The subject would be broached in the wake of the semi-final defeat at Euro 2012, and would continue to rumble through the summer as former footballers, coaches and politicians found themselves with something to say. The singing of the Nationalhymne, or rather, the matter of the Nationalhymne not being sung by some members of the German national team.
Even though I am not a German national, as a long time supporter of the Nationalmannschaft I have felt it completely normal to sing along when attending a match. Or even when part of a crowd of fellow supporters, for that matter. It puts one in the right mood, it warms the blood, it makes your hairs stand on end. Well at least that’s what I think about it. I have always believed that one one throws all their heart into belting out the national anthem, part of that passion spills out on the pitch. One may not necessarily play any better, but you will play with a greater depth of feeling.
But once again, that’s what I think about it.
The debate over the singing of the Nationalhymne has divided popular opinion in Germany. While there are those who believe that it means nothing and makes little or no difference to what happens out on the pitch, there are others who believe that it is an integral part of the build up towards a match where you are representing not just yourself but the country whose shirt you are wearing. Volker Bouffier, the Innenminister in the Land of Hessen, has stated that the singing of the national anthem “should be part of the etiquette”, and that “players should sing along”.
Such feelings are shared by German legends such as Franz Beckenbauer and Felix Magath, as well as many leading politicians.
Beckenbauer, perhaps the greatest player in Germany’s rich and distinguished football history, has publicly stated that those wearing the Nationaltrikot should pay the correct level of respect to the national anthem. Indeed, during his tenure as Nationaltrainer between 1984 and 1990, he made it compulsory that players stand up and sing the words – in stark contrast to his more laissez-faire predecessor Jupp Derwall who preferred to have his players deliver cold and icy stares as the band struck up.
In Beckenbauer’s mind the idea of the team singing the anthem together galvanised his players into delivering a better performance; indeed, in the words of Der Kaiser, “that’s how we became World Champions in 1990”. Of course, the passionate singing of the national anthem does not make a team invincible, but it can arguably push the players to give that extra one percent that might end up being the difference between winning and losing a major title. Or, perhaps, a European Championship semi-final.
For some, there would be no bigger example than the semi-final in Warsaw earlier this year, where a rather timid German team were harried, hassled and bundled out of the Euros by a passionate Italian side. An Italian side that, to a man, belted out their national anthem with an extraordinary and almost ethereal passion. Even as someone who was supporting Germany, I almost found myself shedding a tear just watching all eleven players standing proudly in their blue shirts providing their own rendition of Il Canto degli Italiani – especially Gianluigi Buffon, who looked as though he would have given Luciano Pavarotti a run for his money.
Compare this to many of the German team, who in some cases couldn’t even keep their eyes from wandering as the music was being played.
The difference between the two sides in Warsaw would be highlighted by former midfield great Magath. Writing in his column in the broadsheet Die Welt, the VfL Wolfsburg coach would be as strident in highlighting the fundamental differences in attitude between the two teams as he is when running his infamously harsh training sessions:
“Actually the semi-final between Italy and Germany was decided before the kick-off. When you look at how passionately the Italians sang their anthem, you can see the will that they showed in the next 95 minutes. This willingness to give everything, this devotion I didn’t see with Germany … It hurts because our team has the quality to become European champions. And I have to say, the ability to play was there, just not the mentality”.
It’s an old bugbear and one doesn’t really want to stick one’s hands into the fire too far for fear of getting them burned, but it was the case of the usual suspects. Özil, Khedira, Boateng, Podolski. Everyone else was at least making an effort, with the standout being goalkeeper Manuel Neuer – who by no great coincidence is one of the few players in this current German team who sings the Deutschlandlied with that “will to win” face that was often seen in the Beckenbauer era.
While the likes of Beckenbauer and Magath have clearly nailed their message to the door, none of them have actually gone as far as suggesting that players should be omitted from the national team. Bavarian Innenminister Joachim Herrmann on the other hand has been rather more steadfast, arguing that “The German national anthem belongs to international matches and to the national squad. If somebody cannot be bothered to sing it, he should stay in his local club”.
While this is unlikely to happen in liberal Germany where singing the Nationalhymne is widely seen as a matter of personal choice, in Serbia midfielder Adem Ljajić would be left out of the team for not singing the national anthem. Ljajić’s being a Muslim would not be a good enough reason: if he was good enough to play for Serbia and the Serbian FA were happy enough to include him, he could have done better than snub the millions of people he was chosen to represent.
Of course, it is difficult to broach this issue without stepping on well-trodden dodgy ground. Some would argue that that by singing the national anthem one is openly thumbing a snook at one’s own heritage, and that it is better to simply stand still with your mouth shut. This is certainly the position adopted by Polish-born Lukas Podolski – in stark contrast to Miroslav Klose, who despite also being born in Poland has no such problems remembering the words to the Deutschlandlied. Mesut Özil meanwhile would prefer to mumble words from the Qu’ran, Sami Khedira would maintain a blank expression, and Jérôme Boateng would allow his eyes to wander.
A player may choose not to sing the national anthem in order to avoid a family dispute, but one could argue that this is a superfluous argument given that he has decided to wear the German Nationaltrikot in the first place. They have chosen to play for Germany, wear the German shirt and represent the country: the least they can do is sing the national anthem. When a player is picked to play for their national team, it is more than being individual. They are representing eighty-two million Germans, and the German shirt should never be a symbol of convenience.
Ancestral heritage should be a non-issue. These players are wearing the German national shirt. They are playing for Germany. They are not German-Turkish, German-Polish or German-whatever. They are German. End of discussion. The biggest irony of course is that by not doing something as simple and undemanding as singing the national anthem, they are opening the court to the right-wing extremists who are usually quick to take advantage of the situation. “Look at them, not singing the national anthem”, would go the refrain. “It’s pretty clear that they can’t or do not wish to fit in”.
Perhaps being born in Germany and being allowed to grow up in such a liberal environment has tainted these young men slightly; it’s a case of “oh well, so what”. Compare this to the likes of the Brazilian-born Cacau, who had to earn his German passport – a man who sings the Nationalhymne with more gusto and passion than Herr Schmidt from Hamburg or Herr Steindl from München. The fact that Cacau has been provided with the nickname “Helmut” – the name of the archetypal German – is telling. While the nickname is clearly meant to be a joke, one can sense it is also just a little loaded. For some, it’s just not good form to do things like fly the flag or sing the Nationalhymne. For those on the fringes of the political left, after all, it just takes a nudge to turn such a happy flag-waver into a card-carrying Nazi.
Of course, this is just paranoid nonsense – best illustrated by the fact that the German flag was happily and easily requisitioned by the population during the 2006 World Cup, in much the same way as the Union flag has been brought back to the fore in Britain following the highly successful Olympic and Paralympic Games. Flags and anthems might be seen by some as divisive and jingoistic, but the obvious counter-argument is that they can just as easily be harnessed to promote both unity and a positive sense of inclusivity – the perfect antidote to those who may wish to claim these symbols for more nefarious reasons.
Would having everyone in the German team singing the Nationalhymne take the side to victory in Brazil in 2014? Probably not, as they will also need to play a little football too. But in terms of generating the right spirit that could take the team to victory, I’m all for it.