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What winning a world cup means to a nation

Germany's world football title in 2014, like India's cricket World Cup in 2011, exemplifies how sporting success translates to self-esteem

Bastian Schweinsteiger at a victory ceremony in Berlin in July 2014. Photo: Getty Images
Bastian Schweinsteiger at a victory ceremony in Berlin in July 2014. Photo: Getty Images

When Mario Götze struck the winning goal against Argentina at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro in the 2014 World Cup final, Germany ended a 24-year wait to be champions of football. It was their third title.

When M.S. Dhoni smacked a six off Nuwan Kulasekara in the 49th over of the 2011 cricket World Cup final in Mumbai, it may not have been as graceful as Götze’s effort, but it was certainly as glorious. India had ended a 28-year wait to win the World Cup, their first since 1983.

While football and cricket are far removed from each other, there is a common binding factor—the effect of World Cup wins. Every country that is seen as a superpower in a sport had a catalytic moment which changed everything.

India’s first World Cup win in 1983 was one such, sparking interest in a sport that became a saviour of national pride. Germany’s first title in world football came earlier—in 1954—and reignited hope and patriotism in a country that was suffering from the historical burden of World War II. More than just the trophies though, it is the stories behind these campaigns that play a role in determining how a country can capitalize on the aftermath of a world championship.

India had won just one match in World Cup history before 1983—against East Africa. As senior cricket writer Ayaz Memon puts it, “No one gave India a chance at the World Cup, not even in the final against the West Indies."

The odds were stacked 66:1 against Kapil Dev’s men but when Michael Holding was dismissed with the West Indies 43 runs short of the target, a new cricketing giant was born.

Maybe that is the grind a team needs to go through to mature into the long-term leader of a sport. There were no expectations of West Germany before their first title win in 1954. A recent visit to the German Football Museum in Dortmund proved that it is their most coveted football story—the guide spent the most time in front of relics from 1954 (including the players’ jerseys and boots) and had a wide range of anecdotes from the win, fondly known as “The Miracle of Bern".

He said the players were so sure of being knocked out early in the tournament that they didn’t take enough clothes to Switzerland, forcing some of them to ask their wives to send extras. Such were the odds against Germany that the sport’s governing body had already gifted the other finalist, Hungary, Swiss-made gold watches before the match—one of which can be seen at this museum.

A German fan. Photo: Getty Images

Hungary had already beaten Germany 8-3 in the group stages. They were led by the great Ferenc Puskás and were unbeaten in 32 internationals. There couldn’t have been a more lopsided final on paper. Hungary sprang into a 2-0 lead within 10 minutes, before Germany mounted one of the most ridiculous comebacks in history.

The Guardian’s recent look-back piece on the win cites comments from writer Friedrich Christian Delius and historian Joachim Fest. The former felt “a guilt-ridden, inhibited nation was suddenly reborn" while Fest said the win was the “true birth of the country". German football great Franz Beckenbauer said the country “regained its self-esteem".

India’s 1983 win had a massive impact on the country too. “It pumped a realization into the nation. There was a great sense of achievement, pride, and the pyramid base of cricketers became so strong that we can reap the rewards even today," says Memon, who covered the tournament for Sportsweek magazine.

An article on the ESPNcricinfo website on the win calls the aftermath a new awakening: “Seven of the players in the final were in their twenties. There had been no conscious call to youth, but just over a year after that win, India’s youngest Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took office. This was a new awakening, a reappraisal of long-held beliefs," Suresh Menon wrote.

Each World Cup win brings with it a unique set of dominoes—Germany’s triumph in 2014 was the culmination of unexpected losses since 1990 and the eventual realization that a plan was needed to produce world-class youth players who all hit their peak in Brazil that year. This was summed up in their 7-1 mauling of the home side in the semi-final—a confirmation of their pedigree and the mark of German perfection.

“It is really important that you question every situation and motivate yourself to learn from it," says Frederik Deters, who was part of Bundesliga club Werder Bremen’s youth system between 2003-05. “This (the sentiment to keep questioning performances even after winning the world title, to not rest on laurels) ambition didn’t exist after the win in 1990. Especially after winning a title, there is no time to lie back and relax. That is what went wrong after 1990. They needed 10 years to realize that from doing nothing there will be no success."

India’s World Cup win in 2011 had shades of the same golden-generation phenomenon. The win came after a disappointing defeat in the 2003 final and an embarrassingly early exit in 2007.

There is something unique that still lingers among German fans that only World Cup wins can help elevate. “I would say football is one of the only things in the last few decades that can give a kind of a feeling…of being a nation that can be proud of its success," says Eike Somborn, a 33-year-old lifelong Dortmund fan from Frankfurt.

For India, 2011 is special because it erased memories of their inability to win at home in 1987 and 1996. For Germany, hosting the 2006 edition unequivocally changed the national mood. A feature in The Washington Post in July 2014 says: “Even into the 1990s, flagpoles at schools were bare of the national flag and children weren’t taught the national anthem…" because “...the shadow of the past continued to dim every corner of life here."

Somborn adds, “It was okay to be a proud German again—something tabooed because of World War II. Since the 2006 World Cup, we hung out German flags from our balconies—something that was not really seen much before."

After spending nearly a week in the country, in Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Berlin, experiencing the Bundesliga culture in stadiums also presented the chance to speak with fans and football officials—the ones who matter the most and the ones who govern. It appears that the mood in Germany before the World Cup is one of quiet confidence—of assured excellence.

The tangible consequences of any nation winning a World Cup are the same—increased investments, better infrastructure, and broadening of the players talent pool, to name a few. The intangibles, however, are hugely different—because a World Cup win transforms the underdogs into favourites.

For Germany in 2018, it will be more of the same, but maybe this time there will be no rebirth of a nation. That bridge has been crossed. This time, they will look to reconfirm their footballing excellence, devoid of the weight of history.

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