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Team Germany has cast off some of its old anxieties

Opinion: The country is more tolerant, diverse and happy with itself than many realise

Fans celebrate at a public screening of the World Cup final in Berlin. Photograph: Reuters

Everyone is familiar with Germany’s fabled engineering brains, the ones that turn out high-end cars, kitchens and, for decades, dominated German football.

In sport, as in business, being solid, reliable and efficient were watchwords for German identity, a safe path to tread in the postwar decades. Indeed the German brain was so successful that its light, romantic heart was consigned to the deep freeze for fear of being corrupted again.

It was as World Cup hosts in 2006 that the teutonic tectonic plates first began to shift. A young generation of national footballers cast off their predecessors’ leaden boots, let themselves go and allowed the light of what had been lost shine through again.

For football fans visiting Germany, many for the first time, this lighter Germany was the biggest surprise during a fun and sunny month. But no one was more surprised than the Germans themselves. Taking their cue from the 2006 national side, the young generations at public viewing parties – at the Brandenburg Gate and around the country – cast off the historic heaviness of being German to delight in their lighter, romantic soccer selves. To misquote the late Seamus Heaney, it was a rare moment when fans and football rhymed.

Two World Cups on, many people have linked German success to their re-engineered training methods and youth academies. But the story is bigger than that. Their game changed because their country changed too. On Sunday, Germany’s unification generation – Team Thomas Müller, born in 1989 – lifted the World Cup and opened the sluice gate to allow pride in their retooled national game seep back into a proud society.

What has changed? For decades this country was a closed shop, a place where the law of the land made German nationality synonymous with your heritage: you were either born German or you weren’t.

‘Wall in the head’ The Schröder government dragged those laws into the 21st century to allow anyone who lives here, engages here and wants to succeed here to be a German citizen. It’s still a long way from the American dream, but the breath of fresh air was overdue and very welcome.

Now Germany has newsreaders and politicians of Turkish origin alongside footballers like Mesut Özil, who are recognised more for their talent rather than their heritage. And 25 years after German unification, the infamous “wall in the head” has finally been overcome. In World Cups past, Michael Ballack was praised as the East German-born footballer turned national captain – in that order. This time around Toni Kroos is simply a good footballer who happens to come from Greifswald, in the former east. Germany is Einig Fussballland, a united land of football.

Germany’s media are finally catching up with what its people have known for some time: the country is far more diverse, tolerant and happy in itself than many realised. On a happiness scale of one to 10, devised by ARD public television last November, the notoriously dissatisfied Germans averaged a respectable 7.5.

As the euro crisis peaked, there were times when that progress came under threat. A revival of national stereotypes, in politics and in the media, war marked by wartime reparation demands in Greece and one Irish newspaper warning of Germany’s renewed “urge to dominate”. But beyond a boom in black humour public opinion towards Germany appears to have moved on from postwar prejudice.

Two years ago, with Ireland still in its bailout programme, respondents to an Irish Times survey thought Germany was either doing just enough or was being expected to do too much in the crisis. A recent BBC survey indicated that 59 per cent of respondents, in 22 countries, found Germany’s influence in the world to be largely positive – the highest rating of any country in response to this question. And let’s not forget that the Pew survey suggested German chancellor Angela Merkel was the world’s most popular leader. Slowly, even the British tabloids are realising that their comic-book German cliches don’t cut the mustard any more. With quiet satisfaction, the German media noted the absence of British “Achtung Fritz!” and “Blitzkrieg” headlines after the 7:1 triumph over Brazil.

Anyone worried that World Cup win will go to German heads should relax. Success and Germany are uneasy bedfellows. Germans may smear black-red-gold face paint on their cheeks, but they also worry, as Bild did on Saturday, that the cheap paint might be carcinogenic.

‘Relaxed nation’ Their national side did them proud, but national pride in Germany is still

served in small shot glasses, on special occasions.

This remains the homeland of “country on the couch” journalism, as in this week’s Der Spiegel. Nine journalists fanned out across the country to examine if and why Germany was now a “relaxed nation” – an enterprise that speaks volumes. While the German media looks for cues for Germany’s “normality”, its people accept themselves as they are.When German trainer Joachim Löw said Sunday’s win would generate “a deep feeling of happiness for all time”, he meant both a decade of training on the field, and a quarter century of reimagining Germany.

This was the country where Nuala O’Faoilain chose to take her final trip, a place where readers had embraced her memoir Are You Somebody? for its mix of bravado and insecurity.

Yesterday Der Spiegel asked this confident, triumphant but self-scrutinising nation on its front cover: “Are we once again . . . somebodies?”