Germany's Nervous, Totally Ambivalent Reaction to Its World Cup Win

A championship is usually a chance to gloat. But on Sunday, the German national team was restrained. "It was 10 years' hard work," German coach Joachim Löw said. "I can't really celebrate yet," the defender Mats Hummels said, following the match. "I'm still in another world."

German analysts have followed suit. "It was simply this team's turn to win the title," Marko Schumacher wrote for the Stuttgarter Zeitung on Monday. Michael Horeni, of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, echoed Löw: "This wonderful success is no miracle.... The foundation for this victory was laid a good 10 years ago." 

Germany is happy to win. But Germany -- considering its effort, its teamwork, and its experience -- also feels like it had it coming. And to have it coming is to shrug the shoulders, not to boast.

The general humility of the German team and the restraint of columnists in the major newspapers don't quite fit with the nationalist imagery that has proliferated around the country during the World Cup. On Sunday morning, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran a black and red cover plastered with the eagle of the Deutscher Fußball-Bund, or German Football Association, already sporting a fourth championship star -- a move daring for both its presumption of victory in a game that hadn't taken place yet and for its loud use of national iconography. Police cars have been seen driving with flags held from their windows, in a symbolic display that would have been taboo two decades ago. The Washington Post claimed on Sunday that German celebrations "seemed to mark a new leap forward here, moving Germany down a path toward a 21st-century relationship with patriotism and identity."

Triumph has dangerous connotations in German history, and recent displays of patriotism have raised the ire of some commentators. On Monday, Spiegel columnist Jakob Augstein compared Bastian Schweinsteiger's return to the field, blonde and bleeding after an injury late in the game, to the 1977 war movie Cross of Iron, in which a German soldier returns to the Eastern Front following hospitalization, willing to risk his health for his comrades. Germans wouldn't benefit, Augstein suggested, from the sight of a martyr to any type of national cause, even an athletic one.

For Augstein, the political lessons of Germany's World Cup victory are clear: Athletic successes shouldn't bleed into nationalism, which he sees as inevitably tied to a militarized and overly aggressive foreign policy.  "The meister [champions] from Germany should use their new confidence carefully," he wrote. This warning is explicit, but its connotations are dark, and perhaps a little heavy-handed. Augstein isn't referring only to Germany's new status as Weltmeister, or world champions. He is also alluding to the refrain from Paul Celan's famous Holocaust poem, "Death Fugue": Death is a master [meister] from Germany.

But what is the political content of the German national team, anyway? Bastian Schweinsteiger has a scary haircut and an Aryan jaw line, but this year he's taken the time to console players from losing teams. After Germany's win, Schweinsteiger pantomimed a kiss with a teammate of Polish descent. If anything, the composition of the Mannschaft, as the national team is known, has encouraged tolerance, not exclusion: Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, and Jerome Boateng -- all of at least partial non-European descent -- have become some of Germany's biggest stars, and through them immigrant groups have identified with Germany's native-born population.

The sense of unease in Monday's commentary testifies to the worry that accomplishments on the soccer field might lead to the kind of nationalism that once fueled Nazi aggression, despite Germany's staunch postwar commitment to a modest, often anti-war role on the world stage. Germany is an economic superpower, but it refused to join Western airstrikes in Libya, opposed the war in Iraq, and has positioned itself as a broker between Russia and the West in the current crisis in Ukraine.

No one is claiming that the German win over Argentina is about to spark an invasion of France, but it is perhaps a uniquely German phenomenon that the feelings sparked by athletic triumph be linked with an old and rejected brand of nationalism that once led to war. For decades, German political expression has been a balancing act -- between enthusiasm and restraint, pride and humility. On Sunday, the apparent contradictions of those priorities were gracefully smoothed over. "The team remained calm and patient," captain Philipp Lahm said after the match. Earlier, he had walked to the top of Maracanã Stadium to hoist the trophy, and to meet the chancellor.

That same sense of calm isn't evident among some of the German commentariat.

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How Microsoft Perfectly Predicted the World Cup's Final Stage

Germany's World Cup win over Argentina on Sunday wasn't just a victory for the German national team -- it was also a victory for Microsoft's big-data team. Over the course of the World Cup's knockout stage, Microsoft correctly predicted the outcome of every match in the tournament's final rounds, including picking the Germans to win it all.

For Microsoft's big-data team, soccer is just one of the many fields that it hopes number crunching can help it dominate. The Microsoft team has trained its analytical powers on a variety of events, from determining selections in the NBA draft to the outcome of reality TV shows like American Idol and The Voice. The predictions have been impressive and in some cases perfect. In a prediction for the 2014 Oscars, the model correctly picked 21 out of 24 award winners, including those honored in all of the major categories.

Meanwhile, the World Cup model has turned heads, beating rivals like Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog, which had hometown Brazil taking home the trophy. "I approach modeling the World Cup the same I would any other event," David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft and an architect of its World Cup model, said in an interview. "The trick is to make a forecast that cuts out subjectivity and lets the data do the talking."

Predictive mathematical models are hardly new, but they are becoming increasingly more accurate. As big data in sports continues to gain notoriety, crossover into other avenues is inevitable. "The exact same infrastructure that goes into sports forecasts is the same stuff that will allow us to answer business and international policy questions," argues Rothschild. Already, similar models to Microsoft's World Cup predictor are being employed in other areas. "Sports are fun, but we can use the same techniques to predict elections or watch stocks. It's all about analyzing the raw data," says Rothschild.

Rothschild was deliberately vague about how the algorithm works, but attributed its success to the mountains of data Microsoft was able to sponge up as the World Cup dragged on. As data snowballed by the time of the knockout round, Rothschild had enough information on player and team performance to properly calibrate his model and adjust his forecasts for the coming matches. While other World Cup models remained fixed on pre-tournament statistics, Rothschild's was constantly being updated with each match.

In many ways, this type of modeling is the inevitable byproduct of the current information age, where the ability to analyze data is finally catching up to the ability to collect it. Not only do analysts have more information than ever to work with for their models, but they also have the technology to compute it into something coherent -- in a fraction of the time. "A few years ago I would have to wait until each game is over to access all the stats," recalls Rothschild. "Now, it is being sent automatically in real time, which makes our models better adjusted and more accurate."

That brings Microsoft into competition with other stats wonks like Silver. Although his World Cup model didn't fare too well, Silver shot to fame through his startlingly accurate predictions of the 2012 elections. Similar big-data analyses are being deployed in business, government, economics, and social science.

But the quest for perfection in predictive analytics is elusive. Microsoft's track record during the World Cup is a testament to the strength of the team's model, and its success is making a compelling case for the power of big data.

Though as Silver has learned, models are great only until they aren't.

Photo by UAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images