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Euro 2024 shows why Germany is much more than beer, bratwurst and lederhosen

Football offers a snapshot of Germany as it exists today

Germany has many faces. Illustration by Jake Hawkins

No sooner had they touched down in Germany for Euro 2024, the Scottish national team were whisked off to their tournament base in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and treated to a healthy dose of the famous Bavarian hospitality. While the onlookers helped themselves to beer and grub, the players were greeted by dancers in lederhosen and felt hats, slapping their ankles to the music of an oompah band.  

This, many people must assume, is what Germany looks like. And as Scotland’s experience showed, there’s no smoke without fire. Yet the reality, of course, is that this kind of thing is anything but typically German. There are 80 million people in Germany, and most of them would not be seen dead in lederhosen. The costumes, along with the dancing and the beers served by the litre, are all Bavarian traditions rather than German ones. To think of them as typically German would be like calling haggis and kilts “typically British”. It’s technically true, but it’s also plain wrong. 

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Hundreds of thousands of British football fans will have seen the depressed post-industrialism of the Ruhr, the joie de vivre of Catholic, carnival-loving Cologne, and the southern sun of Swabian Stuttgart. A number of different countries within a country.  

Germany is a patchwork nation. It borders nine different countries and is influenced by all of them. In Cologne most people would see themselves as western Europeans. Berlin is closer to Ukraine than it is to London. The country’s borders have also shifted dramatically in the 150 years since its founding as a nation state. In the first 70 years, Germany went from being an imperial monarchy to a republican democracy, before sliding into a genocidal fascist dictatorship and ultimately, being split in two for 40 years.

Since 1990, it has been a peaceful, reunified modern democracy, yet the scars of its history are still tangible and it remains a country with many different centres. The government may sit in Berlin, but Germany’s financial clout is in Frankfurt, its world-famous cars are built in Munich and Stuttgart and its export-heavy economy relies heavily on the rainy-as-Scandinavia port of Hamburg. 

As someone who writes about this patchwork Germany in English, it is my job in Played in Germany to boil down these complexities and give the English-speaking reader an insight into a country too often seen through the lens of tired cliché. Football is a good way to do so, because in a country so defined by regionalism, it is one of the few things which all Germans can agree on.  

At club level, football is a space where Germans can express their beloved regional identities. In Cologne, the local dialect has continued to thrive in part because it is a feature of the city’s fan culture. In Munich, even English players like Harry Kane are expected to don lederhosen and down a beer once a year at the Oktoberfest. The decline of proud old East German football clubs in cities like Leipzig, meanwhile, speaks volumes about the way the East still lags behind the rest of the country. 

Germany’s football history, after all, has run parallel to the country’s turbulent modern history. When the German Football Association was founded in Leipzig in 1900, Kaiser Wilhelm was still on the throne. West Germany’s first World Cup win in 1954 was the founding cultural moment for a new, democratic country as it rebuilt from the rubble of Nazism and war.

Their third World Cup win in 1990 came at the end of that process, just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a few months before German reunification was signed and sealed. When a reunified Germany hosted the World Cup in the fairytale summer of 2006, it marked a shift in the country’s image both at home and abroad. 

At the same time, football is also a snapshot of Germany as it exists today. At a time when the far-right are once again on the rise across Europe and the German team is captained by the son of Turkish immigrants, Euro 2024 has sparked fierce debates about race and national identity across German society.

Germany’s vibrant fan culture and supporter ownership model, meanwhile, means that it is often ordinary fans who are involved in discussions about who the game is for, how it is run and what it represents. To understand German football, you can’t just talk to the game’s superstars. You have to talk to the ordinary Germans who fill its stadiums every weekend.  

This summer, those Germans have once again welcomed visitors from across the world. To a country with many different identities, many different histories. Beyond the beer and the bratwurst, it is a chance for both hosts and visitors to ask: what does it really mean to be typically German? 

Played in Germany by Kit Holden is out now (Duckworth Books, £12.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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