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

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.}


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