RIO DE JANEIRO -- It's time to say what could not be said 70 years ago, what nobody ever said even 24 years ago, what a trickle of people started saying this young century, and what some people would consider gauche even today:
Germany is cool.
It's a vibrant, smart, pretty, cosmopolitan land, and the stylish, multi-ethnic soccer Germany plays might be its paramount testimony. It has its share of creeps, but so do most countries. It's cool enough to spawn Dirk Nowitzki, and it's cool enough to become the first European team to win a World Cup in South or North America. Its elegant carving up of Brazil in the World Cup semifinal became perhaps the most staggering sports outcome of our lifetimes. Its survival of Argentina in the final on Sunday upheld that elegance. (You'd hate to see a team win 7-1 on a Tuesday and then lose on a Sunday.)
Even its chancellor Angela Merkel is cool, with all her brains, and it was lovely to see her hug the players in the ceremony line.
What do you think when you think about Germany? Do you think of rigidity, even dullness? (If so, you're outdated, but in your defense, we're all outdated about something.) Do you think about an evil regime that ceased 69 years ago? (Fine, but this Germany is many generations removed from that one.) Do you brim with pride over victory in bygone wars? (If you helped in those wars, then do gab away; otherwise, your boastfulness is lame.)
There was a time when Germany's predictable advancement in World Cups prompted groans. Oh, geez -- them again. That time included the previous occasion Germany won a World Cup, which was 1990, in a World Cup so lifeless that it threatened to demoralize that half of humanity which had been unlucky enough to watch. Germany excelled at dreary caution back then, and the image of Germany as a successful metronome lingered all the way to 2006. That year, it seemed rational to bewail Germany's penalty-kicks quarterfinal win over a picturesque Argentina which, in group play, had scored that sublime 26-pass goal against Serbia and Montenegro.
The Germany that shredded Australia and England and especially Argentina in the 2010 World Cup looked different, losing to Spain in the semifinals. Now, this Germany has won the 2014 World Cup, which is rightly considered the most ebullient one in an eon. Germany has done so as the clinching of a 10-year period in which it has thrived but only nibbled at titles: semifinal, final, semifinal, semifinal in the last four major events (counting World Cup and Euro). It has done so here with six wins plus an exhilarating draw with Ghana, and it has done so with the most consistently tony passing in the tournament.
It used to be that you could cheer for Germany only if you liked Germany. Now, you can cheer for Germany if you like football.
So at the Maracana (stadium) and the Copacabana (beach), the latter with staggering crowds on the sand, the Germans served as the cool, understated backdrops. They waved their flags and danced in little pockets, surrounded by masses of Argentines and then the local Brazilians. Upon Mario Gotze's gorgeous and decisive goal at 113 minutes, the German cheer up and down the famed Avenida Atlantica qualified as lightly audible.
The bigger cheer came from Brazilians pulling for the Germans, and who suddenly chanted, "Brazil! Brazil!" even if, technically, the game did not include Brazil. That's because the victorious Germany played a supporting role in the Brazilian-Argentine manifestation of the old sports saying that derives from the Bible: Dislike thy neighbor, because if thy neighbor wins, thy neighbor will be unbearable for a horrifying number of ensuing years.
In truth, the Brazil-Argentina rivalry that hovered over the Germany-Argentina final didn't flare up as much as it might have. There were unforgettable scenes of mutual derision, such as the Brazilians hanging out of the city-bus windows on Avenida Nossa Senhora do Copacabana, chiding the Argentines, who grew furious. There was the chronic Argentine song to the tune of "Bad Moon Rising", all about Argentina being Brazil's papa, which made zero sense given Brazil's 5-2 advantage in World Cup titles. There were the regular scenes of Brazilians holding up five fingers, and Argentines shouting back at that, and there was the restaurant on Atlantica and Siqueira Campos where Brazilian patrons waved a disparaging goodbye to loudmouth Argentine fans.
Mostly, though, it was OK. Gotze scored, the match ended, and along Atlantica, the Argentines recovered their pride and marched in a makeshift parade in the chilly beach wind, singing the "Ole, ole, ole" song, which translates as: "I love you more with every day, I am Argentina, it is just a feeling, that I cannot stop." Over on the sidewalk near the beach, near a Brazilian war statue, a small thicket of flag-waving Germans celebrated coolly, and when an Argentina fan tried to sing along with them in sportsmanship, a fellow (and older) Argentina fan got in his face and told him off.
In the end, the Brazilians had held their stylish World Cup, and a stylish team of the moment had won it deservedly. So as those Brazilians leaned through the bus windows and mocked the Argentines, and as a few Argentines chafed and jumped back at them as if they wanted to attack the bus, the two should have joined in common ground. Even on their own continent, neither could beat Germany.