German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (center) may have the best name in sports. (Reuters)
Somewhere between Gdansk and Warsaw
A very strange thing happened the past two weeks as I traipsed through Poland covering the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.
There I was oohing over the latest Mario Gomez goal for Germany, salivating over the way Mesut Özil quarterbacks the German attack from the middle of the field with grace and calm, and screaming "SCHWEINSTEIGER" inside my head (there is no better name in sports right now) each time the steely midfielder plants for one of his lightning strikes at the goal.
And don't get me started on the Germans' dashing, Zen master coach Joachim Löw—the George Clooney of international soccer, only better looking, and seemingly more humble and philosophical.
To understand just how weird a development this is, understand that for Jewish-Americans of a certain age (I'm 42), rooting for Germany isn't how our fathers, grandfathers and Hebrew School teachers raised us.
Growing up in the 1970s, the wounds of World War II were still raw. I have friends whose parents were Holocaust survivors. They almost never talked about their experiences, but their silent memories hung in their homes. One of my parents' closest friends spent the war first in the Lodz ghetto in occupied Poland, then survived a concentration camp by lying about his age. His father, mother and brother were killed there. Every so often a local temple would circulate a flier inviting people to come hear another talk from a survivor. "Never forget," we were told.
For most Americans, the Soviets were the great enemy on the playing fields of international sports during this era. We Jews felt this, too. The Russians hadn't been very nice to us either, driving so many of our grandparents and greatgrandparents from their villages in Eastern Europe and making it difficult for those still there to practice their religion.
But for young Jewish-Americans, the athletes from what was then democratic West Germany remained a group we met with deep suspicion. Something about the pressed uniforms, the perfect physiques and the trademark efficiency of their performances made them a little scary, even if their political leaders garnered our admiration. Pulling for Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl was fine. Rooting for Karl-Heinz Rummenigge wasn't.
And yet, 30 years later, here I am feeling downright giddy at the prospect of the Germans winning their first European title since the 1990s. They play Italy in the semifinals Thursday.
For starters, they are a wonder to watch. While Spain's "tiki-taka" triangular passing style remains the game's intellectual apotheosis, the Germans are nothing short of thrilling, combining creative passing with lightning speed and astounding athleticism. If the essence of quality soccer is the "one-two," the equivalent of basketball's give-and-go, the Germans have become the masters of the one-two-three-four-and-five.
Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (say it loud! With your best German accent!) wins the ball with a perfect slide tackle. He feeds Özil in the midfield, who passes to a cutting Sami Khedira, who touches it to Jerome Boateng overlapping on the wing, who sends a cross in to Gomez, who heads the ball to Lukas Podolski, who volleys into the net.
No team can deliver the ball from their own end to the back of the opponent's net so often with the speed of the Germans.
It wasn't always this way. For years, the Nationalmannschaft, as the team is known, was a pillar of organization and fairly boring soccer played by a homogenous group.
Now the Germans feature a lineup that includes Özil, who is Turkish; Boateng, whose father is Ghanaian; Gomez, who is of Spanish descent; Podolski, who was born in Poland, and Miroslav Klose, who is half-Polish.
Since 2006, this diverse group has been molded together by Löw, the subject of my embarrassing man-crush. Wearing his dapper tailored slacks and open-collared shirts, he celebrates goals with the joy of a child, his hair flopping over his forehead.
Then, just when the Germans appear they are becoming a too predictable and efficient machine, Löw sends out a lineup for the quarterfinal against Greece with three of his stars—Gomez, Podolski and Thomas Muller—on the bench. "We needed to be unpredictable," he explained. "It's OK to be cheeky."
Löw somehow manages to come off more as a supportive parent than a cocky national coach declaring superiority. "I thought we were wonderful tonight," he said after the win Friday over Greece. He appears the antithesis of all those top college and professional coaches in the U.S. who seem to use their jobs as a means to building a personal brand and gaining $100,000 appearance fees to motivate corporate sales forces.
And yet, there is a part of me that is stricken with guilt about this. Somewhere Tevye from "Fiddler on the Roof" is telling me some traditions must not change. After all, a major part of international soccer—especially European soccer—is the bizarre way it brings up the old geopolitical rivalries from the middle of the 20th century. That can be scary, too, as when Russian fans unfurled the massive banner of a warrior against words "This Is Russia" before the match against Poland earlier in the tournament.
With that in mind, I shared my guilt-ridden admiration for the Germans with my father, who knows nothing about soccer but a lot about history. To my surprise, he said he felt this generation of Germans has earned our forgiveness, and even our support in sports. They had decided to build an education center and monument about the Holocaust on some of the most expensive land in Berlin. That was the turning point for him.
In other words, make room on the German bandwagon. I want a seat.
Sort of.—Jason Gay is on vacation.
A version of this article appeared June 25, 2012, on page B8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A New Take on Germany.