wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Monday, June 26, 2006

The end, my friends

There's an old showbiz saying that you should always leave the audience wanting more. What I'm afraid this means for you, Broad R., is that however much you may be addicted to my dispatches from the road regarding the 2006 WC, it's time for me to bring this blog to an end.

This was, of course, always the plan. Back when I started writing this blog, I knew it would be a time-limited project, one that would end when my trip to Germany did. Yet large parts of me would love to keep writing it. Travelblogging is, as I discovered last summer, an enormously enjoyable pastime while on the road, as well as a functional one--it forces me to keep a record of the various happenings that take place abroad, while at the same time apprising friends old and new of my whereabouts. Replete with pics and comments this time around, it's a habit that I hope to keep up as I continue to travel around in my efforts to see as much of the globe as possible. But it's time to get back to life and work and since this blog was always about the US in the 2006 WC, its raison d'etre has ceased to be, and so must el blog.

But as for the me and the now, I am as usual torn about the imminent end of this journey. On the one hand, I'm ready to go home. If the World Cup is a feast of soccer, I'm really really full. Not "exploding stomach guy from Monty Python" full, but "if I have any more food I could almost yak" full. As in, I'm going to watch the rest of the games, then put US soccer--indeed, all soccer but the occasional DCU game--on the shelf for a while. And while it's been great to see Berlin again, I've been here enough in the past two years that there's nothing entirely new that I've absolutely got to see.

And yet there's always that distinctive melancholia that accompanies the end of any trip. I remember with such clarity the morning I left Chicago, and feeling abuzz with excitement (not even imagining the strange and great change of plans that would dramatically alter my travel plans the very next day). I'm ready to go, but it's been an fantastic experience, and part of me wishes it were that morning again in O'Hare, full of anticipation and possibility, imagining but not really knowing what the next few weeks would bring. And with that, B.R., I must return to the packing and bid y'all auf wiedersehen.

Berlin WC 2006: the highlight tour

Hypothetical: if, before you made plans to go to the WC in Germany, you knew your team were going to be out of it after three games, earning only one point and generally underachieving, would you still go? Answer: an unequivocal yes. Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather that the US had gone on another improbable run through the tournament, but even as their success put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm for the soccer, the experience overall was unmatchably great. Some highlights:

--The Berlin fanfest. I was here at least five or so times, and while the frenetic fan energy of the Germany-Poland contest had its own appeal, I'd have to say I preferred the experience of the relatively deserted fanfest in between games, when you could just wander around and check out the various attractions. Among my faves were the soccer-themed sand sculptures, one of which featured Klinsmann, Voller, Vogts and Beckenbauer in a Mount Rushmore setting; the beer stands strategiclly staffed by adorable German girls; and the Bavarian style bierhall that morphed into the world's cheesiest Eurodisco by night. I could, however, have done without the live performance from Toxic (sp?), which has to be one of the worst bands I've ever had the misfortune of hearing. If you try to imagine a cross between Christian Death and Poison doing terrible a capella covers of American top-40 pop songs, you'll be somewhere in the neighborhood. I spent almost the entire set transfixed by its sheer hideousness, going so far as to buttonhole random German adolescents to ask whether this kind of performance was actually popular in their country (they denied it but I'm suspicious--after all, these people love David Hasselhoff).

--The food. I abandoned vegetarianism for the time I'm here because I didn't want to miss out and it's turned out to be a wise, if not entirely healthy decision. The first few days were a wurst-fest, mainly because the square nearest my Ku-damm hotel is populated by countless food stands where you can get a couple great brats for cheap. On one day I think I ate six of them all told (breakfast, lunch, dinner). After a while, I have to admit I got kind of sick of them, and changed over to Nackersteak for a while (basically grilled steak on a bun--more expensive but worth its price in deliciousness). Oh right, and there were restaurants too, of which my fave has to be Henne in Kreuzberg, an out of the way place with a lovely biergarten and the most delicious fried chicken I've ever eaten (or, I suspect, ever will eat). And after I grew tired of meat, I basically camped out downstairs at Va Piano, a chain of really slick modern Italian places where chefs make your custom pasta creation in front of you (also surprisingly cheap). Given the posh Ku-damm locale, it's a bit Eurotrashy, but you know I'm kind of into that, so I spent hours reading in the slick interiors amid fashionista ladies with the enormous sunglasses (yes, worn indoors) and awful Eurotechno.

--Berlin, again. So as the broad readership doubtless knows, I kind of killed this city last summer, spending weeks here and seeing it in pretty much every detail. This time around, my plan was more to focus on watching, writing about, and traveling to the football rather than exploring the city (though I was glad to spend more time in the west/Ku-damm area rather than the east/Mitte where I stayed last summer). But then Tim rolled into town and I had the opportunity to serve as tour guide, which called on my knowledge of Berlin geography and transport (shaky at first, but it came back) as well as my opinions on the best things to do and see. In only a few days I reprised for Tim what I thought was a pretty good overview of the city, starting from the medieval center over by the east/Mitte and then all through the city--medieval center; Alexanderplatz & fernsehturm; museumsinsel; Checkpoint Charlie; remnants of the Berlin Wall; Holocaust memorial; Brandenburg gate; Reichstag; fanmile; Column o' Victory; Tiergarten; and back to Zoo station and the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedanischekirche (or Broken Tooth for ease of remembering and pronunciation). I'd seen it all before, but wandering through it all again created a strange mix of memory, nostalgia, and wonder at the heart of the monumental, historical capital.

--The life. The life is, as the man says, good. Thanks to Web Guy I have had the enormous good fortune to spend my time here staying in the Hotel Concorde for the low low price of free. This means that instead of shelling out too much money for a low-end hotel room in an outlying area, I've got the comfort of a luxury hotel at my disposal, and have been taking advantage of it all--the posh lounge, the well-accoutred gym (steam room good; freezing cold plunge bath horrible); the resplendent breakfast buffet; and the looks of the hotel staff who are all like "who's the American guy with the board shorts and the T-shirt that says "Jamaican me crazy"? Plus since I'm here with more friends this time I've been able to go out and see the nightlife a bit (OK, more than just a bit). Best bar: this really cool place along a canal that's crawling with K-burg hipsters and has a swimming pool (which I didn't end up using--didn't have trunks with me and thought the alfresco alternative was a tad bit creepy). Best club: Sophienclub, which has a relaxed door policy and a great playlist of fun dance songs.

So yeah, I wished the US had done better, and I felt more than a little jealous of all the Germans and others who were able to cheer goals and wins and generally be proud of and excited about their team. But as total experiences go, Berlin is just as bewitching and fun as I remember. I'm ready to go, but it was a great two weeks and strangely enough I'll miss this place.

USA-GHA II: the aftermath and aftermyths

So the final whistle blew in Nuernberg, and that far-from-great chapter in US soccer history ended. In the intervening days a ton has been said about the fallout from the USA's bleak performance, much of it excoriating criticism in the mainstream media. It's taken me a while to sort through all my thoughts, and there's certainly no reason to rehash the simple theme of disappointment and finger-pointing at players, so instead I'm going to choose a few themes that have emerged that I don't think quite work as well as some that do.

Myth #1: The World Cup exposed the US as a subpar soccer nation. I don't buy this one, any more than I think the 2002 WC proved that we're one of the leading soccer nations. While I bristle at the practice of assigning empty adjectives to teams ("first-tier", "world-class", etc.), I do think you can get a rough sense of where we are in relation to other teams. I'd peg the US as somewhere in the top 20-25 teams in the world, certainly nothing like their FIFA ranking suggests (no knowledgeable fan ever thought there was anything to this). This means they can be expected to and deserve to qualify for the WC, but aren't odds-on likely to make the second round, although they might if they play well and breaks go their way. This could change given the emergence or fading of certain players, but as of now I think that's where we stand.

Non-myth #2: Our big players didn't step up. It's a real shame to have to acknowledge this, and some people have been too critical, but there's no way around it. LD was a non-factor except for about a half-hour of the Italy game; Beasley is nowhere near as bad as people have been saying (remember he was involved in the only two plays where the US put the ball in the net), but still didn't look anything like the brash young firebrand who broke out against Portugal in 02; and even KK didn't have the superhuman WC that I know he's capable of (I've seen him stop breakaways before but he didn't manage that against Rosicky or Draman; his bad distribution led to the first CR goal; and Friedel stopped two penalties in 02, which KK did not). Thing is, it just doesn't seem to me that our players have realized the promise they showed in 2002 and earlier. It may be that they haven't challenged themselves (but Bease is playing in Europe, which weakens the "LD must go to Europe" theme).

Myth #3: Arena must go. I don't know if he'll stay but the criticism of him doesn't seem quite right. His use of the 4-5-1 was a reasonable concession to our incredibly weak forward pool, and included three attacking players in midfield to make up for the single striker. And as for the accusation that he lost his nerve in using a 4-5-1 against Ghana, I'm not convinced that the lineup was the best, but let's give Bruce credit for the relatively gutsy move of starting two young untested players (Convey and Dempsey). While Bruce may go (because of his own choice or the USSF's), I don't see it as mandatory because I'm not sure what the alternative is. I really doubt Mooch Myernick would do a better job. As for foreign coaches, they're in short supply and also it's not clear whether this group of players would work well with a foreign coach, as opposed to someone who's very familiar with the distinctive US Soccer situation).

Non-myth #4: The US fell apart psychologically. "Fell apart" may be a bit harsh, but I don't think it's far off the mark. In the runup to the World Cup, the team began to sputter in the Germany game where we lost 4-1, and then looked tepid and unimpressive in the pre-WC friendlies (losing to Morocco, then beating Venezuela, Angola and Latvia by narrow scorelines). The Bruce seemed to me unusually testy and irritable with the media in the month before things started up, and then Beasley spouted off with the press. I'd always thought the US had a distinctively well-disciplined and unified camp, but I began to doubt that as the WC approached. I think the discord off the field showed in our play.

Myth #5: We didn't get any breaks. Not entirely so: in the Italy game we got a massive one: the equalizer that Italy scored for us, and that basically kept us in the World Cup. But also let's not forget Boca's clearing header that clanged off our crossbar. If that ball is five inches lower, we lose that game and are eliminated after two. We battled hard against Italy and deserved the draw, but good breaks helped keep us level with them. Now it's true that bad breaks--most notably many of the calls against Italy (cards included), hitting the post twice at crucial moments against CR and Ghana, the really poor penalty call against Ghana, and the non-call on the Reyna foul that led to Ghana's first goal--really hurt us in that game and others. So I think we can say that we got more than our share of bad breaks this WC. But good teams make their own luck, and luck wasn't responsible for the horrible game we played agaisnt CR or the flat one we played against Ghana. What was missing for us was that extra edge of brilliance on occasion that put us on the map in 2002--Friedel's saves, McBride's and Donovan's goals, the overall sense of purpose and intensity that made me proud of every game we played four years ago (ok, not Poland).

Non-myth #6: We suffer by not playing enough high-level games. This has got to be true. We play a mere handful of friendlies between WCs, and then we expect to be able to play at the highest level against these teams? No way. Geography puts us at a disadvantage on this score, but I think it would help a ton to participate in the Copa America and to take seriously the Confederations Cup (as opposed to using it as a proving ground for rising MLS players). The problem as I see it is that when you play as we do against Concacaf-level opposition for the most part, you can get away with the kind of errors that will kill you at the highest level. The more we play against higher-level opposition, the more we'll be punished into learning to play a less mistake-prone game. More games against top-level opposition will also acclimate us to the higher level of intensity that will be necessary to succeed at the WC.

Myth #7: The US doesn't have enough talent to succeed at the World Cup. This one is self-evidently false, as anyone who watched in 2002 will readily understand. But it is true that the US isn't in a position of a team like England who can play at a sub-par level and still get relatively far in the tournament. If we're going to have success, we're going to have to play at our absolute highest level and also get a few breaks, just like in 2002. Compare, for example, the South Koreans. They play with an out-of-their-minds intensity for every minute of every game, and as a result they overachieve based on their talent level (e.g., semis in 2002). But even that wasn't good enough for them this time as they ended up going out when they couldn't beat the Swiss despite enormous effort (and some tough breaks). I believe we saw that from the US against Italy, but one game does not a World Cup make.

Non-myth #8: This World Cup was a big disappointment for the US. Easy call here--of course it was a disappointment. But let's be clear: it was a disappointment not because the US went out in the first round (many people correctly said before the tournament started that given the level of the opposition, the US could play excellent soccer, better than they had in 2002, and still lose all three games), but because of how they went out. I'm still not sure what happened agaisnt the Czech Republic, but I remain shocked that in what was our most important game in four years we came out looking almost as bad as I've seen us look in the entire time I've watched this team. And against Ghana, I expected to see the US play with the ferocious intensity they showed against Italy, but they looked, well, mediocre (and Ghana, while by no means brilliant, simply did what they needed and took both chances that we and the ref gifted them). If the US had battled hard all three games but fallen short (such as South Korea did), I could have regarded the World Cup as a qualified success. But the general sense of testiness the team showed and their inconsistent performance on the field didn't leave a lot to feel happy about.

Myth #9: The US was overconfident. This is one propounded by a lot of the media back home, and I just don't see it. No one ever said this team had a shot to win the WC. Bruce and others explicitly disavowed the inflated FIFA rankings. Everyone who knew anything about soccer understood the difficulty of the group and the possibility that the US wouldn't get out of it. The US did, to be fair, go into the WC with a posture that suggested "we're a damn good team and we're ready and able to compete with anyone." And while the performances didn't bear that out, that wasn't an unreasonable approach to take to the tournament--it seems like at the very least you have to bring that kind of attitude to have a chance. I think the buildup was dead-on, and I think people who misunderstood that are primarily types who just don't understand the context of world soccer.

Non-myth #10: The US fans were awesome. If there's one bright spot for the US after this WC (aside from Clint Demspey, whose success was by the way, presciently foretold on this very site), it was that US soccer has a broad and enthusiastic following willing to shell out for a trip around the world to follow a team despite their underdog status. One of the most bittersweet moments for me came at the end of the Ghana game, when we had just been eliminated, and the great supporters section just kept cheering and cheering the team--despite their disappointing play--as the players came over and showed their appreciation for an effort that quite frankly impressed me far more than the USA's play on the field did. More than anything, it was a chance to feel--for a change--like I'm not one of two or three people who actually cares about this team. With distances so far apart in the US, and friendlies relatively rare, it's not often that the entirety of the devoted US soccer fanbase gets together in one place, but this happened in Germany 2006 and it was great. The fans were the real US stars of this world cup. Every fanfest before every game--in Gelsenkirchen, Kaiserslautern, and Nuernberg--made the experience an unforgettable one that I wouldn't have missed for the world.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

USA-GHA I: the experience

So I've been MIA over the past couple of days and I realize there's much to do in the way of catching up the broad readership. Since there are already a million postmortems ranging from angry to indignant to sad about the USA's performance in the World Cup, I'll keep this post to the story of traveling to the match in Nurnberg rather than the details of the (forgettable) game that transpired.

It all began the night before, actually. My friend Tim had rolled into town a couple days prior and I'd been fortunate to arrange a couple tickets to the game (in addition to the one I was already holding). Thing was, they didn't arrive when expected because of some UPS mishap I still dont' understand. So we tracked the package and were promised it would arrive by nine AM on the day of the game--exactly enough time to catch a train to Nurnberg in time for the kickoff.

So the next morning it was time to play the waiting game--we convened at 7am just in case the package arrived early, and I annoyed the hell out of the concierge with phone calls every fifteen minutes asking whether it had arrived (each of which was answered with an icy "Sir, it has not"). Then came the drop-dead time: 9am. No UPS delivery. No tickets. (This isn't necessarily representative of the quality of their service, but next time I send something it's damned well going FedEx. I'm just sayin'.)

Then we decided to leave, figuring that I could use the one I already had and Tim could scalp. We managed to get on a 9.30 train bound for N-burg and I managed to sleep all the way to our connection at Fulda. How was this possible given my history of never catching a single wink in transit? Easy: Canandians. There was a guy sitting across the aisle from me who was from Toronto and who harangued me (in a low-key Canadian way of course) with the most boring string of soccer talk I'd ever heard. He was basically a nice dude, but within ten minutes I was so bored that I fell dead asleep.

After the change at Fulda we picked up the pace. Tim and I spent the remaining two hours of the journey in the cafe car with a bunch of US fans. We'd met a guy on the first train from Berlin who had played high school soccer with John O'Brien, and had ditched his job to travel around Europe for a while. He amused us with a string of barely-coherent anecdotes about the various people he'd met on the road, and impressed us with pics of him in the family section of the Italy game, where he had apparently alienated all the relatives of the US players in the Italy game by blowing a whistle nonstop throughout. We also caught up with a group of guys from the U of South Carolina whose use of face paint was a lot more enthusiastic than it was aesthetically pleasing. (See pic.) They also managed to kill a handle of Jim Beam before the train got to the station, which was all the more impressive since that was apparently just a starter for them.

By the time we got to Nurnberg Hbf, the fan scene was in full swing and again the US fans impressed me both in terms of numbers and noise--I hadn't expected anything quite like this, and it rivaled the Gelsenkirchen game for sheer intensity. Tim was fortunate to scalp a ticket, and we then moved on to a biergarten on the way to the stadium from the train station that was similarly loaded with US fans, as well as a band playing classic American rock anthems (not my music of choice, but it was good for the atmosphere). Tim's enormous red, white, and blue afro wig was undoubtedtly the hit of the party--I lost count of the number of people who came up to him asking to be photographed with it.

Then the game, about which the less said the better, except that my seat wasn't in the supporters section, but was still surrounded by about 80% US fans (overall, I'd say representation was about 70-80% US fans throughout). The Dempsey goal was a great moment--the celebrations actually knocked me off my feet and left me prone in the aisle below me and I now have quite a few bruises to show for it. Speaking of quite a few bruises, DF (always the peacemaker) defuse a possibly dangerous situation when a fairly large US fan to my left began taunting a very large German guy in front of me who was rooting for Ghana. At one point they were actually in each other's faces, and it was more out of a sense of self-preservation than anything else that I stepped in to calm down the US fan.

So after the game we ran back into co-blogger mirarchi and his stepdad and began the long, melancholic trip back to Berlin. But Tim and I had a couple hours before our train left, and joined mirarchi and family for what turned out to be a great meal in the Nurnberg city center. The place was awash with fans but we still managed to find a table in a classic Bavarian restaurant in what appeared to be an old castle. Bratwurst, fried potatoes, and kraut all around--a virtual feast of doom for the old cardiovascular system but undeniably delicious.

On the train platform we ran into Web Guy and spent the rest of the ride camped out in the cafe car, where again I managed to sleep for a couple of hours. When I woke up (it was a direct train), I happened to cross paths with a small group of US fans each lamenting the WC showing. Tim and I ended up talking with a guy who does an NPR radio show (I believe it was called Marketplace, but I'm not a listener, so...), and then the train rolled into Berlin and our day--and the USA's World Cup--was at an end.

{Pic #1: Bewigged Tim draws admirers at Nurnberg fanfest.}
{Pic #2: DF and facepainted South Carolinians on train to game.}
{Pic #3: Pregame scene at Nurnberg fanfest.}
{Pic #4: Tim and FOJOB (friend of John O'Brien).}

Saturday, June 24, 2006

GER-SWE @ adidas arena

I checked another item off my to-do list when I watched the Germany-Sweden game today at the adidas arena, a venue with stadium seating and a couple big-screen TVs. It's designed to resemble the Olympiastadion and occupies the field opposite the Reichstag. You need tickets to get in, and one might say that it’s ridiculous to pay money to watch a game on TV when you could as easily do that at home. But what makes the experience distinctive, of course, is the atmosphere. The adidas arena fits something on the order of ten thousand fans (more than, say, go to see the Metrostars play), and while it wasn’t the same as being at a game, it wasn’t far off. The pandemonium that erupted when Podolski scored his early brace was deafening.

So as I write this in my hotel room, there’s non-stop horn honking and general din in the streets around Ku’damm as the Germans celebrate their convincing win over the Swedes. So now it appears that the party that erupted when Germany beat Poland wasn’t really that unusual at all—it’s not at all a reflection of the quality of the win or the magnitude of the accomplishment (e.g., the same thing happened after the largely meaningless win against Ecuador) but just an excuse to have a big party.

And I have to admit it makes me kinda jealous. The WC is an unparalleled scene win or lose and it’s been great to be here (about which more later), but the disappointing US performances did cast a certain pall of, well, disappointment over the past few days’ proceedings. When the Germans were having a great time and celebrating their goals at the Adidas arena today I couldn’t help feeling the contrast with how I felt about my team. But that is of course a necessary risk—winning wouldn’t be meaningful if it weren’t occasionally contrasted with losing (unless you’re Brazil, of course).

{Pic #1: Adidas arena interior.}
{Pic #2: Happy Germans celebrating yet another goal.}

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

US fans suck, reports The Guardian (UK)

BERLIN—This just in: supporters of the USMNT are drunken boors who are as ignorant about soccer as they are jingoistic in their political beliefs, reports British paper The Guardian.

You can all go home, now, guys. You’ve been found out. Star editorialist Marina Hyde of the Guardian is onto you and she’s brave enough to say so in print a day after the fact. In her startling expose, Over-excited, Overweight, and Over Here, Hyde points out that—in sharp contrast to the classiness of other soccer fans—the US brigade contains individuals who like to drink booze, carry a few extra pounds, and (when subject to pointed questioning at the hands of incisive writers such as herself) may utter vaguely nationalistic observations. Let’s take the devastating accusations one by one:

First, we’re all a bunch of drunken sots who like a rowdy good time, wear crazy costumes, and support their team with a fervor that can be off-putting to those who don’t share the enthusiasm. Well, Marina, you’ve got us on this one. It’s just that well, this characterization could describe pretty much any group of supporters for any team in the World Cup—most notably the folks who follow the Guardian’s own national side. (I’d say more about the irony that a writer for an English paper is calling out other fans as drunk and obnoxious but don’t want to belabor the obvious.)

Second, we’re all ignorant about soccer. Hyde supports this powerful accusation by pointing out that Americans say “zero” instead of “nil,” and refer to defense as “D.” Yes, it’s true—Marina Hyde has revealed that we have our own variant of soccer terminology. Oh, but it’s worse: we’re all ignorant of global politics, too! While this is certainly a commonplace stereotype, Hyde amply supports that it reflects reality by finding a US fan who mistakenly asserted that Dubai is in Africa. That’s brave reporting: discovering that a drunken sports fan lacks immediate recall of world geography. Can I get a line to the folks who give out the Pulitzer? This lady’s a cinch.

Third, and most crushing of all, Hyde smokes out US fans for what they are: Bush-loving, militaristic jingoists who uncritically accept the administration’s policies. Hyde points out that one supporter said that “[A] Kurdish taxi driver in Berlin . . . rated the president very highly.” “Rated him highly”, eh? Interesting phrasing—not the kind of language that an American would use, but kind of British-sounding, really. I’m just saying...

Anyway, now I’ve got to break character here for a sec to make a serious point: as far as I’ve seen, every single US fan at the World Cup has put politics behind them. Most of the people I know here are big administration critics (self included) rather than supporters, but for the most part I don’t have any sense of the general political tenor of US fans because we’ve put politics behind us—wisely. If you want to bring politics into the mix, you find yourself in an infinite regression. Can’t root for England, thanks to their centuries of bloodthirsty colonial aggression. Italy? Repressive fascists were on the wrong side of WWII. Serbia didn’t exactly have a great 1990s. Germany? I won’t even go there.

Back to Marina Hyde’s incisive reporting, though. When I read stuff like this, I’m often reminded of a sportswriter friend who observed in 2002 that a huge part of the lukewarm reception of the US national team’s success derived from resentment that America was becoming part of one of the last few major world arenas where it’s historically been absent. Now it appears that the analogue is happening with respect to the USMNT fan following. In other words, there’s a party going on and lots of people—e.g., Marina Hyde—doesn’t want the US to be there. The resentment is clear in the egregious double standards applied to each teams: witness the outpouring of affection for T&T by neutrals, by contrast (though to be fair the neutrals in Fritz-Walter-Stadion on Saturday night ended up pulling for the US after seeing how they played).

And here’s why articles like Marina Hyde’s make the world a worse place: the World Cup, and soccer more generally, provide a venue in which people can put aside their differences of belief and opinion and recognize instead one thing they all have in common. Every single US fan I know who came over here for the Cup did it because they love the game of soccer and want to be part of its quadrennial global celebration. Some Americans may be xenophobic isolationists who want no participation in the world community, but the fans who follow the USMNT aren’t (as Marina Hyde’s obvious lack of success in finding any truly threatening political comments from fans illustrates)—otherwise they wouldn’t be here. When you try to marginalize a group of people who are making a gesture that connotes global unity, you’re helping to build the kind of international resentment that events like the World Cup (however marginally) have the potential to defuse.

Now in the end, this is after all an editorial that’s meant to be entertaining, and Hyde’s shtick is crystal clear (cold, condescending Englishwoman stares down her nose at boorish Americans—which you have to admit is a very original take). And to be fair, this is entertaining. I for one had a hard time putting the article down, if only because I found myself increasingly impressed at the audacious absurdity of each subsequent observation. But in the end, it’s not intended to be taken that seriously and shouldn’t be.

So I think we can all agree that this is really just a stitch up. It’s not exactly difficult to find a bunch of drunk soccer fans acting crazy—that is, after all, what drunk soccer fans do. But the real opinion expressed here isn’t about US fan support, it’s about Marina Hyde. Marina Hyde doesn’t like America, doesn’t like our fans, doesn’t like the idea that we’re actually a presence at this World Cup, and she would just like for us to leave. But at the end of the day, it would be more ballsy to just admit that instead of cobbling together selectively chosen quotes and observations in an unconvincing attempt to ridicule fans who have done much to enliven this cup (and haven’t created a single violent incident in the process—a marked contrast to the European supporters who Hyde fails to criticize in her piece).

So the thing is, Marina (who kind of looks like a British Anne Coulter *shudder*), we’re here and we’re staying, so get used to it. And perhaps a little more knowledge about and tolerance of the US fan support—and less reliance on tired stereotypes and simpleminded mockery—would make the transition go a little more smoothly for all you who find us so terribly distasteful.

Monday, June 19, 2006

USA-ITA II: the fans

BERLIN—It began at some obscenely early hour with a wake-up call after a night that—thanks to pre-game jitters and a body clock irretrievably screwed up by jet lag and too many nights out—included at most a single hour of sleep. The road to Kaiserslautern from Berlin is long and the trains promised to be crowded. I was excited about the Italy game, not so much about the journey to get there.

I remember little about the trip to our first stop in Mannheim except that Web Guy and I had inadvertently booked seats in a smoking car, which meant that my chances of sleeping shrank from slim (as they always are in transit) to nil. I ran into a couple groups of equally tired US fans on the train—one group from NYC who had been to each of the past four WCs and a group of guys from Houston/Cleveland—as well as a girl from Minnesota traveling with her family who was having all the people she met on the road sign a soccer ball (the family apparently hadn’t realized their trip to Germany would coincide with the World Cup—not the best planning but they didn’t seem to mind too much).

From Mannheim, we learned that we’d have the pleasure of traveling to K-town on a local S-bahn train so that the journey (a mere 20min on a normal train) would stretch to over an hour. And by this time soccer fans were pouring into the terminal so it turned out we’d be spending that hour pressed up against total strangers. As it turns out, the strangers we were confined proved to be quite an enjoyable bunch. We met a girl from Denver who was going solo to K-town without tickets; I was continually impressed by how many people headed into the town ticketless, not really expecting to be able to scalp but just wanting to be near the action.

Stranger still were a pair of Italians who chattered in their native tongue with each other until one of them answered his phone and spoke English in a flawless Australian accent. I had to know. “Are you Italian or an Aussie?” He then explained—in a flawless cockney accent now—that he was born in Italy but lived in England. It was without a doubt the least accented English I’d ever heard a non-native speaker use. I spoke with him and his friend (who, by the way, spoke English in a flawless Scottish accent) about various topics including—what else?—how insufferable the English can be.

Unleashed from the train with plenty of time before kickoff, Web Guy and I strolled the fan mile toward Stiftzplatz and the Yanks Abroad party. Upon finding it, who did I re-run into but the New Yorkers with whom I’d made the improbable dash to the Arena auf Schalke in Gelsenkirchen. We reminisced about the car ride and I bought them a round of drinks for letting me tag along with them before.

Then Web Guy and I settled down in the Brauhaus am Markt to watch the Portugal-Iran game (for which I was conspicuously the only person very happy about Portugal’s 2-0 win that sent them to the second round). Things began to heat up in the Brauhaus, with a crew of US fans in the courtyard and another outside getting into songs and chants. It was a nice scene, with tons of support and US flags everywhere, but while I wasn’t really in the thick of things like I was in Gelsenkirchen, my sense was that the fans weren’t going off with quite the intensity that they were before the Czech Republic game (because the fans were saving it for the game? perhaps).

This day turned out to be for me much less about encountering random strangers and much more about meeting up with old friends. Web Guy and I ended up spending most of the pre-game time with a longtime amiga from the Hague and her friend who announced upon arriving that thanks to a recent freak head injury she was allowed neither to drink nor look at any TV monitors—restrictions that cut down on her ability to enjoy the game full-bore but increased my admiration for her attending the game despite aforementioned brain trauma (definitely the most dramatic affliction I’ve ever heard of someone braving to see the US). I also met up with co-blogger mirarchi, who’s traveling through Germany with his wife, stepdad and infant son in tow. At only about six months, mirarchi jr. easily wins the prize for youngest supporter in attendance.

So after hanging at the Brauhaus for a while, we all began the long march down the K-town fan mile and toward the Fritz-Walter Stadion about two hours ahead of kickoff, and it was a good thing we did, because the roads were packed with molasses-slow humanity and it took us a good hour and a half to get into our seats. I won’t say too much more about the game than I already have except that I felt enormously happy and lucky to be at the first away game in US history where American supporters brought more of a presence than their counterparts.

The way back along the overly crowded path to the train station was festive but subdued (great performance, but how do you celebrate a tie, especially when it could well have been a win?). The jammed train out of town had a party atmosphere—there was more drinking, and singing and shots of Jage (not for me, I was exhausted). I sat next to a spectacularly drunk kid from LA who moaned about the Italian diving for a while until I pleaded fatigue, at which point he turned around in his chair and started haranguing the folks behind us about it. In the early morning hours, when I woke up and headed to the cafe car for some industrial-strength hydration, I met someone who must be the loudest US fan in the world. We had a good chat about the game but he was so high-decibel that I lasted only about twenty minutes before I returned to my seat for a pseudo-nap.

After changing trains at Hannover, we rolled into Berlin Hauptbahnhof around 9am, making for a total of fifteen or so hours spent on trains all told. My last fan meeting was with an earnest, wide-eyed American kid sitting behind me who hadn’t been to Berlin before and was asking a German couple if they could help him identify the street he was staying on. In an attempt to identify it, he explained that “it was where Hitler held a lot of marches. Know what I’m talking about? The Nazi rallies? Oh, and it’s the street where the Third Reich had a lot of their office buildings. Sound familiar?” I could hear the Berliners cringing three rows over. So I followed him off the train, told him where the street was (it was Friedrichstrasse) and suggested that when you’re trying to ask Germans for directions, invoking the Nazis may not be the best idea.

So I got back to my hotel around 10am (Web Guy was not so lucky—he failed to get off the train at Hauptbahnhof and had to ride all the way from Ostbahnhof and then back again), having stayed up most of two nights in a row, and slept til 4.30 that afternoon. This following the US throughout Germany is a demanding and exhausting business, but games like USA-Italy are worth all the trouble in the world.

{Pic #1: mirarchi leads the way to the F-W Stadion along the Kaiserslautern fanmile. Distinctive headgear make him easy to follow.}

{Pic #2: Web Guy, DF, Hague girl, and brain-damaged friend at Brauhaus am Markt.}

{Pic #3: Mrs. mirarchi, DF, mirarchi pere, and mirarchi w/mirarchi jr. along Kaiserslautern fanmile.}

USA-ITA I: the game

BERLIN--I haven't written about the Italy game in Kaiserslautern because I'm just now getting over it, but it turned out to be without reservation one of the most extraordinary experiences I've had watching soccer live or otherwise.

I'll be posting separately about the fan scene and the sixteen hours of train travel to and from Kaiserslautern, so this entry will be about the game alone, or more accurately about the experience of attending the game, since there's already a surfeit of quality analyses about the contest itself, which FIFA's Technical Study Group rightly termed the most exciting game of the World Cup so far.

So I'll begin as we walked up the utterly packed approach to the stadium, which was jammed to such an extent that I feared we'd miss kickoff even though we had over an hour before gametime. As things turned out, we made it into the game with just enough time, and our tickets were near (though not exactly in) the VIP area (meaning that we couldn't get free drinks and food but could watch others enjoy them).

Surveying my position before the game started, it was clear that the US fan presence at the Fritz Walter Stadion was substantial--more pervasive than at any other international game I'd seen outside the US, and perhaps even outnumbering the Italians. By contrast, I was one of a handful of Americanos in a sea of mostly calm, demure Italians. Immediately on my right was a Swiss-Italian guy who casually disparaged the US in an accent that reminded me of the Italian chef from the Simpsons. ("The Americans---they not-a so good. They-a gonna lose. I wanna salami pizza. Shaddapa you face.")

Then the game began, and something about the desperate situation and the incredibly high stakes kicked in. Normally, I'm a fairly voluble, enthusiastic rooter. On this particular day, I was a straight-up madman. Especially when it became clear within the first five minutes that the US was playing the polar opposite of the game they played against the Czechs, the crowd--self included--got behind the team with enormous intensity. Every run, every tackle, every foul, every moment seemed infused with more drama than I'd ever experienced at a sporting event.

When the Gilardino goal happened it proved a bit of a shock, especially because took place entirely against the run of play. But in contrast to their scattered reaction to the early Czech score, the US seemed inspired by going down a goal. The equalizer came within five minutes--followed on by the straight red to de Rossi--and sparked celebrations so intense I don't really remember them. When things settled down, everyone's drinks had spilled, I was standing in the row behind me (not entirely sure how I got there), and the Swiss guy next to me had vacated his seat for more neutral ground.

I love watching a game live and in person because of the proximity to the action and the intensity of the fan experience, but it exacts costs as well--most notably missing details that would be clear from a TV broadcast. So I remember the rest of the game in disjointed moments of clarity: Mastro's red card foul (which seemed pretty rough and entirely unnecessary); the Pope sending-off, which sparked wild Italian remonstrations (those people loooove to gesture); the Beasely non-goal, which I never really thought would count (just pessimism, didn't notice McB offside); a hatful of brilliant Keller saves toward the end; and then a weird strange silence at the final whistle. Especially coming from the US, it's hard to know just how to react to a draw. The result left us with a reasonable chance of qualification, but it also could have been better--we had the best of play and could readily have gotten all three points.

So wild celebrations were not in order (though I did my fair share anyway), but as I left the F-W Stadion for the long, crowded march back to the train station, my overwhelming emotions were relief and pride. I felt relief that the US were still in the tournament, and that they hadn't been embarrassed as they had been against the Czechs. But more than that I felt enormous pride in how hard they fought even when down a goal, and then down a man. At the very least, this tie banished the notion--which so many fans and pundits seek to perpetuate given the barest scrap of support--that the US is a terrible soccer nation. Results may or may not happen, but on Saturday in Kaiserslautern, the US MNT earned the respect--however grudging--of the soccer world.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Next stop Kaiserslautern

Steeled for the probability of failure but hopeful of the possibility of a miracle, I'm off for Kaiserslautern tomorrow. Our train leaves at 7.30am to arrive at 2pm on what is supposed to be a gorgeous sunny day. After the thorough beating we took against the Czechs, things look pretty dire. A draw against Italy would still make our chances of success pretty slim, so to guarantee advancement to the next round we need to win tomorrow, against a team with a legendary defense and the most imperious group of strikers in the tournament. It is, to say the least, a tall order.

But I'll be there. Why? Partly because being a true supporter is about following the team regardless of results. And also because the party in K-town looks to be a great one. I'll be meeting up with two separate groups of friends and will be hoping to take advantage of the all-you-can-drink special at the Yanks Abroad party at the Brauhaus am Markt (though if Gelsenkirchen is any guide, it may be too crowded to make drinking there a realistic option). So no blogging tomorrow, but I'll catch you all up on Sunday. And before I attempt to sleep, here are some disjointed thoughts about today's games.

--Argentina put up probably the most impressive offensive display I've ever seen in a World Cup. All six of their goals were impressive, but the second (which followed a 24-pass sequence) was unbelievable. And the Serbia team they defeated gave up a total of one goal in WCQ throughout ten games. Argentina bettered that by five. In ninety minutes.

--I was a little disappointed in Holland's shaky defense of their one-goal lead in the second half of their win against Cote d'Ivoire. And though I'm glad to see the Dutch get to the second round, it's a shame that their game against Argentina has been rendered meaningless. Finally, while C d'I is out, they gave a damn good account of themselves in two tough losses to two excellent teams. Definitely unlucky to have been in that group.

--I loved seeing Angola take a point off of Mexico. There's a bit of the schadenfreude factor, but mostly I'm just happy to see such a major underdog give a good account of themselves. Plus, the result means that Portugal can clinch qualification to the second round with a win tomorrow.

Fun urinals, player escorts, and other WC laffs in Berlin

There's nothing funny about soccer, people. It's big business and deadly serious competition. And when you consider that the World Cup is being held in a nation that is, while efficient at making cars and strict in rule-following, not exactly known for its humor, then you've got one unfunny tournament on your hands.

But Germans have made a few valiant efforts to lighten the otherwise serious mood. And where better to start but in the men's room, where urinals contain little goals and soccer balls so you don't have to be away from soccer even when you're answering nature's call (see pic). Oh, and if you're using one of these and you get the notion that it would be amusing to call out "goooooooal" while you're doing your business, know now that it's been done. By every damn man to use one of these novelty-enhanced facilities. So it's played.

And near my encampment in Kurfuerstendamm lies another WC innovation that, while not ha-ha funny is certainly an enjoyable novelty: an enormous foosball table with four-foot-tall Berlin bears as the players (see pic). It's both fun and a great workout for the lats and trapezius, as I learned the other night when a group of us went over to play a few games (using a life-size soccer ball rather than the standard tiny foosball sphere).

Unfortunately, this game lasted only about five minutes until a policeman showed up and told us all--in a profanity laced tirade--to stop. We were all kind of baffled; this was, after all, a public space and we were using the foosball court for its intended purpose. The cop's stated reason for ruining our fun was that the game was too noisy and would thus wake guests in the nearby hotel. It was a little hard to buy this reasoning considering that this was the same night Germany beat Poland to spark wild and very loud celebrations throughout the city. I had a difficult time imagining a hotel guest saying "I had no trouble sleeping through the honking horns, football songs, and general pandemonium, but when I started to hear the sound of a soccer ball bouncing off some large porcelain bears, that crossed the line."

So I did what any sane person would have done under the circumstances and gave this cop a yellow card for being an idiot (see pic). As it turns out, there are red and yellow cards lying all around the city. I've picked a couple up and now take them with me everywhere. It's really become a great social tool. If someone makes a lame comment or spills someone's drink or otherwise commits a party foul, they're on a caution. Two such incidents (or one really egregious one) and they'll have to leave the premises and sit out tomorrow night's activities. I'm definitely going to introduce these into my daily life upon returning to the States.

Finally, I feel compelled to end on a down note. We all know that mores in Europe are more relaxed than they are in the US (prostitution is legal here, after all), but I was more than a little surprised when I discovered that FIFA is arranging escorts for all players in the World Cup. Apparently people write in from all over the world giving reasons they'd like to be a player escort, and the lucky (?) winners get to do their thing with a randomly selected player before a game. I don't want to sound prudish, but some of the language on the FIFA site is really a bit much. They tout the number of applications they've received, and then boast that "this really does show how much of an honour and exciting prospect it is to be a McDonald’s Player Escort. All hoping that this is their opportunity to be involved in something extremely special." I'd say. Well, as the man says, when in Rome.

The embarrassing rise of the soccer intellectual

A reader turned me on to this Slate article entitled Soccer and the intellectual, which makes a series of embarrassing claims about the kind of American who's drawn to soccer (illustrated with a really insulting drawing of a goateed loser juggling a soccer ball while carrying a volume of Derrida).

The article poses a series of unflattering reasons why one would choose to follow soccer despite its relative obscurity, the first of which is its relative obscurity. If your tastes lead you to prefer things obscure to those commonplace, then in America soccer has much more cachet than the big three (or four) sports, all of which are impossible to miss thanks to constant commerical hype.

Many have accused me of liking soccer for just this reason, but I really don't think it's true. The story of my soccer liking (I'm using the lukewarm term because if I hear the words "soccer" and "passion" in the same sentence I'm going to regurgitate the protein bar I just ate) isn't really about discovering the sport accidentally while living in the US. Rather, it's something that always interested me (I watched World Cup games and the occasional US qualifier) but that I got really into during a summer spent living in Europe (perhaps an odd choice given that it was the offseason). It was more or less a one-off thing: I got tickets to a couple high-profile pre-season games at the Amsterdam Arena, and everything about the experience--the game, the environment, the fans--hooked me.

So I suspect that Slate's embarrassing explanation #2 might make more sense for me: taking an interest in soccer, as the author sez, "indicates a certain cosmopolitanism." Yeah, OK, I'm guilty. In my defense, here's how I see it: the world is a big and interesting place, and while I'm American to the core I'm interested in everything the globe has to offer, and soccer provides a convenient way to experience the various cultures of aforementioned globe. For one thing, it provides a lens through which one can examine societies; countless authors have weighed in on how soccer provides insight into world conflicts so I won't repeat that point here.

But at the same time, it provides a common thread that links people regardless of their national identity. Some commercial epitomized the idea with the ad slogan "we all speak soccer", and there's a lot of truth to this. The sport gives its followers something to discuss that transcends (and avoids) thornier issues that would be likely to create conflict or confusion. In the taxi to the airport when I was leaving, it was much more enjoyable to talk to the Algerian cabbie about his nation's talented but ill-fated 1982 World Cup team than to be all like "Hey, how bout those strained Arab-American relations?"

So I plead guilty to the above, but there's one aspect of my enthusiasm for the game that the Slate piece doesn't touch on (and which lies in not a little tension with the point about cosmopolitanism): good old nationalism. For reasons that escape me, I've always been a bit of a crazy parochialist when it comes to international competition. When the Olympics are on, I follow the medal count to make sure we've won again (both most gold medals and highest overall medal haul). And this translates easily to soccer: my team is the US, like it or not. I follow Portugal due to some sense of ethnic loyalty, but at the end of the day I'm American and I'm tied to the fortunes of US soccer, win or (as the case appears to be at this tournament) lose.

This disassociates me (thankfully) from most of the folks that the Slate article talks about, who are soccer aestheticists and base their allegiances on anglophilia or a purported appreciation for a nation's style of play (punctuated, inevitably, with a reference to Eduardo Galeano's "a pretty move, for the love of god" line from Soccer in Sun and Shadow--cue bile rising). The latter take is a bit to precious for my taste. That, and it seems a losing proposition when so much soccer is dull and defensive (sorry folks, it's true--just like baseball is slow-moving, basketball is irrelevant til the last five minutes, and football consists of ten minutes of action interspersed between four hours of commercials). At the end of the day, this sports fan has to have a team to root for (and whenever I watch a game, I find myself picking sides involuntarily, just to make it interesting for me), and that goes an enormous way in lending emotion to games that would otherwise be snoozefests. Plus, if you don't root for your native country first and foremost, you're a total poser.

One place I get off board with Slate on this matter is the notion that soccer is a necessary alternative to following other American sports. First off, I don't think the point about authenticity of emotion is right. There's plenty of hackneyed manufactured pageantry in the World Cup, as I learned when watching the hour of pre-game schlock that preceded the Brazil-Croatia game in the Olympiastadion. It may not have been as tacky as a bunch of football players running out of a giant inflatable helmet, but it was lame and inauthentic nonetheless.

And second, there's no reason that enjoying soccer should be mutually exclusive with following other American sports. I love football in both its incarnations, and have often watched Arsenal on Saturday and then the New England Patriots on Sunday. They're vastly different experiences, of course, and I can see why fans of one have difficulty appreciating the other, but it's not a problem for me. I'd much rather have my sporting life be a many-course tasting menu than one massive serving of the same thing, so I find the varianced appealing rather than alienating.

Oh, and the other thing about soccer that doesn't appear in the Slate article: it's really, really fun. To a large extent the World Cup isn't about the players or the games at all; it's just an excuse to have an enormous party to which the entire world (including, increasingly, Americans) is invited. This is why it's still a fantastic experience even if your team crashes out: even if you support Costa Rica or Poland you can still be part of the fun. However badly the US played against the Czechs, I wouldn't have missed being on the scene Gelsenkirchen for the world.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Germany narrowly beats mediocre Polish team; pandemonium sweeps nation

I'm not sure how the Germans will outdo last night's scene if they actually do win the World Cup. Here in Berlin, craziness erupted when Neuville's late goal sealed a win against Poland and a spot in the second round. And I don't mean that there was a general sense of celebration, either, but rather that the streets were beseiged by cars with horn-honking drivers and crazy German fans standing atop moving vehicles waving their nation's flag. Eventually, the police closed down many areas (including around the Kurfuerstendamm where I'm at) and turned them into gigantic pedestrian malls that were overrun by celebrating Germans (and defiant, flag-waving Poles).

It was great but I've just got to say the intensity of the response surprised me. After all, so far the Germans have looked shaky at best in their two wins. They scored four against Costa Rica but let in two against a team that is really not very good (they just got schooled against Ecuador 3-0 today for an early exit from the tournament). Then against Poland the game looked for all the world like it was going to end in a draw until Neuville's late heroics. The victory was truly exciting but considering that Poland looked awful in their first game--which Ecuador won, 2-0--the result hardly flatters Germany.

The other strange thing about yesterday's Germany-wide hysterics was that the game produced an entirely unsurprising result. Everyone expected Germany, the host and world soccer power, to get out of their group at least--especially when they were drawn against such lightweight opponents. I could imagine a city-stopping celebration if the team won the World Cup or even if they got an exciting result in a knockout round, but what went down yesterday would be the equivalent of Detroit natives rioting when the Pistons merely clinched a playoff spot in the notoriously weak NBA Eastern Conference.

Then again, maybe I underestimate the German appetite for parties. It could be that however impressive last night's outpouring was, it was only the appetizer, and that the main courses are going to be even more resplendent still. I'll be happy to discover that I was wrong about all this.

{Pic #1: German fans celebrate Neuville goal @ Berlin FanFest.}

{Pic #2: Fireworks dot Berlin sky as celebrating motorists cruise the Ku'damm area.}

US Soccer: we've arrived

If there’s one thing good that we can take away from the USA’s debilitating loss to the Czech Republic, it’s that our sports fans and media finally react to soccer with a degree of hysteria on par with European and South American nations. I’m making this observation only now because it took me a while to be able to read the reaction to the game, but after sorting through it I’m reassured that this WC disaster in the making won’t erase soccer from the American sports consciousness, because everyone seems to be having too much fun freaking out over this one failure.

In order to see what I'm talking about, look no farther than the soccer cognoscenti, people like me who have been closely following the US men’s national team for years and actually understand the meaning and context of Monday’s game. Part of the reaction here is straight-up rage-tinged disappointment, expressed with all the dignified understatement of a John Waters production of La Boheme. Andrea Canales' column from Soccernet.com is as good an example as any. You can just see Canales freaking out at her keyboard as she portends the downfall of US soccer and reveals the astonishing discovery that Arena's good management makes no difference if the team doesn't play well.

So why is this evidence of our arrival on the world stage? Because all of a sudden, the mainstream media and soccer specialists alike are treating one single bad game as an epic, newsworthy tragedy. In 1990, no one really took note as an overmatched US went out in three games. In 1998, our abysmal WC merited a brief mention. But now America seems to regard a single game as warranting funeral notices. There's no such thing as bad publicity, as the man says.

Oh, and just for the record, this response is ridiculous. No one was more disappointed in and surprised by the US performance against the Czechs as I was, but there's no reason to write off the team after a single game. People who know the game and this team well understood what a tall order this group was, and should have expected that the US could play well--better, even than they did in 2002--and still go out after group play. The Czechs looked excellent on Monday and likely would have beaten any other team in the world on that day (albeit not as comprehensively as they defeated the US).

Even more irritating is the response by uninformed watchers that the single loss confirms our soccer inferiority. For one thing, no one who understood anything about the game actually thought we merited our FIFA ranking of #5 in the world. If anything, most informed observers thought the inflated ranking was a mere distraction that would only add unneeded pressure. The US is a good--not great--team that has performed well over the past four years and has rightly earned respect as a formidable side. A single bad game doesn't negate this. It's very common that good teams simply have bad world cups (or bad games in the World Cup). Ukraine was the first team to qualify out of Europe and they have one of the world's best players in Andriy Schevchenko--yet they lost ignominiously to Spain yesterday, 4-0.

These things happen, and when they do, the national press of the disappointed country reacts with hysteria and rage. Just like ours has in the past week. We've arrived, baby.

GER 1:0 POL @ Berlin fanfest

So the big news in Germany yesterday was the game against Poland, which I watched with some natives at the FIFA fanfest here in Berlin. Out of deference to my hosts, I pulled for the home side, wore the right colors (white shirt, black shorts), and even allowed a large, sloppy German flag to be drawn on my face. (Word to the wise about the face paint, by the way: it can get kind of itchy, leading you to want to scratch your face, leading your well-crafted flag to end up looking like an abstract but patriotic painting.)

Truth be told, rooting for Germany proved a bit of a difficult task for me. I’ve never really felt much of anything for German soccer (save for some necessary admiration). There has always seemed to me something about their undeniable precision and consistent success that makes it hard to feel much emotion for or against them. Rooting for Germany to win seems to me like rooting for a Deutschebahn train to arrive on schedule.

But from an ethnographic perspective, last night proved really interesting. The Berlin fanfest is an vast venue, with five big-screen (more like enormous-screen) monitors, and while we got there an hour or so ahead of time, our vantage point placed us several hundred feet back from the nearest screen. The intensity of the support is what you might imagine: a mass of humanity hanging on every kick through every second of the game. The best analogy to American sports would be college football or March madness, which possesses an authentic passion that lacks in the popular but overly commercial pro leagues (even the NFL). But what makes soccer different is the constancy of its rhythm: the clock never stops in either half, and while the oft-repeated observation that soccer has nonstop action isn’t quite right (there are frequent whistles leading to stoppages of play), there are nothing like the frequent time-outs and extended pauses that one finds in basketball or football. (Leading one British friend to ask me a propos of the latter how I could watch that “dead boring shite.”).

I also found surprising the not insignificant presence of Polish supporters at the fanfest. At the outset of the game, when the flag-waving was at its peak, red-and-white flags seemed to approach German ones in number. My casual empiricism suggests there were nothing like as many Polish as Germans there, but they made a much bigger impression per person. All-star status has to go to the Polish girl who sat on some guy’s shoulders and waved a large flag attached to a tree branch the whole game. It was the most impressive display of upper-body strength I’ve ever seen in a woman. My arms felt tired just watching her. If it were thirty years ago, she’d have been snapped up for the Polish olympic team in a second and made a defensewoman for the national ice hockey team or some other role where her burliness would have served her fatherland well.

And the game itself was, of course, a great success in the end, as Oliver Neuville re-reprised his role as super-sub, coming in to score a late goal that clinched both a 1-0 win for Germany and qualification for the next round. It was nothing less than the hosts—who had been very unlucky not to score earlier—deserved, and was met with predictable delirium. And neither then nor in the celebratory aftermath throughout Berlin did I see anything like violence between Germans and Poles. There was plenty of flag-waving (Germans triumphantly, Poles defiantly) but no aggro. Of course, this morning on the Deutschenews there were vids galore of police beating down supporters and supporters beating down each other, but my impression was that these incidents represented by far the exception rather than the rule.

{Pic #1: flags galore wave at the Berlin fanfest as GER-POL kicks off.}

{Pic #2: Berlin Girl and DF after the big win; note messed-up German flag on my face.}

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Status report

Whew. Catching up on the events of the past few days proved more grueling that I'd imagined. But now I'm up to speed and can catch my breath. So what's on for DF? As you're doubtless aware, I'm in Berlin now, where I've lucked into a free place to stay in a fancified hotel near the Kurfurstendamm area.

Plans for later include taking in the Germany-Poland match in the fanfest area that spans the way between the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate in the company of a German friend. It's going to be hard for me to root for either team, since I simply have no loyalty toward either, but I'll be pulling for the Teutons because I'm such a go along to get along kind of guy.

The WC scene is a great one. Last night I wandered around the area a bit with Web Guy and ran into many Croats lamenting their loss and Tunisians getting excited about their upcoming game against Saudi Arabia (truly a clash of minnows--the vagaries of the draw still frustrate me). I met a Ghanaian and was surprised to hear Tupac's California Love play at an outdoor disco. It all closed down at 2am, which seemed really early, even for a weeknight. Now off for a brat or three and the beginning of the Saudi-Tunisia game.

Fun v. unbelievably annoying fan conduct: a typology

So much of what makes the World Cup fun has to do with the fans. The crowds, the craziness, the wacky outfits, the carnivalesque atmosphere. But I have one serious beef with the received wisdom of what's cool for fans to do, and it's this: earsplittingly loud noises are not fun. They are annoying. They are so very, very annoying and if you can't think of anything more creative than to blow a damn whistle or set off a high-decibel airhorn, then I beseech you to reconsider your noisemaker of choice or (perhaps better) just keep it quiet.

Lest I seem horribly fogeyish about this ("keep that infernal racket down, you consarned whippersnappers") allow me to illustrate with my fave example and the one that inspire this post. Last night at the Brazil game, I had the misfortune to be standing in a concession line directly in front of a Brazilian gentleman who had brought a whistle to the game. We all know what whistles sound like: they are loud. So very, very loud. They penetrate into your animal brain and trigger a desperate fight-or-flight response. And they grow ever louder as the whistler increases the ferocity with which he whistles. All this is to say that behind me, for all twenty minutes during which I was waiting in line, this Brazlian man blew his police whistle at the highest possible volume, approximately two feet from my now-dysfunctional ears. He did this over and over and over again, pausing only long enough to give me hope that he'd stop, and then just when I'd let my guard down, he'd whistle again. And again. And again. At one point I beseeched him to stop (in gesture form--pointing at my ears and then making a hands-folded prayer gesture). His response? To lean in closer and re-whistle.

So in the unlikely event that my noiseur or any of his like-minded compatriots are reading this entry, here's the point: merely making a horribly loud noise is not, in itself, fun (unless, of course, you're a six-year-old child or have the mentality of one, which may explain a lot about the prevalence of its use here). Nor is it cool or interesting, and it's certainly not necessary. Singing your nation's songs is a distinctive and creative way to show your support; chanting is simpler but still great. Low-key noisemakers are no problem at all. Crazy outfits and general merry-making are the stuff that makes the tournament great. But otherwise, here's a good rule of thumb: when a device is designed for civil or personal emergencies (e.g., thwarting a rape or alerting the populace about an air raid) then it's not fun. It's just horribly horribly irritating. So for the love of God, and in the interest of getting us all out of here with some scintilla of sanity and/or hearing left, give it a rest. You consarned whippersnappers.


Seeing Brazil—-particularly this version of Brazil—-play live in the World Cup is an unparalleled experience for the soccer obsessive. Last night I checked this experience off my life list, seeing the Samba Kings dispatch (effortfully) a stout Croatia side, 1-0, in a sold-out Olympiastadion in Berlin (72k in attendance). Enough has been written about the game that I won’t repeat any of it here. Rather, I want to write about the experience of seeing Brazil in person at the World Cup.

First, the scenes of craziness you’ve seen on TV accurately reflect what the actual game is like. Twas a sea of bizarre green-yellow-and-blue accoutrements, some of which were elaborate (the dude dressed up as a Brazilian lion-man replete with green-and-yellow mane), while others impressed by virtue of their, um, simpicity (a statuesque woman whose outfit consisted of three cocktail-napkin sized swatches of Brazil-colored fabric, precariously attached by the least bit of string). Throughout, lesser costumes pervaded, of which the most popular seemed to be hairpieces: either a Brazil-colored afro wig or faux-hawk. For my part, I wore the only relevant clothing I brought: a green shirt with the phrase “Jamaican me crazy” in yellow (it seemed to convince the German people there I was Brazilian though—the ticket takers and concession folks greeted me with “bom dia” before the standard conversation in English ensued).

As I got to my seat, I looked around and was pleased to find myself located on the edge of the Brazilian curva of the stadium. I had been concerned that I would be surrounded by a sea of angry drunken Croats. Then, as I sat waiting for the game to start, the seats around me filled with—you can guess it—angry, drunken Croats (again, see pic). Well, to be fair, reasonably well-behaved Croats, but still, it kind of freaked me out, especially since I’d resolved to have a conflict-free World Cup. Eventually, though, a few Brazil supporters appeared here and there, reassuring me a bit, but I remained fairly subdued throughout, even when Brazil went ahead 1-0.

The fans themselves impressed not so much because they did anything unusual or elaborate, the way British fans often have funny and creative terrace songs (rather, they mostly just chanted the standard “Bra-zil” *clap clap clap*). Rather, it was the sheer numbers and energy (and, related, volume) that made such a powerful impression. When Kaka scored the golaco that turned out to be the difference in the game, the response was deafening in a literal sense—it took me a while before my ears stopped ringing and I could hear clearly again.

Of course, there were times when things slowed down (especially in the increasingly defensive second half) and the Brazilian fans grew quiet. It was in these moments that the Croatians really impressed me—I think it has to be said that over the course of the second half they were the louder and more impressive of the two fan groups. As the game wore on, and Brazil (and their fans) grew tired, it seemed that Croatia (spurred on by enormous enthusiasm from their supporters) got stronger, and easily could have tied the game (Croat forward Dado Prso seemed to me the best player on the field for either side, although he didn’t end up scoring a goal).

Two more observations about the game: First, in about the 75th minute, a Croatian fan decked out in all manner of national colors managed to negotiate both the moat that surrounded the stadium and the burly Teutonic guards who surrounded the pitch and appeared on the field, cavorting crazily to cheers from the Croatian supporters (and, surprisingly, no whistles from the Brazilian fans). He was out there for a couple minutes, doing his thing, then eventually approached Dado Prso and kind of knelt down and hugged the forward’s feet. Then Prso brought the fan upright, put his arm around him, and escorted him off the field, where he handed him over to the German police. Please note: during this entire time, no policeman touched the fan. He could have been a terrorist or some crazy looking to attack a player, but the police just stood and watched. More amazing, Prso didn’t run the other way from the guy but actually seemed to sympathize with him, even protecting him as they walked off the field, which seems to have led the Berlin police to have treated him with kid gloves. In the US, that guy would have been pinned to the turf instantaneously and dragged away in a brutal headlock, then placed in jail for an indefinite term. I honestly thought the Germans—no strangers to a bit of brutality, after all—would take a similar approach. But I guess we’re the world leader in this respect too. USA! USA!

Finally, I’m not even sure what to make of the following: about an hour before the game, a wealthy, well-fed looking German man came into my section along with his very pretty but also very young daughter, who was tricked out in Brazil-themed bikini top and boy shorts that left almost nothing to the imagination. They walked down to the very first row where she stepped one leg up on the railing and proceeded to wave a Brazil flag to get the attention of the assembled photogs (who flocked over immediately upon seeing her). A ten-minute photo shot of increasing suggestiveness ensued, by the end of which the girl was using the pole in ways that could have given new ideas to even the most experienced American strippers. I wasn’t sure if I should have called child services or given her a tip (so I ended up doing both).

{Pic 1: DF in pseudo-Brazilwear, standing a bit uneasily amid a sea of checkered Croats. The woman whose tiny head you can just see above me and to my right is Janica Kostelic, Croatian Olympic skiing gold medalist.}

{Pic 2: The Brazil supporters section during lineup announcements.}

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

USA-CZE III: the fans

I didn’t really know what to expect when I got to Gelsenkirchen on Monday afternoon, but what I found shocked and inspired me: the entire town center teeming with singing, drinking, exuberant US soccer fans. By way of background, I’ve long considered my affection for soccer to be kind of a rogue taste, and am used to being one of three people in a bar watching a game or the only person in my group of friends or workplace who’s into the sport. And I’ve long looked with envy on people whose nations go nuts for the World Cup, in contrast to the US where even the 2002 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16 made little dent in the cultural consciousness.

I’m not sure what the scene was like in France or Korea, but in G-town, the US fan presence looked like what I’d always imagined one would see from the big countries like Italy or Germany. The NYC fans I met at the train station in Frankfurt told me that the meetup spot for US fans was a place called the Hibernian pub, and by the time I got there at 1.30pm (for a 6pm game), the pub was full of supporters, who had spilled out into the town square in front of the Hibernian and were in full song, literally (see pic).

There were easily hundreds in the town square singing song after song, accompanied by photogs and news cameras. (US fans a news item? Apparently so.) We even had our own crazy eccentric figures: a couple full-on Uncle Sams w/big fake beards, a bunch of dudes in afro wigs dressed like the Harlem Globetrotters, and many, many Elvises (or is the plural Elvi?). And also to my surprise, the US presence in the town center definitely overbore the Czech one. There were plenty of Czechs there, but they didn’t make nearly the kind of impression in terms of noise, numbers, or style that the US fans did. It felt like a watershed moment to me; the day when America’s fans arrived on the world stage (too bad the same couldn’t be said of their team).

The only down note I’d attribute to US supporters relates in part to a group of fifteen or so skinhead England fans who staked out a spot in an outdoor pub terrace (replete with de rigeur Cross of St. George) and did the standard Brit-thug thing. (Shirts off to expose enormous beer guts, postures of langorous aggression to give off that “ready to fight anyone who looks at me cockeyed and is also smaller than me” vibe.) The closest American analog I can think of is motorcycle thugs (and not a cool James Dean “Rebel Without a Cause” biker, but rather a fat, mean Hell’s Angel whose hobbies include quaaludes and date rape). Of course, hools will be hools (and to be fair, these guys did not try to start any shit) but what got under my skin was that a couple really cute girls decked out in US regalia approached the England dudes to chat them up. Seeing the US girls with the fat thugs made me feel what it must be like to have a little sister when she goes through the standard late-teenage “date an edgy scumbag” phase. Yellow card to these American gals.

Of course, the way the US played in that game didn’t do our growing following any favors, and may have set the cause of soccer in this nation back a ways. It’s one thing to fly across the globe to see your great team win (Brazilians do this with regularity); it’s still appealing to shell out for international travel to see your hard-battling national team play well but go out with dignity to superior competition; but it’s really hard to think of a reason to pay that much money and go through that much trouble to see your team play poorly and lose badly.

The other problem is that most Americans approach the game with the prior that the US sucks, so it’s very very hard to convince people that our soccer team is any good, while the casual followers interpret even the slightest bump in the road as confirmation of our essential crappiness. Thus a bad WC will tend to drive away more fans than a good WC will draw in.

Finally, though, let me say this: the Czech fans were a class act all the way. Not one of them acted lame (by which I mean violent or particularly obnoxious) before the game when they were outnumbered by US fans and generally looking kind of dejected about it. On the contrary, I saw plenty of US and Czech fans taking pics together, disproving the notion that support for your national team and antipathy for its opponents are necessary correlates. And during and after the game, the Czechs were just, well, happy. They celebrated the goals, sang for their team, and took off. No one taunted US fans (that I saw, anyway) or tried to start a fight or broke windows in the town center. There may have been incidents, but from what I saw, they were by far the exception rather than the rule.

{Pic: US fans in full voice outside the Hibernian pub in Gelsenkirchen town center.}

USA-CZE II: the game

You’ve seen the result so I won’t say anything about that. I’ll just pose one metaphysical question: it’s a given that tragedy plus time equals comedy, but how much time will it take for yesterday’s tragedy to seem anything other than the embarrassing unmitigated disaster it was? I have a very hard time imagining myself laughing at that memory.

I’ll make only one substantive note about the game: it’s not true, as many have said, that the US is constitutionally incapable of playing big, burly central European teams well. On the contrary, one of the best games we played was the 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarters of the last WC. I think the more salient point is that when we go down an early goal, especially to world class competition, we tend to fall apart.

Last WC, our big wins were punctuated by early goals, and the tie against South Korea also featured us scoring first (and in the first half). But when we gave up a goal early against Poland, we fell to pieces, losing almost as badly as we did yesterday. I don’t know how much of this is psychological and how much is strategic, but I suspect that as usual there’s some of each at play. This team tends to be insecure, so an early goal by a strong team shakes our confidence and makes us play scared and tentative. But also, when a particularly strong team goes up early on us and then bunkers in defensively, we don’t seem to have the patience and technical skill necessary to hold the ball, pass it crisply in small spaces, and break down their D.

So this sets up the following scenario: we need a miracle against Italy or we’re as good as done. Vamos a ver.

{Pic: Czech fans celebrate Jan Koller's early goal as dejected US players trudge back to the center circle.}

USA-CZE I: the kindness of strangers

So I think the best way to give a chronology of yesterday’s events is by focusing on the unlikely and memorable skein of interactions I had with total strangers—many of whom helped me out for no real reason other than human decency—from the start to the end of the day. This lies in sharp contrast (as many of the loyal Broad Readership will doubtless recall) with my experience in Zentraleuropa last summer, when I met hardly anyone on the road (which could have had something to do with my wanting the experience to be a solitary one and spending the whole time with my nose buried in one book or another).

By the way, some brief background to set the scene. After talking to Web Guy, it became clear that he, my friend in Berlin (hereinafter Berlin Girl) and others were on the road to G-town and that I was to meet them. The main hurdle I had to, um, hurdle was that I’d already checked my bag through to Berlin. So I returned to Frankfurt airport and told them I wouldn’t be on the flight but that they should keep the bag on the plane and I’d pick it up at Tegel the next day.

It turns out that this is a classic terrorist tactic that airlines have been wise to since the 70s, so the agent looked on my suggestion with more than a little suspicion. Turns out what they had to do was take the bag off the plane and deliver it to me, where I could enjoy toting all 103 pounds of it to G-town and then aaaall the damn way back to Berlin (which proved to be unpleasant but ultimately manageable thanks to a very kind call center owner in Gelsenkirchen).

So instead of waiting for my flight to Berlin, I found myself on a train platform in Frankfurt, bound for Gelsenkirchen via Duisburg. At this point I’d had zero hours of sleep on Sunday night and only about four on Saturday, so I was to say the least punchy. And in this mental state I apparently developed the opinion that it would be a great idea to simply approach random groups of fans and integrate myself in with them.

Which is exactly what I did on the platform in Frankfurt, joining up with a crew from New York, all of whom wore those enormous Uncle-Sam style stovepipe hats in red, white, and blue. They were headed a different way but it turned out that one of their number was a solo traveler: a really nice guy from Atlanta, about 60, named Richard. We hopped the train to G-town and once there he saved my ass by watching my bags as I went around the train station, sadly discovering that all the lockers had been taken.

We parted ways shortly after that—he wanted to see the town, I wanted nothing more than to drop off aforementioned bag—and after that I wandered G-town for a while, taking in what proved to be an unexpectedly electric atmosphere and taking full advantage of my current two-week departure from vegetarianism by chowing down an obscene number of bratwursts (so. good.).

But then it came time to head to the stadium, and I thought I’d allowed plenty of time to get there (two hours). On the way to the trains, I caught up with two older fans (mid-40s) who were enormously drunk but who clearly knew where they were going. We bonded over being from SoCal (one of them was draped with a California state flag—a nice touch that I wish I’d thought to bring), and the three of us entered the train station. My plan was to follow them in a very literal sense: they’d use their girth (fueled by what appeared to be an enormous amount of booze) to push through the crowds and I’d follow behind, earning a much-coveted spot on the train to the stadium. But even their intoxicated aggression wasn’t enough, as the crowds overwhelmed the trains, and the terrified conductors typically closed the doors well before the cars were full, allowing them to escape what was a pretty grim and not just vaguely dangerous scene (it made me realize how horrible crowd disasters happen—if there had been a stampede or a collapse of some sort there would have been no way out). The LA guys regaled me with stories about previous WCs (this was their fourth), and one of them told me that he’d outsmarted drug-sniffing dogs on the train from Geneva by storing weed in mustard.

But at this point it became clear that waiting for the trains guaranteed missing kickoff, so I headed out of there with a group of four US (and, heroically, Metro) fans out of NYC who planned to walk to the stadium. Looking back, as the one sober one in the group I should have realized that trusting four intoxicated New Yorkers about the wisdom of walking anyplace was unwise, but they seemed sincere and convincing, and I wasn’t really loving the sweaty mass of increasingly angry humanity on the subway platform, so there I was. We got about three blocks north of the city center when we realized we’d miscalculated. I got from a local that the distance between the city center and the arena was unwalkable (well over 10km, I later learned), and there we were. Taxis were rare and all full, and my one attempt to ask a couple German girls for a ride in their car was rejected (with a suspiciously fluent-sounding “we’re sorry but we don’t possess the ability to comprehend either your question in particular or the English language more generally”).

At this point, when I really began to fear that we’d never make it to the stadium, a miracle happened: a US fan stopped near us in an otherwise empty car. We asked for a ride, he graciously offered one, and off we went; sort of. There were five of us (me + the NYers) and that meant someone had to go in the trunk. In an act of astonishing kindness, they ceded the comfortable front seat to me, squeezed into the back, and stuck one of their group in the trunk. So we rolled on with this random US fan/gift from God, who was from Seattle, had no tickets, and was hoping to scalp once he got to the arena. He even let me use his cellphone to call Berlin Girl and update her on my whereabouts. Eventually the traffic slowed to a crawl and we piled out to walk the rest of the way (which turned out to be a not inconsiderable 2+ km).

The walk to the stadium took us through rural landscapes that, while arrestingly beautiful, did not reassure me that we were approaching a 52k-seat sports arena. But eventually, when all hope began to fail, and fatigue was setting in, the Arena auf Schalke appeared on the horizon and it became clear that we’d make the kickoff. Or at least that they would. Recall, Broad Readership, that at this point I still had to find my Berliner compatriots in a sea of humanity in a foreign city and hope that this whole “Hey DF, ditch your flight and head to a random place to meet us” thing wasn’t a major hoax. One of the NYC crew let me use her cellphone to call Berlin girl and we made a plan to meet near the Green entrance. This was great, except that I had followed my group to the Yellow entrance on the other side of the stadium.

At this point I became like OJ in the airport, by which I do not mean that I killed my ex-wife and her possible lover, was acquitted, and spent the rest of my life golfing in Florida, but rather that I took off on a dead sprint around the disappointingly vast circumference of the stadium. (Of course, the German girl who was checking tickets at the Yellow area could have let me take a convenient shortcut, but I’ll let you guess whether she did me any favors.) So I sprinted, dead uphill, to the Yellow area where I then climbed a hill above it to scope out Web Guy and Berlin Girl. Yet another random person let me use his cellphone to call BG and it was on. I was on the grassy knoll, WG and BG were rounding the Texas School Book Depository, and you can guess the rest.

The less said about the game the better (I’ll say a little about it later when I haven’t just eaten and the chances of me hurling are slimmer), but I got in my seats just in time for the Koller goal. Then Web Guy’s friend gave me a ride back to the train station in her rented Audi (she could afford to be generous, she was Czech). As I waited on the platform, a German guy and his Brazilian wife came up to me and he started talking soccer. As I lamented the USA’s performance, it became clear that his wife wasn’t really following the convo, so (language snob alert) I immediately broke into Spanish, which it turned out they both spoke fluently. We chatted for a while til my train came and it was a fairly emblematic WC moment: a German guy, his Brazilian wife, and this ugly American, all conversing about the beautiful game en Espanol.

The ride back to Berlin was a bit grim, as the train was full of sad, exhausted US fans such as myself. It was going on Tuesday morning, and since Saturday I’d gotten about four hours of sleep all told (not that impressive, but I’m a sleep wuss, so this was pretty much uncharted territory). A chatty Italian guy sat next to me on the final leg of the ride, having just seen his team beat Ghana 2-0. He mostly talked at me in shaky English because I was half-asleep by this point. And when I got to Berlin Hauptbahnhof it was like three in the morning and I had no idea how to get to my hotel. And at that moment, I found exactly what one would want to at that moment: two drunk Scotsmen. I told them what hotel I was at and they were all like “Ah, crap, yer comin in a cab with us then.” And so I did. We discussed a mutual fave topic (the English are acting insufferable again) and then I was at the Concorde, where I fell into a comatose sleep that didn’t end until two thirty this afternoon (and even then only when a maid had barged in shouting “housekeeping” for the fifteenth goddamn time).

So to recap: Frankfurt aiport fiasco --> four NYC fans in crazy US hats --> Richard from Atlanta --> DF wandering solo in G-town --> two burly Angelenos --> four more NYC folks --> miraculous Seattle US fan w/car --> Web Guy and Berlin Girl --> WG’s Czech friends --> German guy and Brazilian wife --> chatty Italian --> two drunk Scotsmen --> DF sleeps like the dead. Good times.

{Pic: DF with Web Guy and Berlin Girl at the Arena auf Schalke for USA-CZE match.}