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Truth in engineering: how Germany beat Brazil and won a fanbase in China

Big in Beijing. Marcus Brandt/EPA

It is entirely predictable that the famous Audi advertisement and its tagline, “Vorsprung durch Technik”, came to mind while watching Germany’s epic World Cup victory over Brazil. In fact, using this tagline is as predictable as the German victory over Brazil was unpredictable: football history’s greatest sons, the nation that coined the phrase “the beautiful game”, dispatched into oblivion with ruthless teutonic efficiency.

In the US, the interpretation of the Audi tagline is: “Truth in Engineering”. It was therefore entirely appropriate that I watched last night’s game at Purdue University in Indiana, where many people actually found the reality of football’s new truth somewhat difficult to comprehend.

The audience was an interesting mix: large numbers of Asian students, particularly Chinese and Indian, with some Americans and various people from other parts of the world. The sense was of a group anticipating a feast of samba football – sunshine and smiles, with the glamour boys of Brazil progressing through to the World Cup final.

But this Brazil team have not been purveyors of jogo bonito. Gone are the days of a smiling Ronaldinho and Brazil has moved beyond samba on as well as off the pitch. This has been a snarling, vengeful Seleção, all elbows and crunching tackles. And with last night’s defeat, one has to acknowledge the Brazil we have loved has finally been laid to rest.

Chinese cheers

By the time the final nail had gone into the coffin – when Andre Schürrle hit the seventh German goal – most of those present at Purdue had already gone home. There was, however, a sizeable group of Chinese people left in front of the big screen. Unlike most of the other groups present, the Chinese fans seemed unperturbed. And no wonder.

Last year, we surveyed nearly 16,000 fans in China to find out which national team they supported. Just over 1,000 of them said Brazil, who were not even the most popular team in South America – that honour going instead to Argentina (with nearly 1,400 responses). Europe’s teams did far better than their South American counterparts: England (remember them?), drew nearly 2,400 responses; Spain just over 2,400; Italy almost 2,500; with China’s favourite national team (even more popular than China itself) being Germany (registering more than 3,100 responses).

So, as you read this piece, the locals of Shanghai, Shenzhen and Shenyang may still be dancing in the streets following “their” boys‘ triumph last night. Yet this seems like such an unusual alliance. Why, when faced with a choice of Messi or Mertesacker, would the Chinese come over all emotional for the latter? And why, when they could have chosen the brooding Italian philosopher Andrea Pirlo, did the Chinese instead decide that they actually prefer the wide-eyed innocence of Mesut Ozil?

Supporting success

In general terms, our research found that the Chinese like teams with a history of success, and the Germans are arguably the most ruthlessly efficient World Cup performers of all time. Champions three times; runners-up four times; and third place three times. Plus, there is a very good chance that Germany could make the 2014 tournament their fourth win. Basking in reflected glory is also something that Chinese fans like: when the national team they support does well, it makes them look good among family, friends and work colleagues.

But there is also something for the Chinese too based on favourite clubs and favourite players. In our study, Arsenal came out as currently being the most popular club team among football fans. Indeed, there were no German teams in sight of them – English, Italian and Spanish clubs are much more popular than the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. This might appear somewhat paradoxical: they like German players and the German national team, but not German clubs.

This is though where the Arsenal connection is important; after all, you get the glitz and the glamour of the Premier League, and the kudos as a fan of being associated with some of Germany’s leading players. The Gunners may not have intended Ozil, Mertesacker and Podolski to be the club’s point of entry into the Chinese market, but that’s exactly what they have become.

Perhaps even more surprising is the importance of Mesut Ozil who, among some female Chinese fans, is seen as being something of a sex symbol. This may come as a surprise to some, but when I quizzed some of my Chinese students about the unlikely perception of Ozil in China, one reply was: “He is now in China what Beckham used to be here.”

So it was a boy-like assassin and a club from North London that did for football’s most iconic national team. During those long winter nights later in the year, you can attribute your fading memories of Pele, Zico and Ronaldo to Arsene Wenger and Germany’s Gastarbeiter scheme. Keep in mind too, that while our historic notions of Brand Brazil have now been laid to rest, so the enduring reputation of German efficiency, “Vorsprung durch Technik” and “Truth in Engineering” continues to grow.

Perhaps we might even see a remake of German band Alphaville’s 1984 track “Big in Japan”, retitled “Big in China”, thanks to a third-generation Turkish-German and an unsurpassed World Cup track-record.

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