BERLIN—Yesterday, I had to cash a traveller’s cheque at American Express, whose west Berlin offices are located in Wittenberg Square (or Wittenbergplatz, as it’s known in localspeak). The underground train was filled with people in yellow T-shirts and blond hair. They were all getting off at Wittenbergplatz, too. Turns out they were Swedes, or pro-Swedes, and they were holding a pep rally in the square in order to get properly revved up for that night’s game in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium against Paraguay.
The sober Swedish rally consisted mostly of sensible speeches delivered by earnest economists on various aspects of the present condition of social democratic theory in Scandinavia and beyond. No, no, relax, I’m just kidding. It reassuringly consisted of flag-waving, soccer balls bouncing off blond-haired heads, and the usual stimulation of emotions we’re happy to have confined to sports rather than expressed in war. Harmless fun in the 30-degree sunshine.
Yes, it’s World Cup 2006 (or WM, pronounced Veh-emm, in localspeak, which is short for Weltmeisterschaft) and the German capital is ground-something-close-to-zero for the quadrennial international competition to determine which nation best plays “the beautiful game.” While various stadia in cities across Germany are dutifully crammed to the gunnels with overexcited people togged out in appropriate costumes 3-times daily during the opening round, the “lived experience,” as we existentialists like to say, mostly happens elsewhere.
In Berlin, as in most of the rest of the world where people follow sports, the World Cup is played out on television screens of various sizes (from two-storey Jumbotrons to hand-held cellphones) in bars, restaurants, subways, streets, and homes. For people who want more than the experience of sitting at home or in the neighbourhood watering hole faced with the choice of a dozen TV stations providing wall-to-wall, dawn-to-dusk commentary, kibbitzing, and the occasional playing of a game, the city has gone one step further. The civic administration has thoughtfully cordoned off sections of the city, and erected mock stadia with real bleachers where people can go and watch the game on a giant screen with other like-minded folks, chomping on sausages and guzzling brew during the virtual stadium experience. The virtual experience also provides real security guards who pat you down upon entering the fenced-off football zones.
The main visual feature of the WC, apart from dazed football-tourists wandering around town, is flags. Flags of the 32 participating nations and failed states have sprouted all over Berlin, rivalling the springtime blossoming of the city’s famous linden and chestnut trees. The flags are mostly on cars, mounted on flexible white plastic stands attached to the roof-edges of the vehicles. A lot of people prefer the balanced two-flag (one flag on each side) style to the single waving insignia. No, I don’t know what this cultural preference signifies. It’s as hard to find a semiotician as a plumber when you need one.
When a game concludes, people from, or who identify with, the victorious nation pile into their flag-bedecked vehicles and drive at high speeds up and down the boulevards to make the flags wave. The cleverly-designed flexible plastic flag-mounts bend in the wind to accommodate the high speed driving. All of this has some psychological significance, but beats me what it is.
Now, I’m not one of those Canadian cynics who sneer that the whole point of the World Cup is to host a 4-week drinking party and to make a few (million) euros selling made-in-China game paraphernalia and associated hotel, restaurant and other entertainment services. No, the point of the World Cup is winning.
Nonetheless, winning’s not everything. At least not in Germany. The German national aims in the World Cup are a) to make sure that an “incident” doesn’t happen, b) that drunken hooliganism is confined to an acceptable level, and c) that everyone goes home thinking that Germany is a fun place to have a 4-week drinking party. National aim d) is for the German team not to win the World Cup (Germans are shy about winning, since they fear that winning will make people think they are Big Bad Germans), but for the team to do well enough to avert national embarrassment. Doing “well” means making the quarter-finals.
The important aims are a) averting an “incident,” and c) successful party. An “incident” would be something like, say, the Saudi and/or U.S. teams getting blown up by Al-Qaeda. “Incidents” can be defined in degrees, from catastrophe (the aforementioned blowing-ups) to awkward moments. An awkward moment would be, say, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deciding to fly in for one of the Iranian games and giving an explosive speech promising to drive Israel into the sea or to announce that he’s built an A-bomb explosive. But, so far, after the first week of the month-long tournament, so good. No incidents, no awkward moments, acceptable levels of b) drunken hooliganism, and lots of c) party. There have also been a couple of d) German wins on the soccer pitch.
The German state apparatus is taking a) incidents very seriously. It’s not just pat-downs at virtual stadia, or flocks of helicopters overflying the city. When someone reported that a fringe group of neo-Nazis had printed some racist pamphlets warning that the country was being overrun by foreigners (they may have been obliquely referring to the fact that two of the best German players are of Polish origin), the police quickly closed in and seized the pamphlets. And that’s been it on the neo-fascist front to date. Friends of mine tend to be disappointed when I report that there are very few neo-fascists in Germany, but it’s true. If you’re looking for European fascists, try Italy, Austria, Belgium, or Spain.
The current conservative government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who the other night attended the Germany-Poland game and pretended to look interested while sitting alongside the Polish president, believes that success on goals a) and c) will somehow have a positive effect on the dismal German economy, which features 10-12 per cent official unemployment, newly-increased GST taxes to make a dent in the running deficit, and further reductions in the recently-reduced welfare rates. The country’s been in a virtual recession for the last 5 years, and a virtual recession is not at all like a virtual WC game experience.
As a typical reticent, neutral Canadian observer-peacekeeper (we have no dog in this hunt, as former U.S. President Clinton liked to say), I, like Chancellor Merkel, pretend to be interested in the World Cup. I even went down to my local watering hole the other evening to show my goodwill by watching part of the Czech-U.S. game. My local watering hole is a sort of pro-Czech bar, since one of the bar owners and a couple of the bartenders hail from the Czech Republic.
I explain to my German friends, who commisserate with me on the absence of Canada in this international contest that Canadians are too shy to actually play soccer. “Ice hockey,” they say. “Ice hockey,” I nod. Actually, the only country to feel sorry for is Turkey, which also didn’t make the final 32, but which has a couple of million of Turkish residents in Germany. At my neighbourhood Turkish bar, they’ve pasted up decals of the 32 countries’ flags, from Angola to Ukraine, and I notice that the bar owner has pathetically pasted up a decal of the Turkish flag next to the others. Ah, wishful thinking. On the positive side, it means that no Turkish-Germans will leap into their cars, adorned with the Turkish flag, and drive around at night.
Meanwhile, back at my local watering hole, by halftime, most of the customers had abandoned the big screen inside, and had gone to sit and drink at the outside tables in front of the bar, content to be alerted to any major game event by the screams of the diehard Czech fans still inside.
I’m reassured that my German friends are not taking the game part of the World Cup as seriously as the Italians, Brazilians, Poles, and Croatians, who are planning to leap into their vehicles and drive around recklessly, flags waving, should their teams win anything. Actually, I’m hoping that the final championship game features Antarctica versus Togoland, or any two small countries or failed states who don’t have a lot of car-driving loyalists deposited in Berlin.
While pretending to be interested in the World Cup, what I’m actually doing is watching tennis on TV. It’s the height of the European tennis season, with the Paris Open just concluded, the run-up tournaments in London and Halle, Germany in progress, and Wimbledon just around the corner. While soccer, as old-time fans who remember the great Pele and Brazilian teams of yesteryear tell me, is currently a bit in the doldrums, tennis is having one of those magical moments that happen about once every 10 or 15 years. Two brilliant players, Roger Federer of Switzerland and Spain’s Rafael Nadal (or “Rafa,” as he’s known to afficionados), have emerged and this year’s “beautiful game” is being played with precision and daring inside the white lines of a tennis court.
Berlin, June 16, 2006