For the host country Germany, next month’s football World Cup is about a lot more than its (pretty slim) chances of lifting the trophy. An image overhaul for Europe’s largest economy is the prize in its sights.
Robert Rode, a Berlin bus driver, understands the scale of the challenge. A stocky man with a strong local accent who speaks little English, he was one of 4,000 drivers who recently struggled through a “World Cup language course.”
Taking a break from learning how to guide fans through Berlin, he says that, despite the tongue-twisting, the course was worth it. “When people arrive in Berlin, say at the airport or main station, and the first German they talk to is a bus driver who either cannot understand them or tells them to go and ask someone else, then that doesn’t create a very good impression.”
Mr Rode is in good company. True to the tournament motto “A time to make friends”, chancellor Angela Merkel and her government, leading companies and cultural organisations and dozens of local authorities, have planned thousands of initiatives in the most ambitious attempt by a country to alter the way it is viewed.Ms Merkel heralded the tournament as “a unique chance for Germany to present itself as a welcoming, tolerant and modern country, bursting with ideas”.
But as teams arrive in Germany this week ahead of kick-off on June 9, a senior German official is disarmingly candid. “The world generally sees us in a positive, but one-sided way. A bit like the cars and household goods for which we are famous, Germans are seen as efficient, reliable but a touch boring.”
“We need to show we are more than this: friendly, surprising and fun”. At stake is more than national amour propre. The transformation is seen as vital if Berlin is to maximise the country’s post-reunification potential on the world stage.
The business community alone has invested more than €10m ($12.8m £6.8m) to promote Germany as a “Land of Ideas”. “An opportunity of this kind will not return for another 50 years,” says Franz Beckenbauer, president of the German tournament organising committee.
Since 1990, Germany has stepped up its public diplomacy, as it has increased its role in international peacekeeping operations and intensified efforts to gain a permanent United Nations Security Council seat.Its World Cup campaign marks not only a new milestone in its engagement with the world but also a form of laboratory experiment in whether image offensives work.
Many are sceptical. A German ambassador, who declined to be named, argues: “You can’t market a country like a washing powder. To believe you can just tell others that, all of a sudden we [Germans] have become funny and good looking, is wrong. You can’t deceive people.”
Germany’s endeavour, which started three years ago, includes a €30m arts programme linking soccer and culture: a “friendly service campaign” involving handbooks on how to welcome foreign guests; and giant sculptures in Berlin of football boots and aspirins to illustrate the wonders of German creativity.
Attempts to stir national pride raise some discomfiting parallels, however. “You can’t conquer history, or wash it away by just being happy,” says Ulrich Maly, mayor of Nuremberg, the city infamous for Hitler’s Nazi party rallies where England is due to play one of its games.
Meanwhile, Volker Perthes, director of Berlin’s Institute for International and Security Affairs, points out that in 20 years, West Germany went from post-war international pariah to economic beacon – only to see its attempt to present a more open face to the world go “terribly wrong” when Israeli athletes were murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics
.Germany’s campaign is part of a broader debate on the value of public diplomacy and “soft power” – the tools increasingly used by national governments to deepen their influence without resorting to economic and military might.
Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and author of Soft Power: the means to success in world politics, argues that it can be used to complement traditional diplomacy. “Tangible threats or payoffs” are replaced by initiatives to influence stereotypes about a country, for example.
According to an internal German government strategy paper seen by the Financial Times, this approach was partly behind the decision to use the World Cup to alter Germany’s image abroad. “States are increasingly in competition for markets, tourists . . . value systems and political influence”, and in this context “Germany must take a position”, the paper argues.
It notes that foreigners’ images of Germany often “lack emotion” and “exclude the [country’s] more dynamic developments over the last 20-30 years”.
“Emotional aspects, such as street cafes in Munich . . . [German] lifestyle brands such as Adidas and Boss, and the happiness of reunification in 1989/90” need to be emphasised, the paper concludes
.In a section on “Germany’s Image Abroad”, Michael Reiffenstuel of the foreign office enthuses that the World Cup provides a “unique communications opportunity”.
Germany is not the first country to attempt a national makeover. Britain tried – with limited success – to repackage itself as “Cool Britannia” early in Tony Blair’s premiership.Japan, co-host with South Korea of the 2002 World Cup, ran a less elaborate image campaign than Germany’s. But visitors were surprised to find a country more vibrant and accessible than many had expected. The Japanese government has since deployed “soft power” to exploit the popularity of manga cartoons and Japanese design and fashion. The number of tourists has noticeably increased – in part the result of an official tourism campaign but also reflecting a “word-of-mouth” effect from the World Cup.
In Germany the jury is out on the campaign’s impact. Nathalie Thiemann-Huguet, of the business-led Land of Ideas programme, says the giant sculptures in Berlin have become a “major tourist attraction”, while about 2,000 foreign journalists have registered to use pictures and TV footage on “positive aspects of Germany’s economy and society”. Yet a series of organisational and other problems that have blighted tournament preparations have brought negative media coverage. Most recently, Ms Merkel was forced to allay concerns in the United States Congress that Germany was ignoring an alleged rise in illegal trafficking of prostitutes for the tournament. Worst of all was last month’s apparent racist attack that left a young Ethiopian man in a coma.
Experts argue that such incidents are unlikely to undermine Germany’s broader campaign, but that this must in turn be seen as only one element in reshaping its image. Ulrich Sacker of the Goethe-Institut, Germany’s overseas cultural agency, says the World Cup will remain in the minds of tens of millions of global television viewers. “We have to surprise people, make them think: ‘Germany is different to the country I imagined’,” he says.
Mr Perthes believes government campaigns can only ever have a modest impact, given the post-Cold War complexity of public diplomacy. But rhetorically posing the question “will the country’s image after the World Cup return to the cliche about the ugly German?”, he provides his own, upbeat answer: “I don’t think so. At least something from the campaign will stick.”