DORTMUND, GERMANY — With the loud whistles and collective cheers of World Cup action already fading, and the reality of fixing Germany's troubled economy once again commanding headlines, many Germans share Eberhart Pluntke's desire to bottle the past month's excitement and store it for later use.
"The past four weeks have woken us out of our sleep," says Mr. Pluntke, speaking over the clang of workers dismantling the metal barriers outside Dortmund's Westfalen stadium, where Germany lost to Italy in a narrowly contested semifinal last week. "I hope something will remain of this time."
Germany's image abroad made immense gainsas foreign visitors braced for uptight hosts and the specter of right-wing violence instead encountered a country that took the World Cup's motto "a time to make friends" as seriously as it took its soccer.
Among Germans, a new patriotism – unfettered by the weight of the past and unfurled by countless flags adorning car and house windows – bloomed.
Fueling the excitement was the young German team, led by a dynamic coach espousing American-style mantras of teamwork and positive thinking that captivated a nation as they made an improbable run to the semifinals.
"This was the emancipation of a reunited Germany," says Alban Cajarville, whose Berlin bar, Visite Ma Tente, became one of the city's most atmospheric viewing spots as France advanced in the tournament. "The entire emotion from this World Cup will help Germany in the future."
But the question confronting the country in the sobering days to come will be how to harness that euphoria and use it to tackle the problems, from unemployment to an unwieldy healthcare system, that have loomed over this country in recent years.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an open letter congratulating German head coach Jürgen Klinsmann and the team in Monday's issue of the mass-daily Bild, signed off with the hope that "the atmosphere that we Germans presented to the world will last long past this summer."
German President Horst Köhler said Mr. Klinsmann and his team "gave the country courage."
To some, it recalled an earlier time, when soccer was needed to lift the country out of a more serious rut. Germany's surprising 3-2 victory in the 1954 World Cup over a team of superior Hungarians bore the country up out of the ruins of World War II, giving it self-confidence and renewed standing in the international community.The postvictory saying, "We are somebody again!" became the country's rallying cry and helped Germany build itself back up in the postwar years.
The situation is different this time around. Germany doesn't need to rise – it needs to downsize. The social welfare system created during the economic miracle is proving too costly for a reunited Germany and the demands of the globalized economy.
International standardized tests reveal that the country's schools are underperforming; the unskilled workforce is losing out to cheap labor abroad; and Germany's standing as Europe's economic engine has been fundamentally shaken.
But rather than inspire hope and tackle reform with the sort of vigor and moxie Klinsmann exhibited in transforming a team of youngsters into World Cup contenders, experts say Merkel's grand coalition has so far used the tournament as a distraction to pass unpopular measures.
The Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, approved the controversial increase in the value-added tax from 16 to 19 percent, a day after Germany's thrilling 1-0 first-round victory over Poland.
The much-ballyhooed health care reform plan approved by Merkel's cabinet and immediately panned by health specialists and opposition politicians as lacking grander vision, slipped into the headlines on July 3, as the nation readied itself for the nerve-racking semifinal a day later.
But political science professor Peter Lösche says the measures agreed on by the coalition government are but small steps, and points out that it could have taken the opportunity to decide on more incisive, and necessary, reforms.
"If they were going to instrumentalize the World Cup as a distraction, they could have taken some bigger steps, and made bigger (reforms)," says Dr. Lösche, at the University of Göttingen.
The moves didn't go unnoticed in Dortmund, however, a former mining and brewery town that registered an 18.1 percent unemployment rate last year. In the blue-collar neighborhood around Borsigplatz in the north of the city, landscape engineer Andreas Claesener leaned against a park maintenance building and railed against the government's tax increase. Employed part time but still receiving a monthly welfare check, Mr. Claesener said that for all its good times, the World Cup created a lot of artificial optimism.
"Eventually we'll have to go back to our daily lives," he says. "And I think it'll be double the disappointment, because there will no longer be something like [the World Cup] on which to pull yourself up."
Supermarket employee Christoph Hinsberger agreed. Soccer can't create jobs, he says: "Only the people in the managerial offices can do that.
"I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist," he continues, walking along a path outside the Westfalen Stadium. "And I think everyone will see it similarly in a couple of weeks."
Even Germans who are more optimistic agree that the very real concerns facing workers like Claesener and Mr. Hinsberger won't be satiated by the good vibes and rah-rah feelings of the past few weeks.
"When the celebrations are over, they're over," says Gunter Gebauer, a well-known German philosopher who has written a book on the poetry of soccer. But he says that the World Cup gave Germans a glimpse of who they want to – and could – be.
"Germans tend to have a negative image of themselves," says Mr. Gebauer.
"But for four weeks, the image that Germans had always wanted of themselves became a reality. When something like that happens, you don't forget it so quickly. You want to have it again."