There’s an everlasting link between soccer and stereotypical thinking about national identities.  This was widely in evidence once again during these last few weeks of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Examples range from the South African newspaper Sowetan suggesting that German international player Bastian Schweinsteiger has the “fearsome aura of Adolf Hitler” to the German Der Spiegel being overjoyed about the positive headlines about Germany in the English press. According to some English papers Germany had won the “Sympathy World Cup” and the team had created a new and positive image of the German people.

Now the World Cup reached its concluding climax with the final game between Spain and the Netherlands. This is a good opportunity for reflecting briefly on the strange but strong connection between football and ‘the nation’, or, in this case, between the world’s most popular sports event and nationalism. Especially in Germany (which is the focus of my contribution here), these phenomena have been so closely tied up with each other for such a long time that their relationship can now perhaps best be compared to a long but nevertheless functional marriage. In their teenage years they helped each other to become ingrained in the hearts of the Germans. Later, in 1954, after Germans for years had grappled with their shame over the crimes of the fascists during WW II, Germany’s World Cup victory provided their first real opportunity for linking national identity again with positive emotions. In the following decades football was the only societal context that allowed for the safe expression of intense feelings of nationhood. In most other contexts this was still frowned upon.

The importance of football for German nationhood became even clearer in the context of European unification and globalisation, which are processes that seem to have diminished the power of the nation-state. The 2006 World Cup, hosted by Germany, managed what generations of conservative policymakers had failed to achieve: it lifted the ban on patriotism. In a coup de main, it abolished the long existing taboo on displaying patriotic emotions. The notion of “German pride” became disconnected from the far right and entered mainstream discourse. Rather surprisingly, however, this did not lead to much euphoria among German far right politicians. These far right protagonists could not (or would not) identify with a German team that included players who came from immigrant families.

In 2010, too, the German team included such players. In fact, although in earlier times German teams had often included players with a family history in Turkey, Poland, or even Ghana or Brazil, the strategy of inclusion was never as apparent as in the 2010 squad, which included, in the starting eleven against Spain on Wednesday, six players whose parents had not been born in Germany. Some say that Mesut Özil has had a stronger effect on the integration of the Turkish population in Germany than most policy-making strategies so far. However, research about the effects of the composition of the World Cup team on attitudes towards minorities in Germany have led to contradictory conclusions. In 2007 Norbert Kersting, for example, examined representative data from a pre/post-World Cup census and concluded that xenophobia in Germany had indeed been reduced. Wilhelm Heitmeyer and his team, on the other hand, showed that the 2006 World Cup had led to a rise in what he calls “group based enmity”. They concluded that even if things had been framed in positive, non-exclusive terms, for many viewers the World Cup still had been about “us” against “the others”.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa has revealed yet another dimension of the Janus-faced character of football. Observers argue that it has intensified economic inequality and racial gaps in society. There are many poor, unemployed South Africans who have hardly had any profit from the World Cup. In fact, they have lost: hospitals have turned into media centres and huge amounts of the state’s budget have been spent on stadiums and infrastructure. This is money that hasn’t served to educate or feed or nurse anyone in the lower classes of the country.

Yet most people I spoke to during my recent visit in South Africa were euphoric about the World Cup. Yesterday’s edition of the Sowetan, which in pre-democracy times was one of the most important anti-apartheid newspapers, summarized the matter as follows: “What a glorious 31 days it has been!… Not even the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections were as electrifying. Important and epoch-making as both these events were, they were not as unifying as this World Cup seems to have been.” We can only hope that the end of the World Cup in South Africa won’t be marred by a rise in the number of xenophobic assaults against migrants from other African countries, as some have predicted.

In sum, one could perhaps say that the ambiguity of football is a familiar one: many things in life can be good as well as bad. But in the case of football, when it’s good, it’s also a lot of fun.

Sven Ismer is a research collaborator at the Freie Universität BerlinThe Cognitive and Affective Sociology Network.