- Associated Press - Friday, July 11, 2014

BERLIN (AP) - Germany has come a long way since the national team last appeared in a World Cup final 12 years ago - and so has the team’s image at home.

In 2002, an efficient but limited Germany joylessly ground its way through a weak draw to muted celebrations, before losing to Brazil in the final.

“It was the last time that a German World Cup team matched the picture the world has of us,” the weekly Der Spiegel wrote this week.

Things could hardly be more different as Germany, fresh from its 7-1 semifinal win over host Brazil, prepares to face Argentina at the Maracana Stadium on Sunday.

Germans are celebrating “a team that plays smoothly, intelligently, elegantly and fluently,” said Gunter Gebauer, a philosophy professor at Berlin’s Free University who specializes in sports.

“People now get a picture of better Germans or a better Germany that is enormously flattering and certainly isn’t entirely unjustified,” Gebauer said.

It all started with the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann brought a new flair to the team and the nation rallied behind it in a festival of flag-waving support previously unseen in post-World War II Germany.

No matter that Italy beat Germany in the semifinals. What became known as the “summer fairy tale” made the country more comfortable with patriotism, raised its expectations of entertainment from the national team and polished its image abroad.

It also came as Germany started emerging from painful reforms that have been credited with helping make it Europe’s increasingly self-confident economic powerhouse of recent years.

This year’s team has combined the thrills with experience and a dose of traditional grit, giving coach Joachim Loew - Klinsmann’s assistant eight years ago - the chance to finally crown Germany’s renaissance with the first World Cup in 24 years and the first title since the 1996 European Championship.

And while the flag-waving isn’t as spectacular as in 2006, Germans are watching in huge numbers. More than 32.5 million tuned in for Tuesday’s semifinal match - a record for a TV program in the country of about 80 million people, ZDF television said.

The revival of recent years has been helped by the increasing quality of Germany’s top clubs and an emphasis on encouraging young players in Germany, including those with immigrant roots. Chancellor Angela Merkel has described the team as an example for the successful integration of immigrants.

Merkel, who has become a frequent stadium visitor and Germany’s most prominent fan, said before this World Cup that “our national team is also an ambassador for Germany … popular among millions of people.”

That’s a far cry from 2002.

That year’s Germany was “an unloved team because it showed the Germans a picture of themselves that they have always feared - inelegant and stiff,” Gebauer said. “It was, so to speak, the picture of the ugly German.”

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