BLOG UPLOADED: July 10, 2006

By Chris Hunt



In Stuttgart it seems more like a Michael Schumacher victory than a win for the national football team. On the banked steps of the Schlossplatz flags are waving and horns are sounding as Germany’s workmanlike victory over Sweden is beamed on to the giant screens of the Fan Fest. The match has been played in the middle of a blisteringly hot summer afternoon but still thousands stand here to experience the collective euphoria of a football triumph. For most it surely would have been easier to watch this game at home, but these Germans are backing ‘Klinsi’ and the boys all the way.


A cheer goes up as a firework shoots into the air and the match is won. But as entire families start to make their way out of the town square for home, they are caught in a bottleneck caused by a small army of riot police, each one in full body armour, their faces and identities covered by balaclavas and crash helmets. They are standing between a large group of jeering Germans and an intimidating corner of the Schlossplatz that will remain forever English, where shaven headed men old enough to know better wave their large plastic jugs of beer in the air and sings songs about the war. One simulates a machine gun and pretends to mow down the passing crowd in an imaginary hail of bullets, while others, with their arms outstretched, make as Lancaster bombers. It’s time to get out of the town centre just in case the wicker chairs start flying!



There’s a sense of disbelief in the near to empty stadium in Stuttgart. It’s just 30 minutes since England scraped a victory over Ecuador, but fans can’t quite believe that a team this good can have got to the quarter-finals of the World Cup playing this badly. There weren’t that many moments during the match that could raise a smile. David Beckham’s splendid free-kick goal was one, while the sublime chant of “5-1 and even Heskey scored” – directed at a vocal section of Germans in the crowd – was a moment of pure genius. Later, watching the Portuguese beat Holland, the English console themselves in the knowledge that to win a World Cup you have to peak late in the tournament. But England really are leaving it very late.



I chance across an England fan from the West Midlands who claims to have been one of many detained by police in Stuttgart on the night before the England game. “We were just minding our own business in the town and they rounded us all up and chucked us in a meat wagon,” he says. “They wouldn’t even let us make a phone call. There were men in their fifties and blokes with kids.” He protests his innocence, but you’re always left wondering how many of his fellow detainees were among to crowd of shaven-headed men singing ‘Ten German Bombers’ in the Schlossplatz.





Downtown Cologne is partying like it’s New Year’s Eve. The Germans have beaten tournament favourites Argentina on penalties and for the first time the country’s big World Cup hit – ‘54, 74, 90, 2006’ by Sportfreunde Stiller, a song that reels off the years of Germany's World Cup triumphs, including their anticipated win this year – is looking like it will come true. This raucous piece of power pop booms out of the speakers of every bar as the Germans wave their flags and hug each other in sheer delight. The country had been mildly lukewarm to their national team in the months before the tournament, but this fervour has unexpectedly swept the nation.



There’s a certain inevitability about England going out of a major competition on penalties – but it doesn’t make the experience any easier to bare. Standing behind the goal as Ronaldo slots Portugal’s final penalty deep into the back of the net, a feeling of numbness sets in. England fans stand shocked, caught in the same stunned stance some ten minutes later as they stare at David Beckham and the team despondently saying their farewells. Grown men cried today – and they weren’t all on the pitch. Thirty minutes after the final whistle, there are still several hundred fans sitting in the empty stadium thinking about what could have been, about all the miles travelled and the matches played to get this far. The large screen hanging from the roof of Gelsenkirchen’s Arena Auf Schalke offers just one simple message: ‘Goodbye’. And then a steward in a dayglow orange bib suggests that we go. Nobody does. We’re not quite ready yet.



On the morning after the night before England fans are saying their farewells to the bars and cafes of Germany, each speculating on the reason for the team’s early departure from the World Cup. Many blame Sven, while others debate the merits of the penalty shoot-out. In Cologne a group of young fans that have gathered over a ‘bier’ in the Altstadt have their own theory. “It’s because we haven’t got God,” suggests one. “The Italians have got God, the Portuguese have, but in England we don’t believe.”


It remains to be proved whether a lack of divine intervention really did for England, but as our tragic record in penalty shoot-outs has been at the hands of predominantly catholic countries, it appears that maybe Henry VIII who is more to blame for the defeat than Sven. But before these despondent football fans can progress this theological debate, it’s back to the one subject the English can never escape: penalties. “I thought Lampard was going to leather it,” says the fan. “It’s so much pressure, but that’s what they get paid so much money for. I feel sorry for the lads but at the end of the day that’s why they get £100,000 a week – and I don’t!”


Like thousands of others preparing to make their way home he sighs and shrugs his shoulders. “This was our year,” he says. Then, without understanding what he's doing, he manages to encapsulate in one throwaway sentence the reason why football is the world’s greatest sport – and why England have so many travelling fans. “But I suppose to appreciate the good times,” he says, “you’ve got to have a knowledge of the bad.”


As the hosts take to the field for the first World Cup semi-final of 2006, their fans turn one end of Dortmund’s Westfalen Stadium into the German tricolour. They hold up a banner that says ‘Unsere Welle trägt ins Finale’ – ‘our wave takes us into the final‘ – and the whole of Germany starts to believe that the impossible dream could finally become a reality. But after 119 minutes of end-to-end football, this passionate football crowd is stunned by Grosso’s goal. They throw men forward in a desperate attempt to get back into the game, but just two minutes later Del Piero runs the length of the pitch and hammers the ball past Jens Lehman and the entire Italian squad rush on to the pitch to celebrate. All of a sudden they are joined in the middle of the pitch by television camera crews and amid the chaos the realisation finally hits the crowd that it’s all over. The Italian players stumble around the pitch in a state of delighted bewilderment as it dawns on them what has been achieved tonight. To their credit the German fans don’t storm out of the stadium – they stand their ground and sing just as passionately as they did at the beginning of the game, raising their voices in a heart-felt rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ending the tournament as they started it – with an English football anthem.



From a seat just behind the Portugal bench it’s easy to see why this team of beautiful players have made themselves so unpopular during this tournament. Before the game at Munich’s space age Allianz Arena, their coach Luiz Felipe Scholari greets his French counterpart like a long lost brother, but within minutes of the kick-off he’s waving abuse at Raymond Domenech. Within 30 minutes the Portuguese substitutes are jumping up from the bench for almost any reason, shouting with outrage, gesticulating at the referee and hurling gestures at the opposition dugout. A French trainer waves them to sit down, but its like trying to hold back the tide – at one point, as entire bench jumps up to complain, they volley a water bottle ten yards on to the pitch.


On the final whistle, his French team having won by the single goal, the smartly suited Domenech quietly waits at the edge of the pitch to shake hands with his players as they head for the tunnel. Several members of the Portugal squad, two of their coaching staff and at least one member of the Portuguese delegation have to be restrained as they try to get their hands on the French coach. There’s a little bit of history between Domenech and some of the players – he once called them “savages” as they trashed a dressing room following an incident-filled Under-21 game – but he seems genuinely bemused by the level of hatred directed at him. Still, in just a few days time Domenech will lead his France team to the World Cup final, while Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo will be left to reflect on why a player of his undoubted skill left such an impression on this tournament that he was booed and whistled every time he touched the ball in Munich



Going into the World Cup the Germans held few expectations for their team, but as a nation they have fallen in love with ‘Klinsi’ and the heroic performances of his squad. There’s no doubt that they would have preferred to win the World Cup, but unlike the prevailing mood in Brazil and England, there is no shame in Germany, just a sense of pride. It has even been much debated in the national media that this World Cup has enabled the Germans to feel patriotic again – that for the first time since the war they have been happy to wave and display German flags without embarrassment. Certainly the Germans flags were slow in appearing, but as the tournament progressed it was rare to find a German – of any age or sex – without the tricolour painted onto their face or arm during match days.


The power of the World Cup is that it can unite a nation like almost nothing else. While the English still debate the merits of Wayne Rooney’s red card and show their festering resentment for Christiano Ronaldo, the Germans are getting on with business. “Berlin, Berlin, wir fahren nach Berlin,” they sang with a real certainty that they would make it to Berlin for the final, but now their minds are on what they call the ‘little final’, the third-place play-off in Stuttgart. There’s a burning desire to finish third in this tournament now, and with an enthusiastic glint in their eyes, they even sing a new song: ‘Stuttgart ist viel schöner als Berlin' – Stuttgart is much nicer than Berlin!



Three young children are having a kickabout on the driveway of their home in the suburbs of Cologne. One child bears down on the gateway that is doubling for a goal. “Del Pierro” he shouts as he unleashes a shot. Yes, the Germans are comfortable with their defeat. They played well and they fought hard, but at the end of the day the Italians were better – and they’re happy to admit it, however old they are!



There can be few more enjoyable environments to watch a football match. In the midst of a forest, at the edge of a boating lake in Berlin’s Tiergarten, hundreds of Germans have flocked to this outdoor bierhalle to watch the third place play-off match. A friend phones from home and tells me Martin O’Neil has announced on Match Of The Day that watching tonight’s game will be the most pointless thing he has ever done. Try telling that to the Germans here, who scream and shout at the unfolding drama that propels them to a third place finish in a tournament they once hoped that they would win. Afterwards they take to the streets of Berlin, pouring out of the many bars like this and out of Berlin’s famous Fan Mile – and they celebrate like they are world champions. You can only begin to imagine what it would have been like if they’d actually won this tournament.



In front of the Brandenburg Gate football fans queue to enter a giant football to get a last glimpse of the World Cup before it disappears to the stadium for tonight’s final. It is housed in a plastic case just inside of the doorway and people clamour to have their picture taken with it. One fan asks a nearby steward if it really is the genuine article. “No, it’s a fake,” says the steward, with no attempt to maintain the mystery of the event. On closer inspection, glancing up through the cracks in the plastic case, it is apparent that this trophy is missing the vital engraving of the winners' names on the underside of the base – the tell tale sign of a World Cup ringer. But people don’t seem to care. They all just want to share in a little piece of the magic of the World Cup – a picture, a souvenir of their own.


Later in the evening the World Cup sits at the side of the pitch of Berlin’s impressive Olympic Stadium. But after this morning’s deception I can’t help wondering whether it is the real thing. When Cannavaro lifts it high in the centre of the pitch the TV images tell the eagle-eyed that this is indeed the genuine article, but the next time I see the trophy is after the match, now a possession of the Italian national football team. Hardman Gattuso passes down a corridor flanked by journalists, clutching the trophy in his arms. He stops at every Italian who wants to touch it, to have his picture taken with it. Journalists from all over the world pat it, clutch it, finger it - even the man from The Times of London takes his turn to touch a little piece of football history. But as Gattuso raises the trophy into the air, I notice there is no engraving on the underside of the base. I feel like I should tell him it’s a fake – but I’m sure he wouldn’t care. Just like the fans who queued to see it at the Brandeburg Gate, this moment is about the memories and the photographs.



At Berlin’s Schoenfield airport a troupe of South African singers are waiting at the gate for their flight back to Johannesburg. While around them the last dregs of the visiting football fans are queuing for their planes home, the South Africans burst into rich and exotic song, dancing around the departure lounge as their tribal hymns fill the air. “See you in 2010,” says one as he dances past. Everyone nods in agreement. It’s only four years to the next World Cup – and counting!



© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007