Joachim Löw, Angela Merkel and the decade that changed Germany on and off the pitch

Joachim Löw, Angela Merkel and the decade that changed Germany on and off the pitch

When Joachim Löw has dinner with Angela Merkel, he always orders the same thing. Merkel’s cook, Löw told Bild newspaper in 2016, makes a mean cordon bleu with chips. As for what he and the Chancellor talk about? All manner of things, said Löw. Greece, Brexit, refugees. Sometimes even football.

It is, in other words, more than just polite chit-chat. They go too far back for that. Löw became Germany’s national team coach in 2006, just a year after Merkel became its Chancellor. For over a decade now, the two of them have been Germany’s most recognisable public figures at home and abroad, and both have left their mark. In football as in politics, the last 15 years have seen Germany haul itself away from many of old habits, old certainties. More often than not, it has been Löw and Merkel doing the hauling.

Both have been in their current job for over a decade. Both have defied initial scepticism. Löw is the ninth Germany manager since the Second World War and, if you count the nine-day caretaker reign of Walter Scheel in 1974, Merkel is the ninth Chancellor. Both are Christians and both are from the farthest flung corners of Germany, Merkel from its protestant north-east and Löw from its Catholic south-west. Most importantly of all, both are modernisers.

Löw, even had he not won the World Cup, would have gone down in history as the man who made aesthetes of German brutes. Under his tutelage, the national side was transformed in the global perception from a team of Harald Schumachers and Stefan Effenbergs into a team of Philipp Lahms and Mario Götzes. Snarling, red-faced efficiency was traded for boyish, even flawed creativity.

By 2014, Löw even had them playing a sort of tiki-taka, attempting the first half of the tournament without a classic number nine and with Philipp Lahm in central midfield. “You only win trophies if you play attractive football,” Löw told 11 Freunde in 2012. For him, playing beautifully was not at odds with the old tradition of German efficiency and relentless winning; it was the only way to keep it going.

Continuity in change, as the historians call it, has been Merkel’s business too. For 13 years, she has overseen a political project which has repositioned Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as the party of the respectable and progressive centre. It was a dramatic transformation. Social conservatism runs deep in Germany; rape within marriage, for example, was only criminalised in 1998. Under Merkel, its major centre-right party has legalised gay marriage, briefly been a world leader in environmentalism, and welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees. The CDU’s latest party slogan is simply ‘The Centre’.

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To understand both Löw and Merkel’s revolutions, we must go back to the autumn of 1998. In November, just after the CDU had suffered the worst election defeat of its history, newly elected vice-chairman Christian Wulff called for a “root and branch reform of the CDU”. His argument, that the party had to move forward to stay relevant, set the tone for the next two decades.

A month before Wulff’s speech in October 1998, the German FA (DFB) unleashed the first wave of its now world-famous reform programme, an overhaul of youth development at both club and national level. At the time, Der Spiegel called it “the biggest restructuring in football since the introduction of professionalism.” History would prove them right, as German football at club and international level flourished under wave after wave of new young talent.

Both the DFB and the CDU were reacting to a dramatic shift in the world. For the association, it was the rampant commercialisation of the world game and the unstoppable rise of pressing football. For the political party, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalisation, and the post-Cold War order. Helmut Kohl’s party had guided the country through reunification but had proven ill-equipped for its long-term consequences. Germany, no longer divided and occupied, was at the beginning of a new and often uneasy status as a world power.

Löw and Merkel were by no means the vanguard of these revolutions. They came later, both as successors to more immediately charismatic leaders. For Merkel, that was the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder, for Löw it was Jürgen Klinsmann. Schröder’s economic reforms, and his slightly sleazy charm, were to politics what the Americanised Klinsmann was to football: a breath of fresh air, but one destined to turn sour at some point. Schröder’s sweeping reforms saw him punished by the voters, while Klinsmann jumped the gun, bowing out after the “summer fairytale” of the World Cup in 2006. He would later fail dramatically at Bayern Munich.

So began the eras of two figures who would come to define modern Germany, though neither started with much fanfare. Löw, whose club career had stalled after winning the DFB-Pokal with Stuttgart, was respected as the tactical brains behind Klinsmann’s charisma, but was also the subject of scepticism. Far from the stylish, man of the world persona he now commands, he was then pigeonholed as something of an overly friendly country bumpkin. The thick Baden accent didn’t help, and neither did his nickname. “Jogi and Hansi: it sounds more like a pair of budgies,” scoffed Bild of Löw and assistant Hansi Flick. Even as late as 2009, Die Zeit characterised him as the “nice Mr Löw”, a man lacking the mental toughness of his predecessor.

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Merkel, too, was underestimated. For years, as families and later environment minister, she was “Kohl’s girl”, a supposed lightweight stuck in the enormous shadow of the enormous Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Even later, as she distanced herself from Kohl in the wake of the CDU donations scandal, she remained the dour East German with no charisma and a bad haircut. A few months before losing to her at the 2005 election, Schröder sneered that Merkel’s speeches in parliament were “boring”.

If the media values charisma above all else, though, the German public are largely suspicious of it. Germany prefers the authority of the academic to the charm of the career politician. It loves nothing more than an expert. Merkel, with her PhD in quantum chemistry, and Löw, with his rather more humble command of the tactics board, are experts. While Merkel changed her hairstyle, and Löw, with his tailored shirts, fast cars and perennial cup of espresso, allowed himself to be reimagined as a style icon, their success is largely based on substance, not style.

Neither are prone to grand, inspiring speeches. Both, at a press conference, speak with a similar, methodical lilt, Löw with the eshes of the south-west, Merkel with the round vowels of the north-east. Neither are prone to rambling or raising their voices. Both voices have become as recognisable as a family member’s over the last decade. If Merkel has always been cast as Mutti – the mother figure – then Löw is a visiting uncle, a voice one recognises partly because you don’t hear it every day. In both figures, the German public have a guardian angel whom they feel they can trust to guide them through radical change.

Perhaps the biggest change of all, or perhaps perceived change, is not tactical or political, but demographic. Schröder’s reform of dual citizenship laws allowed more people of non-German heritage to take up German passports. It didn’t take long for that to filter into the national team, which almost overnight became a melting pot of various backgrounds, from Turkish to Albanian via Tunisian and Ghanaian. Löw’s team is that of modern, multicultural Germany. He himself was awarded the Bambi Integration Prize in 2016.

Merkel, of course, once described multiculturalism as a “failed approach”, but she is also the Chancellor of a Germany known more than ever for tolerance and internationalism. Not just because of her often misdescribed open door policy on refugees, but also in her fierce defence of Christian Wulff’s one-time assertion that “Islam belongs to Germany”.

There are some who will object at this point. Löw may be a football visionary, they will say, but let’s not cast Merkel as a liberal revolutionary. As Der Spiegel once put it: “Merkel approaches politics as if she is trying to get rid of hiccups”. She famously governs by consensus, performing near 180 degree turns on nuclear energy, refugees and even broad economic policy when she feels the public is not with her. That, in many ways, is the secret of her success, an incredible ability to appeal to the broadest possible market, thereby steadily establishing her party as the only major force. Her advisors called it “asymmetrical demobilisation”. Martin Schulz called it an attack on democracy.

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But is Löw any different? Tactical genius he may be, but he is no ideologue in the manner of Pep Guardiola or Rinus Michels. It was not until 2010, after a second successive tournament defeat to Spain, that he began to mould Germany as a possession-based team. Likewise, he has reverted to a more angular approach in the wake of Germany’s capitulation to French counter-attacks in 2016. He, like Merkel, is the eternal pragmatist, always adapting to a changing situation. It is what has kept both of them in power for so long, and why discussions of either of them stepping down always lead to the same question: “Who else?”

Here, though, their paths certainly do diverge. All political careers end in failure, but in football, the opposite is true. If you have been in a job as long as Löw has, the likelihood is that you will be given a rousing, teary send-off when you go. Especially in Germany, which, as Lukas Podolski can attest, likes a good farewell party.

The current convulsions in her coalition over refugee policy are a reminder of how far Merkel has fallen, and how close we are to the end of her guardianship. Since 2015, trust in her motherly authority has steadily dwindled. While Löw basks in the status of reigning champion this summer, Merkel is a politician under siege. The Germany coach extended his contract until 2022. By then, you sense, the Chancellor will be gone. This is probably the last World Cup of the Merkel era.

“After the World Cup final in 2014, [Merkel] came into the dressing room, she had a drink with us, and she was so natural,” gushed Löw recently. “That left quite an impression on my players, and I would hope it happens again.”

Even if Germany do reach the final again this summer, the Chancellor may see a visit to Russia as politically toxic, but the invitation alone speaks volumes. From her famous handshake with a half-naked Mesut Özil in 2010 to her visit to Germany’s pre-World Cup training camp in South Tyrol earlier this month, Merkel has always played the football card well. Unlike, say, Tony Blair or David Cameron, she knows not to feign too much interest or knowledge, and the game respects her all the more for it.

If she does go to Russia, it may be her last flirt with football, but it will not be the last time she sees Löw. Both have been stalwarts of each other’s tenures and both have spent over a decade reimagining a nation. One suspects that in the coming years, there will be more invitations exchanged, that Joachim Löw has not eaten his last cordon bleu with chips.

By Kit Holden @KitHolden

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