World Cup diary
Monday 10th July
I spent the last 12 minutes of the World Cup final with my fingers in my ears. For as soon as Zinedine Zidane of France was sent off, ear-splitting whistles of disapproval broke out all around me every time the Italians touched the ball.
In retrospect, this seems a bit odd. Television pictures showed quite clearly that the beloved Zizou had committed a pretty savage foul, which left the ref no option but to send him off. But never forget that those of us privileged to attend the event live have much less idea of what is going on than television spectators at home. I was behind one goal, and Zidane’s head-butt took place miles away on the other half of the pitch. All we could see was the Italian goalie, Buffon, going crazy and running over to harangue the linesman; an Italian lying prone on the field; the ref going off to the touchline to consult, and then the production of the red card and Zidane’s trudge to the sidelines. From where we were sitting, it all looked like a conspiracy to do down the French and deprive the game of its outstanding player. Hence the chorus of disapproval from the crowd.
By the time Zidane was sent off, most of the neutrals in the crowd were pulling for France. This was a definite change. At the beginning, I would say the crowd was split 50:50. As for me, I was supporting Italy, and had even invested in an Italy T-shirt, on the grounds that the Azzurri had played so marvellously in the semi-final. For the first half the game had seemed pretty even from where I was sitting—high up in the stand, and just behind a pillar. But throughout the second half and extra time—right up to the dismissal of Zidane—France were clearly the quicker, more skilful team. But when Zidane was sent off—with Henry already substituted because of cramp and Viera off injured—it became clear that things were unlikely to end well for France. Hence, the sense of injustice in the crowd.
All sorts of theories are now flying around about why Zidane lost his rag. An Italian may indeed have “said something.” But my personal theory is that he was in a rage because he had just missed what he knew was certain to be his last, best chance of winning the cup for France. The game had been incredibly tight, with few chances when, in extra time, Zidane worked an opening and a clear header at goal. He struck it beautifully, but straight at the goalkeeper and the chance was tipped over. For what seemed like minutes, Zidane stood frozen in anguish in front of us. He had seen the winning goal flash before his eyes. It was just a couple of minutes later that the head-butt occurred. And ten minutes after that, Italy took the title on penalties.
It was an unsatisfactory ending, which makes one wonder whether football isn’t an ultimately unsatisfactory sport. It seems wrong that such an important game—and so much effort on either side—should ultimately be decided in such an arbitrary way. Penalties, of course, are a lottery. But so are referee’s decisions, and last night’s final ultimately came down far more to the decisions of the referee than the skills of the players: a questionable penalty awarded to France, and then a clearer one denied; a goal for Italy that was disallowed but might easily have been allowed to stand in other circumstances; the sending off of Zidane. It was the ref’s whistle, rather than the pace of Henry, the skill of Zidane or the tenacity of Cannavarro that decided the destiny of the title.
As for myself, the World Cup was definitely a “once in a lifetime” experience—I very much doubt I’ll ever do this again. It was unique, memorable and exciting—but also expensive, exhausting and ultimately slightly pointless, given that you can see the whole thing better on television. Like a venerable player—Beckham or Zidane, say—I am today announcing my retirement from the World Cup. Unless, of course, in four years’ time I get the urge again.
Wednesday 5th July
With about an hour to go before Italy and Germany kicked off in Dortmund, I was beginning to weary of the whole World Cup experience. For the spectators, like the players, the tournament gets steadily more arduous as it progresses. This was my fifth “quick trip” to Germany. And as the tournament narrows down—and the games get bigger—it is getting harder to find cheap flights and convenient hotel rooms. Although Tuesday’s semi-final was in Dortmund, we were having to stay in Dusseldorf—which is a bit like basing yourself in Liverpool for a game at Old Trafford. It’s doable, but hardly convenient; particularly when the final whistle blows just before midnight.
Then there is Dortmund itself. The centre of the city looks the Birmingham Bull Ring before it was bulldozed and the station has all the charm of New Street. And just to cheer me up further, the tournament’s hitherto impeccable organisation seemed to fall apart for the semi-final. The usual colour-coded signs to the stadium entry points were almost invisible; and when we eventually located our gate, we found ourselves in a large, unruly crowd that was pushing and shoving to get near a ridiculously narrow entrance. Local criminals were clearly joining in the fun, because when after about 20 minutes of this, my father and I finally made it through the barrier, we found that the guy behind my dad had managed to lift 150 euros from his back pocket in the crush. We did slightly wonder why he had turned around, just before finally making the holy grail of the security check. Still, the man in front of me had an even worse sob story. When he finally got to the gates it turned out that he had mistakenly brought the wrong ticket—and was flourishing a ticket for the final in Berlin, rather than the semi in Dortmund. The last I saw of him he was forlornly trying to argue his way into the ground.
But once the game kicked off, my irritation fell away. All my previous tickets have been high up behind the goals. Last night we were five rows back—within spitting distance of the goalposts. With that kind of proximity you can see the effort on the players faces, and get a sense of the incredible speed of the game, and the huge difficulty in working even the tiniest opening. The Italians, in particular, were extraordinary. No matter how the ball came to them, they seemed to control it instantly. And no matter how many Germans swarmed around a player like Pirlo or Gattuso, they always seemed to be able to turn away from trouble and find a colleague to pass to. For the Italians to play as they did, in the hostile atmosphere of the Westfalenstadion, took real courage. For this night—with Germany so close to the final—most of the crowd decided to drop the “time to make friends” slogan of the World Cup. They wanted to win. The Italian national anthem was drowned out by screaming and whistling. Every time an Italian stayed on the turf for more than five seconds, the stadium echoed to boos and catcalls. Every German attack was urged on with deafening cheers. But the Italians remained cool and collected. If anything the atmosphere seemed to get to the Germans—who were so eager to score that they snatched at the few chances they created.
The Italian defence was organised by my new hero, Fabio Cannavaro. At 5 foot 9 he is a good five inches shorter than the average central defender—and at 33 years of age, he should be past it. But his display epitomised the mixture of skill, courage and toughness of this Italian team, with just a drop of psychosis thrown in. At one point Matteratzi, who is Cannavaro’s defensive partner, made a rare slip and allowed a German player to get past him and get a shot away. When the attack was cleared, Cannavaro walked over to Matteratzi and clipped him around the earhole. Quite hard. For the next couple of minutes, Matteratzi was blinking and shaking his head sorrowfully. But it worked. Italy held out—and two minutes from the end of the extra time, hit the Germans with a sucker punch, scored twice and won the game.
So the great German cry of this tournament “wir fahren nach Berlin” (we’re going to Berlin, for the final) turns out not to be true. The Italians, derided by parts of the crowd last night as “pizza man,” have taken them out.
Monday 3rd July
Being present at the best moment of somebody else’s life is peculiar. At just after 7pm Berlin time on Saturday, Jens Lehmann pulled off his second penalty save against the Argentinians, and clinched Germany’s qualification for the semi-finals. The German supporter next to me burst into tears and embraced me. I had had this particular individual marked out as trouble, almost as soon as we took our seats. He was a tall, nerdy-looking guy who was drinking a lot of beer. But what really struck me was that, although he was talking German, he was wearing a Millwall scarf. Even among English fans, this is never a good sign. But for a foreigner to self-consciously identify with one of the most obscure and thuggish groups of English supporters is downright sinister. I remember once having a taxi driver in Rome who informed me that he loved flying over to London on weekends to fight alongside Millwall fans, adding: “They are top boys.”
My fear that I was sitting next to a “top boy” from Berlin ensured that I was not too voluble in my support for the Argentinian side. When Roberto Ayala nodded them in front after 49 minutes, I contented myself with smiling discreetly—while agonised wails broke out from the Germans all around me. But then the Argentinians made what would normally be regarded as a classic English mistake—they tried to cling on to a 1-0 lead, and invited a desperate and powerful team to attack them. The result was all too familiar: a German equaliser, extra time, and a loss on penalties. At the climactic moment, the stadium PA system bizarrely started blaring out “Football’s coming home” in English, complete with references to “three lions on the shirt.” And “top boy” did nothing more offensive than weep on my shoulder. I cannot say I shared his joy.
In some way, the Argentinian defeat was even more of a waste than the English exit—because the Argies had been playing well enough to have legitimate hopes of winning the whole tournament. And whereas England only had Theo Walcott on the bench, the Argies had Lionel Messi—one of the most exciting attacking players in the tournament. Yet, while the game was crying out for Messi to come on and run at an exhausted German defence, the Argentine coach (the impeccably-dressed Jose Pekerman) chose instead to stick on a lumbering Crouch-like centre forward—Julio Cruz. It is a real shame the Argentines are out. But when you have one of the world’s best players in your squad and choose not to put him on the field then perhaps you have only yourself to blame.
My next game is the Germany-Italy semi-final in Dortmund. I must admit that when I got all my World Cup tickets, the idea of following Germany on a victorious run to the final was not exactly what I had in mind.? But I fear the Italians have little chance of stopping them. In fact, the only obstacle I see to the Germans in the semi-final is over-confidence. After the quarter-final, the team and the crowd celebrated as if they had just won the World Cup itself. Now that Brazil are out, they will feel that all the more. Maybe they will relax too soon. Maybe they will be tired, after having to play extra time. But I am mentally preparing for another German victory.
And what can we say of England? I wrote in one of my earlier entries that England’s World Cup campaigns follow an entirely predictable pattern—but even I couldn’t have predicted just how predictable this would be. Once again our star player gets himself sent off; once again we lose on penalties. And once again the pundits search for a foreigner to blame—the Swedish manager, the Argentinian referee, the Portuguese players who had the temerity to protest at Rooney stamping on a colleague’s balls. Rooney was so clearly an accident waiting to happen: he was always either going to be carried off, or sent off. And yet while his vicious act of foul play is widely excused as frustration at being played out of position, Cristiano Ronaldo is apparently fit only for deportation because he had the temerity to wink at his coach. But I must stop ranting. For—unlike the England team—I have a World Cup semi-final to prepare for.
Sunday 2nd July
Last week, I wrote of how my plan was to see both the Germany-Argentina quarter-final in Berlin and then travel to the Ruhr to watch the England-Portugal match in Gelsenkirchen. I was lucky: I saw both games and now I am writing this late on Sunday afternoon from my hotel in Gelsenkirchen, where I have stayed on for another day. There are still desultory groups of English supporters in town, mostly young men with sun-reddened skin wandering around aimlessly, seeking in some way to escape the incessant heat as well as to find something to do in one of the bleakest and most economically depressed cities in Germany. The fans to whom I spoke earlier seemed, on the whole, to be exhausted and hungover, the inevitable aftermath of yesterday’s England match and their having had to endure another anguished defeat on penalties. And then a long night’s drinking.
It was so marked, wasn’t it, the contrast between the way England took their penalties, missing three out of four kicks, and the way the triumphant Germany took theirs against Argentina in Berlin? There was little purpose in the way the England players approached the ball, at the end of their long and fraught match against Portugal: it was as if they were already mourning their defeat and their absence from the tournament. The Germans, by contrast, walked up to take their penalties as if they expected to score. And they did. The two countries, of course, have entirely different histories when it comes to this kind of thing; indeed, during the 1990s England were twice defeated by Germany on penalties when it mattered most: in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and then again, six years later, in the semi-final of the European Championship in England. The English players, and their supporters, are naturally aware of this history; they carry it with them and are reminded continuously of it. They know, too, about other, more recent defeats on penalties, at the 1998 World Cup in France, and the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. They know all this and still they succumb. Or do they succumb because they know all this, and cannot escape from it?
With the exception of the home nation, which is revelling in a new found benign civic patriotism, England were the best—the most vigorously, the most wittily, the most colourfully—supported team here in Germany. Their fans were always boisterous, often drunk and, on the whole, especially if you consider their great numbers—as many as 80,000 were believed to be in Gelsenkirchen on Saturday, either in the stadium or watching on big screens at the Fan Fest in the centre of town—mostly good humoured.
The drinking began early before the match in the city centre, as more and more fans began to arrive with stories of their own convoluted journeys to this part of Germany: indirect flights, with odd connections in strange cities; long, tedious car and train journeys. The previous evening there had been fighting in and around the main train station following Germany’s victory over Argentina in Berlin but that seemed to have been forgotten. “Handbags, nothing serious,” was the view of one group of lads I spoke to who were there. Gelsenkirchen is twinned with Newcastle but it has little of the energy or sense of renewal of that hyperactive party city on the Tyne. It is struggling with unemployment as high as 20 per cent. But, as with the northeast of England, it has a tough and resilient local population, and they seemed largely unperturbed by the presence of so many drunk Englishmen stumbling through their streets—the “bullet-headed Gazzas,” as the Italians like to call them. Good for business, was the local view.
Much was made before the game of the intensity of the supposed rivalry between Sven-Goran Eriksson and Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian coach of Portugal who rejected the offer to succeed Eriksson as England manager after the World Cup. Yes, there was a little history between the two: Scolari was manager of the Portugal side that knocked out England in the quarter-finals of the 2004 European Championships and, before that, of the Brazil side that did the same to England at the 2002 World Cup. So this, in the argot of the tabloids, was a grudge match of the highest order.
It was nothing of the kind. There is not much history of animosity between England and Portugal, on or off the sporting field. In fact, they are ancient allies; the Treaty of Windsor, signed in 1386, is the world’s oldest alliance, an “inviolable, eternal, solid, perpetual and true league of friendship.” It was through this alliance that Britain was able to use the Azores as a base during the Falklands War. Can this glorious alliance stand up to Wayne Rooney being sent off for a violent stamp on a rival player, some woeful gamesmanship from the Portuguese during the match, and this latest, traumatic defeat? We shall see.
Before the quarter-final, Sven-Goran Eriksson expressed his confidence in his England team by declaring that “we shall stay in Germany until the last day.” Well, he was wrong, England have gone home and Eriksson himself may soon be the next coach of South Africa, hosts of the 2012 World Cup. But my World Cup journey continues. Next stop for me is Dortmund, via a few days in Cologne, and the Germany-Italy semi-final. The show goes on.
Wednesday 28th June
Like the national team and most other Germans, Chancellor Angela Merkel is having a good World Cup. She has booked her seat for Friday afternoon in Berlin’s Olympiastadion to watch Germany play Argentina, so we can expect more of the clapping and cheering that has entertained and surprised German television viewers over the last two weeks.
Merkel is a relatively recent convert to the personal, and political benefits, of following football, and her spokesman made it official this week that her enthusiasm is growing in pace with the success of the German team. “There is a relationship” he said, between the way they are playing on the pitch and “the reactions in the VIP lounge.”
In fact she is becoming something of an expert on things football. Having learnt the niceties of the offside trap a couple of months ago from Franz Beckenbauer, she is now ready to give tips, and uncannily accurate predictions, on Germany’s prospects—at least if Theo Zwanziger is to be believed.
Zwanziger is one of the presidents of the DFB German football association, and Merkel’s neighbour in those VIP lounges at the matches she has attended. He told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung a few days ago that, during Germany’s victory over Ecuador, for instance, she predicted two of Germany’s three goals moments before they landed in the back of the net. Should we believe that? Who knows; Zwanziger is usually a pretty straight, serious guy, but then again it helps to be chummy with Angie.
When she takes her place among the 72,000 in the stadium on Friday there will be at least another million down the road at the open-air “fan mile” extending westwards from the Brandenburg Gate. Another million, on top of the 12m who, Fifa said on Tuesday, have so far watched the tournament on big screens at the fan mile and other such Fifa-festivals across Germany. “The biggest World Cup party of all time” they called it, and for once, it’s difficult to argue, even with the Fifa chiefs.
But where will this all end up if, by some minor miracle, Germany makes it to the final and lifts the trophy? An extra day off for all Germans to allow them to line the streets as the team tours the country? Who knows, but don’t rule anything out.
Indeed, even those who have seen the hype before—be it in an earlier age—seem swept away with World Cup fever. On Monday I interviewed Bernd Bransch, captain of the East German team that beat West Germany in the 1974 World Cup, writing their way into soccer’s history books in the process. He said he was amazed, pleased, and hopeful about Germany’s outburst of relaxed patriotism since 9th June.
“At the moment” he said, “Germany is football.” It’s as simple as that.
Monday 26th June
For the past 48 hours I have been walking around with €20,000 hung around my neck. That—according to the internet ticket agencies—is the current market value of the tickets for the final stages of the World Cup that I picked up in Hamburg on Friday. I am wearing them in a plastic holder around my neck, because I don’t fancy leaving them lying around in a hotel room when I go out. Just so long as I don’t get mugged, I should be OK.
I am still faintly incredulous that I managed to snag all these tickets. When I walked into the ticket centre, carrying the voucher that entitled me to two tickets for a game in every remaining round—including the final—I felt like one of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who had discovered a golden ticket in a chocolate bar. Even the lady behind the desk, whose job after all is to hand out tickets, broke into a broad smile when I gave her the voucher and said, “You are very lucky.” Under the circumstances it seems churlish to complain—but what the hell. I am faintly disappointed that my tickets are for the half of the draw that does not contain England or Brazil; and I’m annoyed that two of my last four games are in stadiums with running tracks, which puts you too far from the action. Maybe, I’ll just take the €20,000 and run. Or maybe not.
After Hamburg, it was on to Berlin to meet my brother, who was accompanying me to the Argentina-Mexico game in nearby(ish) Leipzig. When I met Tom in the lobby of his hotel on the morning of the game, he seemed a little more preoccupied than I expected. He had been slightly surprised to see a large picture of Adolf Eichmann on a poster display outside his hotel, with the slogan, “Never forget.” On closer reading it turned out that his nondescript little hotel, the Sylter Hof on KurfurstenStrasse, had been the site of the Department of Jewish Affairs during the war, and Eichmann had worked from there. Just the kind of thing to put you in the mood for the big game.
Down at Berlin station, the mood was frenetic. The concourse was packed with young klaxon-wielding Germans coming into town for the Germany-Sweden game that afternoon. This seemed odd, given that the game was taking place in Munich. But—as I later discovered—more than a million people chose to watch it on big screens near the Brandenburg gate. We were heading the opposite way to Leipzig. Initially—oh joy!—I thought we had managed to grab a couple of seats on the train. But in due course we were evicted by a party of German schoolgirls bearing reservations. We found a couple of seats in another carriage, but we were then evicted by a woman who had reserved the two seats for her cats. I initially assumed I was failing to understand when she said the seats were for her katzen, but she did then produce two wire cages, containing two large and silent ginger cats, who sat fatly on the seats for the entire 70-minute journey. Fortunately, I am very fond of cats. Sitting on the floor of the carriage alongside me were a group of supporters—one in a Spain shirt, one in a Nigeria shirt, one in a Brazil shirt. But when they began to chat, it became clear that they were all from London. Then just to confound me further, the young white guy in the Brazil shirt took a call on his mobile and began to converse in fluent Thai.
Leipzig, however, had joined Latin America for the day. There were an estimated 20,000 Mexicans in town, and about 10,000 Argentines. I still had the vague prejudice that these were poor countries. But there is clearly no shortage of Mexicans or Argentines willing to fly half-way around the world for a football match. One of the oddities about the Argy supporters is how many of them are really rather elderly. It is completely typical to see a wizened old gent with white hair, strolling around in a Maradona-replica shirt. Some of their fans seem just short of the zimmer-frame stage.
Around 4pm we tried to get to the big screen in Leipzig’s fan area to watch the Germany game, but you literally couldn’t get near it. So we ended up watching an easy German victory in the TV section of a local department store, along with around 200 other refugees from the Fanfest area.
Then it was on to our own match.? We were among the Argentine supporters, which was good news, since it made it much less likely that my view would be blocked by a giant sombrero. The Mexicans seemed charmingly willing to live up to national stereotypes. Not only were about a third of them wearing sombreros; they were also whipped up into a frenzy by repeated playings of La Cucaracha over the stadium sound system. Within four minutes they were even more delirious, after Marquez gave them a lead—banging the ball into the net, just in front of where I was sitting. The Argentines levelled and then I was lucky enough to see a fantastic battle—which many people have now labelled the game of the tournament. I also think I may have seen the player of the tournament in Lionel Messi, the tiny little Argentine striker, who came on to panic the Mexicans in the last 25 minutes.
As you probably know, the Argies won. So my next game is the big one—Germany v Argentina in Berlin on Friday. Let’s face it, neither of these sides are ones that an Englishman would instinctively support—so it will be a tricky choice for me. Perhaps I should support the Germans. They have been fantastic hosts—displaying not only their legendary efficiency, but also their less legendary flexibility and good humour. (I am still grateful to the conductress who did not chuck me off the Hamburg-Berlin train, despite the fact that I had inadvertently bought myself a child’s ticket). On the other hand—even given my own legendary willingness to let bygones be bygones, I’m still not sure I’m ready to join in with chants of “Deutschland,” along with 60,000 other hyped-up fans, in the old Berlin Olympic stadium. And let’s face it, the Argentines play better football, and will be hugely outnumbered in the crowd. Surely, the British thing to do is to support the underdog. So I’ll be wearing my blue-and-white striped shirt on Friday.
Sunday 25th June
I’ve hugely enjoyed being here in Germany for the World Cup so far except for one thing: having to register my presence on match day. It’s not enough being accredited: you have to collect your ticket at least an hour and a half before kick-off from one of the media centres that, with the exception of the Allianz Arena in Munich and the Stadion Hamburg, are located outside the actual stadiums themselves and are often, in the heavy crowds, difficult to find.
I’ve been to matches in seven different cities so far and each stadium was a huge purpose-built complex, outside the city centre, with space enough for car-parks, training pitches and gymnasiums as well as office and leisure facilities. They are nothing like traditional British football grounds, such as Highbury or Upton Park in London or Goodison Park and Anfield in Liverpool, which were once an organic part of the working class communities from which the clubs drew their support. If you live in Finsbury Park you can leave your late Victorian terrace and be inside Arsenal’s Highbury stadium within minutes on match day. At least you could until the end of last season, when Highbury reached the end of its useful life.
This being a World Cup in an age of global terrorism security is omnipresent here. Before even arriving at the stadium you have to pass through a series of security checkpoints and then, if you’re a journalist, you have to find the media centre, where you are checked again. And then checked again when you actually enter the stadium proper. This means having your bags screened as well as passing through an airport-style metal detector.
The routine is tedious, the queues are long, and there’s a strong chance, if you’re late, of your ticket going to one of the many hundreds of journalists on the “wait list” for any one game. It’s not pleasant to see those on the wait list scrambling for tickets inside the media centre. What happens is this: an hour before kick-off a Fifa official dressed in a pale blue tracksuit emerges, imperiously, to read out the names of the fortunate few who have been elevated from the wait to the approved list. The journalists huddle anxiously together around the official, like Depression-era workers outside a factory gate, only to slump away, dejected, if their name isn’t called out.
I’ve been on the wait list only once, for Brazil’s first game against Croatia in Berlin, a game that it seemed as if nearly every reporter in Germany wanted to see. I was lucky. My name was called out. Later, just before kick-off, I had to return to the media centre—and there they still were, the excluded, pleading for admission as they waved their badges of accreditation in the air, like lottery tickets, as the man from Fifa watched them with strained patience. But their number never came up. Their destiny, at least for that one night, was to remain locked out from the World Cup party, like the tens of thousands of ticketless fans who gather every day at the various Fan Fests around the country to watch the games on the big screen.
And now, as we move through the knock-out stages and there are fewer games, it is becoming even harder to secure a press ticket. My aim this week is to see Germany play Argentina in Berlin on Friday—the hottest ticket in town—and then make my way to Gelsenkirchen for the England-Portugal quarter final the next day. That, at least, is my plan. I’ll let you know if it all works out.
Thursday 22nd June
I think it is now clear that England will not win the World Cup. On one level, the ineptitude of the England side is disappointing—even enraging. But in other ways it is strangely comforting. In fact, if you can take a masochistic pleasure in the familiar rituals and black humour of England defeats, following the national team becomes a win-win situation. If England pull off an improbable victory, you are elated; and if they lose, you can also be happy—taking comfort in a familiar narrative we have all been living with since childhood.
The central element of the England-in-the-World-Cup routine is the cycle of optimism followed by crushing disappointment. Usually the optimism is epitomised by a tournament song, such as the plaintive “This time we’ll get it right” or the whimsical “Three Lions.” Before the tournament, you convince yourself that the team is actually looking pretty good, and has an unusual number of “world-class” players in it. Then comes the bitter disillusionment when you actually watch the team play.
Within this meta-story, there are several important recurring themes. There is the tragic and unexpected World Cup injury, which puts paid to a key player in the team. Michael Owen was the fall guy on Tuesday. But in previous World Cups (1986 and 1990) it was Bryan Robson, with his fabulous dislocating shoulder. To balance this anguish, there will be the exciting emergence of a young talent—who briefly rekindles your optimism and makes it slightly less embarrassing to support England: Gazza in 1990, Owen in 1998, and now Joe Cole.
England fancy themselves a team that is at its fiercest with its backs to the wall. But the modern reality is rather different. In big international championships, England usually start confidently, often storming ahead—and then crumble and panic when things turn against them. People think this is something that has only happened under Sven, citing the collapses against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup and against Portugal in Euro 2004. But the panicking started well before that. Think of England in the 2000 European championships under Kevin Keegan, when a 2-0 lead against Portugal was miraculously turned into a 3-2 defeat, and a late and pointless penalty conceded to the Romanians by Phil Neville saw us eliminated from the tournament. The late, disastrous goal conceded by a panicking English defence is, alas, becoming a bit of a signature tune. Sweden’s equaliser on Monday night was a classic of its kind. But of course, the final humiliation is yet to come. Will it be in the next round at the hands of Ecuador, currently priced at a tempting 6-1? Or will the Netherlands finish us off in the quarters? Either way, I can’t wait.
Wednesday 21st June
I have been in Berlin for nearly two weeks now writing about the World Cup for the Observer. I have an open brief—and as this thrilling tournament gathers momentum and teams begin to be knocked out, these warm, humid days have taken on a kind of wonder as you travel from city to city, talking to the civil and welcoming locals and mixing with the fans. The official slogan of this, the 18th World Cup, is “A Time to Make Friends,” and, for once, this seems about right: there is such a palpable sense of celebration and of goodwill among the hundreds of thousands of visiting fans here in Germany.
My apartment is just off Pariser Platz, a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate. I like to have breakfast sitting outside on the terrace of the Adlon Hotel. Most mornings I never need check which games are scheduled for that day or which teams will be arriving next in Berlin: one need merely to look out the window at the colours worn by the fans gathering in the central square below. The Brandenburg Gate is one of the main routes into the Fan Fest, where supporters of all nationalities gather in their tens of thousands to drink beer and watch the games on big screens.
There are Fan Fests throughout Germany, in all the cities where games are being played, and they are a bold innovation, with even the England fans—and there are tens of thousands of them without tickets—delighting in the spirit of it all. In Nuremburg, on the evening before England played their second match against Trinidad & Tobago, I saw England fans cheering in support of the host nation as they mingled with the locals watching Germany take on Poland on the big screen.
On Tuesday afternoon, more than 500,000 people were in central Berlin for Germany’s final group game against Ecuador, which was being played in the western suburbs of the city at the reconstructed Olympiastadion, built for the 1936 Nazi-disgraced games. It was an afternoon of peacable and glorious celebration all along what is known locally as the “fan mile.”
The atmosphere was a little different in Cologne for the England-Sweden game later that evening. The Swedish team has its own strong and robust support and, in the centre of Cologne, in and around the magnificent cathedral that survived the Allied bombing of the city during the war, there was a sense of menace as thousands of English and Swedish fans, as well as locals, watched Germany beat Ecuador 3-0. The peace seemed fragile indeed. Later, after the game, the scenes outside the central station would have been familiar to anyone who has ever found himself in one of our market towns late on a Friday and Saturday night: nearly everyone seemed drunk, aggressive and boorish, scenes quite unlike anything I have experienced in Berlin. But at least there was no fighting.
So the mood of friendship continues, even when England are in town. As for the football itself, I expect England, though playing without grace or cohesion, to make it through to the semi-final, where they are likely to meet Brazil. The second semi-final will, I think, be between, Germany and Argentina. Let’s see.
Monday 19th June
I have never regarded myself as a person of restricted growth. But even somebody who stands a perfectly respectable 5 feet 8 inevitably feels like a dwarf in the company of large numbers of gigantic, orange-clad Dutch football fans. On Friday in Stuttgart, I was not just in their company—but crammed tightly up against them. The problem was that the trains from Stuttgart to the Gottleib Daimler stadium in the suburbs were crazily crowded. I would say they were like cattle trucks, if that did not have an unfortunate ring in a German context—so let’s just say it was like travelling to a match in Britain in the 1970s. As soon as the train pulled into the station, there was a huge surge of jolly, chanting, orange giants. I found myself shoved into the middle of a carriage with my face pressed against the sweating hairy chest of a boisterous seven-footer in orange dungarees and an orange fright wig, the polyester strands of which ticked my nostrils unpleasantly. Something pointy was also drilling into the top vertebrae of my neck; when I eventually worked my head around, I saw that it was the nipple of a large pair of plastic breasts, worn by the Dutch fan standing behind me. Everyone tried to be good-humoured about it—even though it was almost 30 degrees outside. But even the Dutch singing slowed down, as the train rattled agonisingly out to the stadium. When we eventually arrived at the stadium. I realised I was soaked in sweat—most of it not mine.
The experience inside the stadium was a whole lot pleasanter. In fact, going to a World Cup game sometimes feels more like going to a rock festival than to a football match. Everybody is fantastically pleased to be there, and large sections of the crowd spend their time taking photos of their mates against the backdrop of the pitch—or posing with fans from other nations. Most people get to the game at least an hour early, to enjoy the sunshine, the warm-ups and the thudding music played over the PA, most of which are English football anthems, like “All Together Now” or “Stand Up for the Champions.” In my section of the crowd, there was a Scot wearing a kilt and a plastic spiked helmet in German national colours; an American wearing a t-shirt with the US schedule of games, beneath the slogan—”US world domination tour”; and a German who had turned up to watch the Ivory Coast in a grass skirt. I’m sure he meant it nicely. Watching the real Ivorian fans sing their national anthem with joy and fervour was oddly moving, given that the country is now in the grip of a civil war.
Once the game started, it was sadly reminiscent of Ivory Coast’s previous match against Argentina. The Ivorians pressed forward with great skill and athleticism, but got hit with two sucker punches—and were 2-0 down within 30 minutes. But then they scored what seemed to me to the goal of the tournament. Bakary Kone, a winger so tiny that I idly wondered whether he might be a pygmy, picked the ball up just inside the Dutch half, accelerated past three Dutch defenders to the edge of the area, then swivelled and slammed the ball into the top corner of the net. It was a fantastic goal, and dragged Ivory Coast back into the game. But the turning point came a few minutes later, when their lionised centre forward, Didier Drogba, broke free and bore down on goal. At the last minute he tried to pass to his striking partner, but the ball clipped the heels of the last Dutch defender and the chance was gone. After the game, the Ivorian coach attempted to blame Drogba for Ivory Coast’s early elimination. This strikes me as unfair. Drogba has a fantastically tough job, playing alone up front, trying either to force his way through or to draw a foul—a task he performed with strength and courage. The Ivorians played brilliantly; they were just unlucky.
Still, the backlash against Drogba does point up one theme of the tournament so far. Teams that have gone in over-reliant on a star forward, who doesn’t quite click, are struggling. Ronaldo and the Brazilians is the most obvious example; but the English have a similar problem with Owen, and the French are too dependant on a tetchy Thierry Henry. As for the Dutch, they strike me as a one-man team. Their entire strategy is to get the ball to Arjen Robben, their winger. Anyone who shuts down Robben will shut down the Dutch, which is good news for the hitherto inept English—who may well face the Dutch in the quarter-finals.
They say that football is a distraction from real life, and in my case this is certainly true. This is my last week at the Economist, after over 15 years working here. On 10th July—not entirely coincidentally, the day after the World Cup final in Berlin—I join the FT as chief foreign policy columnist. Under normal circusmtances, I would be filled with feelings of mawkish sentimentality about leaving the Economist and excitement and trepidation about starting a new job. But as it is, I am too preoccupied by trying to find flights to Berlin and hotels in Leipzig and Dortmund for the last stages of the tournament to concentrate on minor matters like my career.
Saturday 10th June
For reasons I have no intention of revealing, I am in possession of a large number of World Cup tickets. Let’s just say, I came by them entirely legally—and I’m already looking forward to taking my seat at the final on 9th July (not to mention the semis, the quarter-finals and the round of 16).
Mind you, I sometimes wonder why people bother to go and see the games live when they can see the whole spectacle much more clearly on television. This question struck me particularly forcefully when the alarm went off at six on Saturday morning—leaving me and my son just enough time to scramble to Heathrow for an eight o’clock flight to Hamburg. We had tickets for the Argentina-Ivory Coast game that evening at 9. Now it was just a question of staying awake long enough to make it to kick off.
As soon as we touched down in Hamburg, I began to feel sorry for the Ivorians. The airport shops were stuffed with World Cup memorabilia and replica kits of all kinds—but we searched in vain for a replica Ivory Coast shirt. In our hotel we found ourselves in the lift with a couple in Argentina shirts. I ventured a greeting in stumbling Spanish. They looked a but embarrassed, before the man admitted, “Actually, we’re from Luton.” I confessed that although we had Ivory Coast tickets, we were also English—in my case, though, there was little chance of being mistaken for a West African.) The whole episode underlined something that had been pointed out to me by seasoned World Cup observers. Most games in the tournament feature large numbers of “neutral” fans from England. As well as boasting the largest travelling support, the English seem to bring the biggest number of travelling connoisseurs of the game. Naturally, this is the category in which I place myself.
In the afternoon we headed off for the big screen in the centre of town to watch the England-Paraguay game. But—like the England players themselves—we found it a bit hot. So we found a local bar showing the game on television, in the company of Simon Kuper—football writer, Holland fan and occasional contributor to Prospect. Simon is a great man, but has unnervingly strong views on the game. His main verdict on the match was that Steven Gerrard was playing hopelessly. It seemed a bit harsh to single Gerrard out, since one could have made the same point about any of the England players—with the possible exception of Joe Cole.
As the hour of the Argentina/Ivory Coast match approached, I felt a certain extra tension. That was because there was a small but distinct possibility that my son would be refused entry to the ground. (This was not something I had chosen to trouble his head with.) All tickets for World Cup games have the name of the legitimate ticket holder printed on them. But my second ticket had my father’s name on it—not my son’s. The Germans had been threatening to check all tickets against passports, and to refuse entry to anyone whose documents did not match the ticket. I was pretty sure that they would not choose to make an example of a ten year old, but when I asked the Economist’s former Frankfurt correspondent whether they really would be checking tickets against passports, he replied, “What, the Germans, ask to see people’s identity papers? Unheard of,” and then laughed sinisterly. I had explained the dilemma to my German teacher, who had said sombrely, “In such a case like this, I cannot predict what will happen”. So I felt a certain tragic foreboding as we approached the ticket gate, with my son prattling happily. Fortunately, I need not have worried. There was no sinister man in uniform demanding, “Ihre Papiere, bitte”. Our tickets were scanned, the turnstile clicked, and we were in.
With an hour to go before the game, there was time finally to buy an Ivory Coast shirt. I was hesitating about splashing out €65 for one of their lurid orange jumpers, when a genuine Ivorian—a mountainous, laughing woman, carrying a drum—shoved her way to the front of the queue and announced in a tone that brooked no argument – “I want ‘dat one. The extra, extra large.” Encouraged by her example, I bought a small one for Joe. But it was still an adult size, and looked like a calf-length dress on him. No matter, the gesture had been made—which I felt was important since we had tickets up the Ivorian end. But when we arrived at our seats, high up behind one of the goals, I discovered that my expectation of being surrounded by thousands of chanting, drumming Africans was somewhat wide of the mark. All the other ticketholders were also fake Ivorians—mainly Germans and Brits, self-consciously wearing Ivorian shirts or hats. The genuine Ivorian supporters were packed off in a section of the stand to our left. There were just enough of them to make a picturesque scene for the cameras, but they cannot have been more than 5 per cent of the crowd. By contrast, there was a huge bank of Argentinians opposite us—among them Diego Maradona, whose appearance on the big screen in the stadium provoked wild singing and chants of “Diego.” Clearly, for most Argentinians, the “hand of God” is little more than a statement of fact.
From my vantage point, high up in the stands, it looked like the Ivorians were quicker, stronger and more determined than the Argentinians—and just as skilful. But they were also less experienced and had an alarmingly uncertain goalkeeper. Two rapier thrusts, and the Argies were 2-0 up. By halfway through the second half, the crowd were sufficiently disengaged to indulge in that most annoying of habits, the Mexican wave. A belated Ivorian goal by the divine Drogba brought a surge of hope. But it was too late. Now the Ivorians must beat the Dutch on Friday, if they are to have any chance of making it out of the group of death. In my next blog entry, I will tell you what happened.
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