Question: What does it take to get me—an avowed anti-sports fanatic—to sit down in front of a TV screen and actually watch not one, not two, but more than several games of soccer (from here on out called football, as it is to the rest of the world)?
Answer: The 2010 World Cup (from here on out called WM, which stands for Weltmeisterschaft, as it known to the rest of Germany).
Four years ago, in the summer of 2006, I had just broken up with my first boyfriend and was feeling pretty low about life in general. The only thing to do, as I sat at home for a good portion of the summer feeling sorry for myself, was to watch the WM (at that point known to me only as the World Cup as I had never been to Germany). Suddenly, the WM was more exhilarating than any mini-series of TV show on DVD my friends had recommended to get my mind off the break up. I put the entirety of my fried heart and battered soul into those games, and it got so serious that, when I finally went back to the office I had been working at earlier that year as a summer job, my boss often walked past my computer screen to find me frantically clicking refresh on the New York Times blog and the Google scoring window in order to see the results of the games in real time. I was a veritable football fanatic, and it almost cost me my job.
Flash-forward to 2010: I now live in a country where the words “football fanatic” describe everyone in the general population (especially during those very special Junes and Julys spaced every four years apart) and many businesses actually close early in order to allow its employees sufficient time to watch the games. Although we were lucky with the time difference this year (since the WM took place in South Africa, this meant that games were actually in the early-and mid-afternoons and then evenings, instead of at inconveniently early breakfasts and lunch times, as they were four years ago with the time difference when the WM actually took place in Germany but I was still in New York). So getting off work at 3 meant rushing to meet friends to see a game by 4. Dinners suddenly became harried affairs, as everyone struggled to eat quickly enough to find a seat for the 8:30 games.
Many of the central things I have learned about my adopted country I have learned by doing, and the WM taught me a few. Apparently before the games took place in Germany four years ago, the mood about the Germany team and the games in general was somewhat more subdued than it is now. Even nearly 60 years after the war, the Germans were overly cautious about exhibiting any amount of national pride, no matter if it was only connected to football. In 2006, with the games in Germany, that all changed. Spontaneous displays of patriotism and flag waving were acceptable and even encouraged, and watching the games turned into a raucous and joyful community activity: everyone, even those who might have had televisions at home, turned up at pubs, restaurants, beer gardens, and beach bars to watch the games and cheer on the teams in big groups. Coming from a country where football means men in tight pants with helmets and ridiculous shoulder pads diving on top of each other in an effort to get their hands on a strangely shaped object (not really a sport so much as a laughing stock), I embraced this atmosphere wholeheartedly. My first game may have been between the age-old rivals England and America, but really, the German team was my team.
Now with the 2010 WM coming to its inevitable close, I have learned the names and faces of each team member by heart, and I remember when they made their goals, and each embarrassing error they may have committed. Four nights ago, after a marathon run in which they beat nearly all of their opponents and in some cases got four spectacular goals to their opponents’ zero (“vier zu null!!!!”) the finally lost in the half final against Spain. Then they played proudly and successfully against Uruguay in the game I had always thought would be the most pointless and humiliating for a team: the match for the two losers of the half final, to determine who would come in third. I went around the city, and in some cases even outside of it, to watch these games. I met friends, drank and ate with them, helped organize a grill party for the occasion and was also invited to one. I saw places I would have never seen before, and watched with people I would never have sat down with otherwise, and at the end of it all, found even I had become a veritable football fanatic. Even my boyfriend, who grew up in this country where football matters, was amazed by my zealousness. On one occasion we practically got into a fight in the car, after starting out late to drive to the place where we would watch the game: the Germans made an early goal against Argentina four minutes in, and I was positively livid that instead of seeing it, I had had to sit in the car, merely hearing of it on the radio.
There is no better way to describe my experience of watching the WM in Germany than to list every single German game I saw, along with the details of where I watched it and what it was like.
June 13 – Germany vs. Australia @ Washingtonplatz, Hauptbahnhof
This one got off to a late start, as we were having dinner with in our garden when the game started. All the same, we are in the middle of Mitte enough that we were able to hear every shout, cheer, or explosion of fireworks every time the German team did something brilliant. We started off about halfway through the match on our way, we thought, to Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a cultural center on the banks of the Spree that was hosting every single game, when we heard the shouts and saw the crowds in front of a comparatively small, boxy café/bar on the river side of Hauptbahnhof. The crowd was massive and the screen was small, but we somehow managed to wend our way through the hordes of people to a patch of grass directly in front of the game. Vuvuzelas blared, the German flags flew high, and every kick or move of the ball was greeted with either breathless enthusiasm or awed silence followed by shouts. When the Germans won the game 4-0, we were swept up in throngs of people heading to and through Hauptbahnhof, making as much noise as possible and starting a huge celebration that continued on the train. When the Germans win a World Cup game, make sure to be in Germany.
June 18 – Germany vs. Serbia @ Tentstation
This game was a last-minute surprise, as I was coming from work in the morning and heading to Prague by train in the early evening, but I managed to leave work just a half hour before the game was starting, and was met at Hauptbahnhof by the boyfriend, bearing a salad and a few drinks he had brought from home. This time, though, the crowd in front of the train station was irritating instead of exhilarating, and we ended up making our way as fast as we could to the hidden, hard-to-find Tentstation, a mixed venue of an empty-swimming pool, bar and concert location, and a grassy area for backpackers to pitch their tents as the name would suggest. We had already seen the North Korea vs. Brazil game here so we knew that it was a good place to watch outdoors: even though it was afternoon daylight outside, making it difficult to see any kind of projection screen, the wise men at Tentstation had created a sort of black box theater by covering three sides of their outdoor bar with heavy black clothe. The effect was perfect, but unfortunately the game was not. The only goal was scored by Serbia, making this the most embarrassing game for the Germans until the half-final three weeks later. Even though I was disappointed, I will never forget the joyful and prolonged cry of the sole Serbian in the place as he shouted “Toooooooooooooor!!!!” (goal!) for what must have been several minutes without breath from amidst a bewildered and embarrassed German audience.
June 23 – Germany vs. Ghana @ Käthe-Niederkirchener-Str.
Along with the game against Serbia, this game neatly sandwiched my time away in Prague and Bonn. I was excited when I figured out that I would just make Berlin in time for the game, and the boyfriend picked me up at Schönefeld Airport after my flight from Bonn, and drove us straight to the house of two friends in Friedrichshain. The grill was already set up on the balcony and we joked around, had a few beers, and put both meat and cheese on the coals to cook as the game started. This felt like my “insider” experience of the watching the World Cup: what so many travelers dream about finding in all of the places they visit. Here I was having a German grillparty with Germans in a German home watching a German game, and somehow keeping my cool and screaming at the television screen with the best of them. For the record, everyone ended up happy, because even though Germany won the game, Ghana ended up winning too, as they both got to taste the glory of advancing to the next round.
June 27 – Germany vs. England @ Parsteinsee
If I thought the last game was a unique experience, this one upped the stakes. Since we were up in the country that weekend, we had to find a place to watch the Sunday afternoon game where we were, and our first guess, which turned out to be half right, was that the café/restaurant by the lake near the country house, Parsteinsee, would have a television and would be showing the game. Actually they didn’t and they weren’t, but they directed us just twenty steps down the road to a surf shop (yes they apparently have these up there, for who knows what reason) which would be setting up a TV in a tent by the water just before the game. We returned to a trim but upbeat crowd of swimmers, bikers and parents and their kids, drinking Caipirinhas and beer and squinting at the blurry television purched at the top of a wobbly shelf. The picture would not have been my ideal, but the context could not be beat, and for two riveting hours I watched the Germans compete against my closest brethren (where language is concerned), beating them with a series of truly outstanding goals and one very famous save by the German goalie that will probably be debated until the end of time (or at least until the same thing happens again—that is, when a goalie stops a ball that has clearly already gone over the line, but the judges don’t catch it).
July 3 – Germany vs. Argentina @ Moabit Eckbar
After being flooded with invitations to grill parties, hotel roofs, beach bars, and clubs for this all-important semi-final game, we decided that we were sick of all the hipness, sick of all the drama, and just wanted to find the oldest, most normal, most unhip pub in Berlin and watch the game there. We got our wish. A few minutes into the game, after the Germans had already scored one quick and spectacular opening goal (which, as I said before, I was enraged over not getting to see), we breezed into a corner pub in Moabit, arguably Berlin’s most squarely and comfortably unhip district, to find two seats waiting for us amidst a lively group of middle-aged and old Berlin barcrawlers and afternoon beer-drinkers. This may have been the best decision we could have made, because watching Germany score four times against Argentina was made all the better for the constant shouts of “vier zu null!” and “geht nach Hause!” (go home!) from the bar patrons, the half-mocking laughter and “awwww’s” upon seeing the increasingly long face of Argentina’s former star player and head coach Diego Maradona, and the joyful rapturous bursts of energy as the entire bar leapt to its feet to cheer and embrace whenever a goal was made. In four years’ time, for the next World Cup, I will probably be back here.
July 7 – Germany vs. Spain @ Lehrter Garten
In honor of Germany’s having reached the half final, we did what we said we were going to do all along. Friends came over to our garden two days in advance to rig up a projection screen and a flat screen TV, and by the time I came home from a dinner in Kreuzberg towards the end of the first half, about forty people had amassed on chairs, beanbags, and blankets to watch the game. Unfortunately, their faces were somber, as they watched what would be Germany’s worst game of the entire tournament and their eventual undoing at the hands of the Spanish. No doubt about it, the Spanish team was better, and as the realization dawned on us that we were watching our team’s hopes fade into the distance, groans of disappointment, along with shouts at the screen over how embarrassing the players were, filled our garden. When the Spanish side made its only goal, for a moment there was only silence. Then as the time ran out and we had to watch the inevitable losing game come to a close, we tried to pick up the pieces of our shattered team spirit and have a grillparty as we would have had before. The spirit picked up when our downstairs neighbor and friend Mark emerged from his house with a raw octopus clutched in his right hand, which he held up in front of the projector screen like some kind of bloody primal sacrifice, ready to be grilled (a reference to Paul, the psychic German octopus now known the world over for predicting the outcomes of every single German world cup game, as well as the final, correctly). The magic was gone, but we still had one game left.
July 10 – Germany vs. Uruguay @ Stolzenhagen Clubhouse
This was the one I hadn’t even planned on watching, thinking it would be too depressing to see the two losers (Uruguay had been beaten by the Netherlands several days early) have at each other, knowing that their prize was only third place in the World Cup. But we were already at a party—a weird and wacky “county fair” in the Brandenburg town of Stolzenhagen near the country house—and the clubhouse, just up the road from the “fair grounds,” was screening the game of course. What I will take away from this one was not so much the atmosphere, which was decidedly more staid and somber than all others had been, but rather my lasting visual memory of a group of kids, probably all less than ten years old, sitting in a line along one side of the club house, and watching the games with an intensity only children can have when they are acting like the adults and know something is serious. Every time the German team lost control of the ball, one of them would yell at the screen, telling off a player or arguing with his choice of move. When a goal happened—or almost happened—of course the entire line of them jumped up simultaneously to celebrate the victory. It was nice to see the Germans in fine form winning once again, and especially nice to realize that in four more years, they’ll be even better than they were this year (which at times seems pretty difficult to imagine). Who knows, in twenty years or so, maybe some of those kids will be joining them on the pitch.