‘We could be in 2006 again’: Germany recalls glory days as it hosts Euro 2024

<span>German fans celebrate in Berlin in 2006.</span><span>Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP</span>
German fans celebrate in Berlin in 2006.Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

Sometimes a goal can lift not just the crowd inside a stadium but an entire nation. It was 18 years ago that Germany’s left-back, Philipp Lahm, took a punt from outside the penalty area that pinged off the Costa Rican upright into the back of the net, just six minutes into the opening game of the 2006 World Cup, which Germany was hosting.

Lahm’s wonder goal kickstarted a competition that has gone down in German folklore as the “summer fairytale”: four balmy weeks in which Germany cast aside its gloomy, world-weary tendencies and shed its sporting image as a joyless juggernaut. Even though eventual winners Italy cut the fairytale short – and perhaps precisely because there wasn’t a dream ending for the host nation, the tournament left behind a country transformed in the eyes of the world: less threatening, more friendly and more at ease with itself and its past.

Yet as Europe’s largest economy prepares to host another major football tournament, the 2024 Uefa European Football Championship, the carefree weightlessness of 2006 is once again hard to come by.

“You wouldn’t think we are a week away from a major tournament being hosted here,” said Musa Okwonga, a British football writer and podcast host who has lived in Berlin since 2014. “At previous tournaments, not just at the World Cup 2006 but even at the Euros in 2016, there was a vibrancy on the streets. The energy felt really different.”

A survey carried out by Augsburg’s Institute for Generation Research back in April found that every fifth German citizen questioned had no idea that Germany was about to host a major sporting event. In the same survey, 88% said that people were more captivated by football tournaments in the past.

An ad released by sportswear maker Adidas to launch the German team’s tournament kit pokes fun at the lack of excitement in the buildup. “What do you think of the new jersey?” a young man asks his friend as he grabs a drink from the fridge of a corner shop. The girl shrugs and barely looks up from her phone. “Well, it’s typically German,” she says.

Yet much of the doubtful mood in the country has to do precisely with the fact that old certainties about what is “typically German” no longer hold.

“Typically German” used to mean a resilient economic motor chugging away at the core of the European Union. Last year Germany was the only industrial nation that did not record any growth, having slipped into recession in the first three months of the year. In March this year, a group of leading German economic thinktanks revised their growth forecast down from 1.2% to near-stagnation, at 0.1% for the year.

High energy prices and production costs have brought fears of industrial decline. According to this spring’s Eurobarometer survey, only 14% of those questioned in Germany believe that the economic situation will improve over the next 12 months, fewer than in most other EU states.

“Typically German” used to mean a consensus-seeking approach to industrial relations and policymaking, but over the last 12 months the country has seen a series of strikes by train drivers, freight carriers and agricultural workers, and a coalition government whose three parties seem at odds on everything from climate measures and transport policy to military aid for Ukraine.

Winning also used to be seen as a typically German habit, especially at football tournaments, but in sport too there is a sense that the formulas of old can no longer be relied upon. “We’ve had first-round exits at the last two World Cups, which is as embarrassing as it gets,” said Omid Nouripour, co-leader of the German Green party.

After sacking coach Hansi Flick nine months before the start of the tournament and bringing in the young former Bayern Munich manager Julian Nagelsmann, the Nationalmannschaft lost two of its first four games. Even in Nouripour’s home town, Frankfurt, where the German football association is headquartered, “the mood among the fans was terrible”.

Like most German football fans, Eintracht Frankfurt supporter Nouripour is still dreamy-eyed when recalling the halcyon summer of 2006: “‘A time to make friends’ wasn’t just the tournament’s official motto – we absolutely meant it and lived it,” he said. “In several ways, it was the summer in which Germany managed to make peace with itself.”

Waving the black-red-gold tricolour used to be seen by many Germans as an expression of crass and dubious nationalism, but that summer the flag was all over the country, flying from cars and windows and painted on smiling faces.

Nouripour’s Green party was out of power at the time, its first spell as a governing coalition partner to Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats cut short by a snap election nine months earlier. “When the tournament started, we were still having a hard time finding our place in opposition, and it was a bit painful to see all that enthusiasm was associated with Merkel instead of us,” he said.

The heyday of the Angela Merkel era coincides neatly with the German football team’s period of dominance under coach Jogi Löw, who was promoted from assistant to head coach after the home tournament.

While Löw led Germany to its fourth World Cup title in 2014, Germany’s economy rediscovered its stride in the first half of Merkel’s tenure. Its industry opened up new markets in Europe, North America and China, exports soaring to new records at the start of the 2010s. Despite a sharp decline in GDP in 2008 and 2009, Germany experienced only marginal increases in unemployment during the global recession.

Both Löw and Merkel in their own way asserted that Germany could be diverse and successful at the same time. The spine of the team that claimed the title in 2014 had players of Ghanian, Tunisian and Turkish descent. Germany’s first female chancellor, though always sceptical of multiculturalism in its Anglo-Saxon laissez-faire sense, was unwavering in her belief that her country should and could shelter and integrate more than a million new arrivals during the 2015 refugee crisis. In a final moment of synchronicity, the chancellor and the coach stepped down from their roles the same year, in 2021.

In hindsight, the stability of the Merkel-Löw era may have masked structural problems that have come to haunt their respective successors since. German naivety in dealings with Russia, exemplified by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project pursued by Merkel, have not just been decried by Nouripour’s Green party, which has governed with Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democratic party since 2021.

“There are some parallels to football,” the environmental party’s co-leader said. “The World Cup in 2006 was considered such a success that the German FA didn’t dare tinker with the formula over the decade that followed.” He cited the German football academy system’s failure to produce modern strikers comparable to Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland.

“It feels like German politics and German football went stale around the same time,” said Musa Okwonga, who co-presents the Stadio football podcast. “It was around 2018 that the national team missed the point where it should have gone for a complete change of guard. And once you signal a lack of creativity, the predators start snapping at your heels. For Merkel, that was certainly also the case after the AfD [far-right Alternative für Deutschland] entered parliament in 2017.”

Yet for all the doom and gloom in 2024, it’s easy to forget that the mood in Germany was similarly downcast before the 2006 tournament.

Economic stagnation, high unemployment and an acrimonious debate about labour market reforms in the early noughties had earned the country the label the “sick man of Europe”. In a Eurobarometer survey in spring 2006, German respondents were the most pessimistic out of 25 EU members when asked about their hopes for the next five years, with only 25% saying they were optimistic about the future.

Then as now, the glory days of German football looked to have passed. The national team had played poorly in 1998, failed at the group stages in the 2000 and 2004 European championships, and lost 4-1 to Italy in a warm-up friendly a few weeks before the tournament start. “The whole world is laughing at our losers,” wrote tabloid Bild at the time. Yet all that was forgotten when Philipp Lahm’s rocket found the top-right corner.

As Germany’s opening match against Scotland on Friday 14 June has come into view, there are still hopes that the Euros might create a summer to remember after all. After a hit-and-miss start under Nagelsmann, who is only 36, the national side has shown flashes of promise. Veteran Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos has come out of retirement for his final tournament while other 2014 World Cup winners, like the Dortmund defender Mats Hummels, have been dropped, allowing younger players to step up.

There was a brief taster of that summer fairytale feeling when one of these youngsters, the 21-year-old Leverkusen midfielder Florian Wirtz, scored a Lahm-esque thunderbolt just seven seconds into a friendly match against France in March.

Even the musical jingle that has been played at recent Germany matches has spoken of a less tense mood, or at least the yearning for one. After a fan petition, the German FA last week announced Peter Schilling’s 1982 hit Major Tom as its official goal anthem – a song that tells the story of an astronaut who leaves his troubles on planet Earth behind and drifts off into space, “completely untethered […] completely weightless”.

If that sounds too on the nose, consider that the DJ whose eurotrance track Kernkraft 400 accompanied the German national side’s lead-footed phase over the previous five years went under the moniker Zombie Nation.

“The funny thing is, it really feels like we could be in 2006 again after all,” said Okwonga. “Germany has an exciting young coach and a team that really feels like the best the country has to offer.

“I’ve spent a lot of the last few weeks trying to convince Germans how good their team actually is, because they didn’t want to believe me. That in itself feels like a metaphor for the state of the nation.”