gendering”, the grammatical inclusion of women into male-denominated groups of people or vocations.
Voller’s macho man posturing, delivered with a knowing wink, is relatively harmless, but in tabloid Bild on Monday, things took a more sinister turn. Chief editor Marion Horn disseminated some casual transphobia in the guise of praise for the basketball World Cup winners. “Finally, (we have) winning types with bite and charisma again,” she wrote. “Maybe that’s down to some of the players playing in the U.S., where winning still counts and heroes are still revered — in places where there aren’t men in women’s bathing suits (starting races), at least.”
As long as the German national team in particular continues to underperform, populists will continue to put forward emotionally charged explanations that can easily be weaponised in the culture war.
It’s not a new phenomenon. When Germany lost to Italy in the 2012 Euros semi-final, Bild criticised some players of migratory backgrounds for not singing the national anthem and wondered if the team had been too pampered by chartered flights and luxury hotels.
AFD, a right-wing party, threaten to become Germany’s second-biggest political force and pundits should be aware of whose agenda they’re unwittingly serving. Once you refer to players showing un-German traits or not being manly enough, a jump off to downright bigotry isn’t that far away.
(Top photos: Getty Images)